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The historic civil rights bill to end caste discrimination has left the California Legislature, marking a milestone in the state’s fight against caste-based prejudice.
Authored by state Sen. Aisha Wahab of Fremont, Senate Bill 403 would bring meaningful change to California, addressing the harmful behaviors of exclusion, oppression and bullying that too often occur due to caste-based discrimination. Today, the bill sits on the governor’s desk.
Until SB 403 becomes law, myself and other leaders from the Californians for Caste Equity Coalition are participating in a statewide hunger strike. This is the largest hunger strike in South Asian American history and the first in American civil rights history to deal with caste equity.
For those unfamiliar with the caste system, caste is a social hierarchy that originates in South Asia. I was born into a Dalit family, which is placed at the bottom of this hierarchy and which the dominant castes derogatorily call “untouchable.”
To escape the discrimination I endured growing up, I left Nepal and came to California in 2015. I chose to live here based on what I knew about its progressive policies and history of standing for what is right.
Like many other immigrants, I sought comfort and assistance from people from my country after I arrived. One of the Nepali community leaders helped me connect with a job at an Indian restaurant. I did not realize that this would lead me right back to the discrimination I escaped. My colleagues, who were from a dominant caste, used caste slurs against me. Whenever we had to share a meal, they openly told me that I couldn’t touch the food and would prepare a separate plate for me.
Even though the existing laws in California are sufficient to address discrimination in the workplace, caste-based discrimination is not included.
I was, once again, untouchable. I was powerless and dehumanized, even though I live in a state known for accepting different people and prides itself on always being at the forefront of progressive policies.
In my free time, I started volunteering at different nonprofit organizations in the Bay Area, and one of my mentors suggested that I go for a social work program at Cal State East Bay. In the “Race, Gender, and Intersectionality” class, we had multiple discussions on social biases and injustices. It struck me that caste was never mentioned in those conversations, and a few times, my South Asian colleagues did not validate my experience – they said it was not real.
But I knew it was valid, and I knew there must be others like myself being silenced and looking for a path for change and to speak up.