Even in the US, South Asians say caste has proved hard to escape
Updated 9:42 AM ET, Tue September 8, 2020
(CNN)Sam Cornelius knew that something was amiss when his job performance review unexpectedly took a huge hit one year.
It was 2013, and Cornelius had been working as a software engineer in the US for an Indian-headquartered information technology company for five years. Up until then, he said he had been given no indication that his work was lacking in any way.
He could think of nothing that would have prompted his performance rating to drop two levels from the previous year -- except for an incident a month earlier at a dinner with his Indian manager and an American client.
During that dinner, the client, who was White, brought up the subject of caste discrimination in India, Cornelius said. He wanted to get the perspective of Cornelius and his manager, who were both born and raised in India.
India's caste system is a fixed system of social hierarchy that historically defined a person's societal rank and occupation based on the family they were born into. It dates back thousands of years, with its roots in Hindu scriptures, and has since spread to other South Asian religious communities. Similar systems are also found in some other parts of the world, particularly West Africa.
At the top of the Indian caste hierarchy are Brahmins, who were traditionally priests or scholars. Next are Kshatriyas, who were warriors and rulers. After that are the Vaishyas, who were merchants and traders. And following them are the Shudras, who were artisans and laborers. Thousands of sub-castes within those four categories further divide society.
And then there are the Dalits, formerly known as the "untouchables," considered so low that they fall outside the caste system.
India's constitution outlaws caste discrimination and established affirmative action programs for people from marginalized backgrounds, resulting in significant weakening of once iron-clad divisions, especially in cities. But people from oppressed castes still routinely report violence, discrimination and segregation.
Meanwhile, cultural norms surrounding caste are upheld through social constructs, such as who people socialize with and who they view as acceptable marriage partners.