Five years ago, at a playdate with one of my oldest girlfriends and our babies, I asked her about her experience with using a surrogate in India. We’re both Indian-Canadian living in Toronto, and I had read that lower-caste surrogates were being paid nearly $2,000 less than higher-caste women at the clinic she used in Gujarat. She confirmed it was true and then said something that hit me like a punch in the gut: “I wouldn’t use a lower-caste surrogate. I wouldn’t want my kid to be stupid.”
What she didn’t know about me — her friend of over 20 years — was that I was from a lower caste. And even at 38 years old, I carried so much shame and fear about it, I hadn’t shared it with my closest friends.
The Hindu caste system is one of the oldest forms of social classification. It divides Hindus into four main groups: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. And then there is a fifth group, one that is considered so unworthy it doesn't fall within the caste system but below it — the Dalits (the broken ones) or the Untouchables. While the term “Untouchable” is used less frequently and deemed derogatory, I still refer to it in instances of explanation because it’s an explicit reminder of its ugliness: "Untouchable" people are considered tainted by their birth into a caste system that deems them impure and less than human.
Growing up in Canada, I’d heard about this system but I actually didn’t know what caste I was part of until I was 15. I remember as a child telling people "I don’t believe in that," when asked what caste I belonged to.
In India, to be born Dalit is to be trapped in a cycle of extreme poverty and oppression, as caste determines whether you can go to school, what kind of job you have, and even who you marry. While legally abolished in 1950, caste remains deeply embedded in the country’s psyche. India is home to over 200 million Dalits.
The pandemic has worsened circumstances for people like me in India — 90% of the 5 million people who work in sanitation and cleaning are Dalits. While deemed essential work, most of these workers are not provided with proper personal protective equipment (PPE), regularly ostracized for their work, denied basic rights like water breaks, and some were even sprayed with bleach in the name of public health in the early months of the pandemic. To this day, it is not uncommon to hear about police violence and inter-caste violence.
Growing up in Canada, I’d heard about this system but I actually didn’t know what caste I was part of until I was 15. I remember as a child telling people “I don’t believe in that” when asked what caste I belonged to, echoing a phrase my mother often said in awkward social encounters. It wasn’t until my parents revealed we were Dalits, and what that meant, that I understood what lay behind my mother’s response. Despite knowing, we kept it to ourselves. My parents heard the casual jokes and denigrating remarks about lower caste people, even in the diaspora. Already labelled outsiders as immigrants, they didn’t want to be stigmatized by their own community too. It then became a secret I also guarded closely.
Despite living in Canada, I started to notice caste all around me. I realized that the only ones I ever heard about were upper castes. There was never mention of lower castes, besides off-colour jokes. By default, people assumed I was part of an acceptable group — and I would let them. When I was a teen, my Gujarati language teacher referred to her neighbour’s caste, one I hadn’t heard of, saying her neighbour was just like me. My face flushed, thinking I was found out, and then there was shameful relief when she followed up with a reference to the warriors or Rajput caste, which she assumed I belonged to.
Feeling inadequate and oftentimes unworthy, I gravitated towards non-Indians in my twenties because I feared being judged for my caste by other Indians.
Unlike racism, casteism is intra-racial and is practised among people of the same nationality, ethnicity, or cultural background. As an immigrant who is Dalit, it means not only do you face discrimination from outside your community, but also within it. Studies in Britain and the United States reveal caste discrimination in places of work, places of worship, and schools.
Caste also has implications for who you can marry even in the diaspora. Watching Netflix's Indian Matchmaking — where clients in the U.S. and India are guided by matchmaker Sima Taparia through the arranged marriage process — caste was mentioned in nearly every episode of season one. It was listed on each client’s profile card or “bio-data.” Every time Taparia sang praise about a “good girl” from a “good family,” my stomach would twist in knots. It’s a euphemism for high caste, wealthy, and fair-skinned — one I heard repeatedly when I was single. One that made me question if I was a “good girl” since I wasn’t any of those things.
Feeling inadequate and oftentimes unworthy, I gravitated towards non-Indians in my twenties because I feared being judged for my caste by other Indians. I fell in love with an incredible man, who happens to be of Spanish and South American descent. Even though he isn’t Indian, my family felt obliged to tell his family about our caste ahead of our wedding. They didn’t know anything about caste, and thankfully, they didn’t care. The moment they shared their indifference, I thought I can just be me and that’s good enough.
But something changed when my girlfriend made that comment to me at her house that day. Two years ago, I openly spoke up about caste for the first time at a Women’s Day event in Toronto, for the Southern Africa Embrace Foundation. I shared how caste played a role in shaping my identity, and how it’s archaic categorization of people like me has systematically made us feel like less-worthy humans. My father came to the event with me, the only man in a crowded room of women. He wept as I spoke, and when I finished, everyone rose to their feet to give my father a standing ovation.
I now feel profound pride in my family's courage, grace, and resilience. I hope people will stop turning a blind eye to casteism, or buy into the false narrative that it no longer exists. Most importantly, I hope for the many Dalit people who feel alone, like I did for so many years, they feel seen, understood, and worthy.
Having a second — or third — culture can be complicated. It can also be a blessing. That’s why we launched Second Gen, a series celebrating the gifts, even the bittersweet ones, passed down from our parents, communities, and cultures.