A bill that would add caste to California’s fair employment and housing law and the education code is sitting on the governor’s desk. Supporters are on a hunger strike, urging Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign the bill into law.
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.
A bill to ban caste discrimination in California brings a global conflict to the Legislature. While many South Asian groups support the measure, some say it could backfire.
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.
Learn more about legislators mentioned in this story
State Senate, District 10 (Fremont)
State Senate, District 10 (Fremont)
Time in office
City Councilmember / Businesswoman
Sen. Aisha Wahab has taken at least $520,000 from the Labor sector since she was elected to the legislature. That represents 39% of her total campaign contributions.
Today, as one of the first Nepali Dalit social workers and a leader with the National Association of Social Workers, I’ve come to realize the truth I suspected: I’m not alone in this. Many Dalits arrive in California thinking they’ve left the stigma of untouchability behind, only to encounter similar prejudices that manifest as wage discrepancies, workplace maltreatment, social ostracism and even challenges to secure fair housing.
Since the bill was introduced, many have opposed the bill, repeating what my colleagues at school said years ago: “Here, caste discrimination does not exist.”
But the hard truth is it does exist. It is real. It is as true as the discrimination I faced in my childhood and the physical assaults my family experienced in the capital of Nepal.
The countless testimonies and personal accounts led prominent organizations in California known for their credibility and dedication to equality, such as the Alphabet Workers Union, Equality Labs, Ambedkar Association of North America, South Asian Network, Jakara Movement and South Asian Bar Association of North America, to endorse the bill. We must recognize caste discrimination in order to fight it.
SB 403 provides a unique opportunity to address the discrimination that has divided the South Asian community and offers a path to healing. All humans deserve respect, no matter where they were born or what status they inherited.
Equality and fairness are why I chose to come to California years ago – a state where there is a collective agreement to reject discrimination based on race, color and ethnicity; characteristics people are born with and which are passed down through generations. It is why Gov. Gavin Newsom should stand on the right side of history and stand for what California always stands up for, joining the fight against caste discrimination.