Caste among Indian-Americans

Is it a big deal here, or largely left behind in India? How, when and where does caste still manifest itself in the U.S.?

You can get an idea about the significance/decline of caste among people of Indian descent outside of India by checking out matrimonial ads for NRIs (non-resident Indians or people of the “Indian diaspora”).

Those who aren’t concerned about caste matching say “No bar” or something like that in the “Caste” category. (“No SC” means no “scheduled castes”, that is, none of the very low-status groups that are designated “scheduled castes” by the Indian government.)

People of Indian descent who don’t bother with matrimonial ads in the first place are likely to be more “westernized” and hence more indifferent to caste issues.

I’d guess that the most important presence of caste among NRIs is precisely in marriage decisions. Some people will associate with anybody socially but still want to marry within the caste traditions of their family.

I’m happy to be corrected about this if I’m wrong. However:

It’s my understanding that practically all the Indian-Americans you see are from the “higher” castes. The people of the lower castes are generally too poor and downtrodden to possibly consider making the long trip to America.

But even then there’s still bias in between Caste rankings that are current over here. Sure, you might hang out with “those” people, but heaven forbid your son might want to bring one of them home to marry! :rolleyes: So to answer the Q- I’ve not really seen it play a role in terms of WHO you associate with, and the only time it seems to really come about is when someone thinks of wanting to pull rank in a religious service or mostly in marriages. That’s pretty much where it all tends to be focused.

I’ve seen the caste system as though it’s still present around here in the US, but not as big a deal as it is in India, with more of the newer generations being less focused on it. It’s usually the mothers, elders of the familys who tend to focus on these small details. But it varies from caste to caste/family to family as well.

Barring some major inter-caste feud that I have never actually seen on the SDMB, I suspect that this might get accurate answers more swiftly in General Questions than in Great Debates.

Off it goes.

Indian-American here. Though I never lived in India, my family ended up on the wrong side in the India-Pakistan partition in 1947, from where we emigrated to the US about 25 years ago.

It is a big deal for some people and not at all for others. I come from a Catholic family, but even among Indian Christian diaspora caste was an issue upto my grandmothers generation, but not much for my parents generation (born in the 1930s) and not at all for mine.

Among Hindu Indian Americans I still think that arranged or semi-arranged marriages are common, and certainly it is difficult to marry against the strong disapproval of your parents (almost impossible for the woman to do so, I would say). Apart from the matrimonial ads cited above, caste is almost certainly a factor in all arranged marriages.

But marriage is simply the most visible place where caste raises its ugly head. It still is a factor in general social relations (who you want your kids to play with for example), but less and less so with each generation that grows up in the US. Naturally when you have a bunch of mixed race families in your extended family, the caste system starts to break down in a hurry. My Chinese wife wouldn’t even understand what caste means. My parents have six kids, and their children-in-law have five different religions and three ethnicities, none of them Indian.

Note that for many Indian-Americans europeans are treated as upper caste for all practical purposes, and within the Indian-American community complexion is often used a proxy for caste.

Interesting on the European.
I’m an American Indian as well, and man, the matrimony thing gets old fast, I can easily say with confidence though it’s always there in the background as much as they make jokes and say “do what you want”, there’s always a subtext of “PLEASE marry a nice Brahmin girl!”

Hell, growing up as a kid, it was subtly there when I was told certain people don’t do certain kinds of jobs because it’s below them. “You’re not meant to be a soldier, and you can’t be in the military! It would just shame the family, and you’re more than that!” and yadda yadda yaddda… :Shrug:

At this point, I think with the way I’m going, my parents would be shocked and secretly delighted if I married an Indian girl regardless of Caste. Which is still a LONG way to go from “Marry whoever you like” which is what I always get to hear but again, it’s always the subtext that’s below what’s implied when the words are said.

Arranged Marriages is certainly the place the Caste System rears its ugly head the most though- I’ve noticed it more when you’re on top looking down vs. the other way around. It seems pretty much that if you’ve got the status, you want to maintain that status and thus it’s a factor. I’m not a fan of it. But I have also noticed it in the other little things growing up, such as when I was little on what they encouraged me to do or not do in subtle ways that I never really noticed until looking back on it now.

Though I did not know that about European Indians as higher caste. I can’t really tell that much anymore because I’ve been so out of the loop and I’ve certainly destroyed most of my parent’s hopes that they certainly don’t bother to bring up such topics around me. It’s always reduced to: “Look she’s Indian and pretty! Why not her?” for them now vs. when I was younger (which was faaar creepier) there was more emphasis on WHAT the girl was.
I like to do my little part to destroy the old ways of thinking. :smiley:

Is caste correlated with ethnicity, or are there members of all Indian “races” in all castes in equal numbers?

I would be curious to know if there are differences with respect to expectations of/for girls. One of my former colleagues (WASP) had a serious thing for Indian girls, and I always wondered what his odds were. (Past tense, as he eventually married a California blonde, and they have spawned)

I don’t know if this is relevant to this discussion, but here’s an anecdote from a non-Indian American.

Several years ago I was with my sister, who was shopping in a Target, I think it was, maybe a Marshall’s, in suburban Chicago. At the checkout, the lines were a little bit long, and people were a little bit cranky. An older Indian woman, full sari, etc., marched right up to the front of the line and attempted to cut in front on everyone who had been waiting. There was some pushback, of course, but the woman didn’t appear to speak any English. But she kept pointing to the jewel in her forehead, as if that explained her right to bypass the line.

I always assumed that the jewel represented her caste, and that she was used to being deferred to on that basis, and was simply unfamiliar with American culture in that regard.

Course, she coulda just been a loon.

That’s tricky… as pointed out above, light skinned tends to be considered a “valuable” trait with those with lighter skin (Who tend to be from the Northern/Eastern parts of India) having biases at times against those with darker skin (which is found more in the South). So while I can’t really say it’s ethnicity that’s the factor it’s the religious views first- so Hindus vs. Jain vs. others, and then Hindus themselves are split between the castes, and the markers have usually been by family names. Arranged marriages tended to happen more in localized pockets and groups, and so you’d have certain families that tended to always marry other family groups, which can be how some take pride in their “Status”- so the key is what family you’re born into, and what is that family’s lineage? IE: if I meet someone new in India, they’d ask me who my father was, and then my father’s father, and so on. The more details I can provide is what they’re looking for, as they’ve tried to place my last name and they’ve used that to already figure out my status, and now they’re just trying to place me. But again, this tends to be localized. I’m sure if I went to South India (where I don’t think I have much family), they wouldn’t do this- but they might look at my skin color or my last name and just work off of that.

Also, it’s a double edged sword too- far too many times @ Temple I was mocked by the other kids as being half-Indian, that I was too pale to be Indian because my skin was so light, by the other kids. Which kinda sucked. Kids can find any reason to make fun of someone. So it’s not like “oh man, he’s awesome just because he’s got lighter skin”- it goes both ways. I’ve been introduced to distant relatives, who will speak in their native language (which I cannot speak well but I can certainly understand), and hear them say things like “It’s a good thing he’s got light skin and our name, because he’s too fat on his own!”
That’s why I tend to dislike the whole system. It’s REALLY anal in how it can be taken, and when it’s taken seriously, it’s really annoying to be picked on because “You can’t play with us because you’re too uptight, or you’re too snobby, why don’t you go hang out with your own kind?” sorta deal.

So yeah, skin color, family name/background, and birthplace/location of your family all have to do with your Caste. It’s basically not who you know, but which family you’re born into. Or you can always try to marry up- which is what was being implied by the auntie in the previous example: “That I might not be able to get a ‘good’ girl because I was overweight, but maybe my class and skin color might get me a pretty girl from a lower caste who wouldn’t mind the weight in exchange for the status” And hey- citizenship ALWAYS is a plus. I HATE it when those sorts of things are said by people who fully believe that’s how the way the world works.
:mad: /jaded rant

:shrug: Not sure. I’d go more with the loon rather than the Caste thing. You don’t “show” your caste, it’s just who you are. You LOOK your caste, or you do things in your caste, if she was pointing to her head, she might have had a red dot up there, showing that she was a married woman, or perhaps that she was a widower. Or she might have been using it to point out her status. I have no idea. Not that close to the culture as I used to be.

He probably could have found a nice Indian girl, if she was a non-traditional one- ie: Americanized, who didn’t really care about the caste system (again, I feel like it’s something more emphasized by an older generation than the newer one, but I cannot speak for everyone when I say that).
This might be able to help out and explain some things as well:
Caste System in India It covers some of the broader and interesting things that others have asked about in here. As again, my view is very narrow and pretty biased. I don’t speak from any authority other than that which I’ve lived and grown up in and even that I tried to break away from at times.

Related question:

I spent last summer in India. I’m a white American of European descent. An autorickshaw driver once asked me what caste I was in.

Me, baffled: No caste. I’m not Indian.
Him: No! I am Muslim, you are what caste?
Me: None!

It was weird. Can caste legitimately refer to religion, or did he just not know the word for religion? (His English wasn’t all that great.) When I told my coworkers that an autorickshaw driver had asked me what my caste was, they thought it was hysterical.

:shrug: I don’t know. I’ve never heard of anyone asking a non-Indian about their caste (and even then you don’t really go around asking new Indians about their caste directly, it’s something that you just find out from others- like Gossip or such), I’d find it pretty rude for someone to just ask me what my caste was. But then again, it’s been done. -_-

But again, no idea why he’d ask a non-Hindu about that sort of thing. Your didn’t not know the word for Religion explanation makes the most sense.

One doesn’t want to extrapolate from 2 or 3 experiences, but I’ve seen similar things 6 or 7 times. :cool: Eventually I concluded, as others have mentioned, that Indians one encounters outside India are mostly high caste.

It really depends. I’m mixed-caste. My parents are ultra-traditionalists and I never heard a whisper about caste. Even when they were pushing me desperately to get married, they didn’t emphasize caste so much as common language, North Indian, comon religion.

Thanks, tom, and thanks to those who’ve responded. Very interesting stuff.

I’ve witnessed a lot of prejudice based on regionalism (e.g. North vs. South). In my observations it is a Northerner looking down on a Southerner. As an American, I obviously have no idea if this is based on caste or simply location.

When I’ve asked friends how important caste is here in America, they tend to answer “not very”, but I also get a strong impression they are down-playing it for my sake. My friends have admitted that they usually know which caste their co-workers are from.

These observations all apply to people that have moved to America as adults. Those that were born here or moved here as children seem to be as naive about these cultural issues as the rest of us are.

All of this is IMHO.