What Does Caste Privilege Mean For South Asians In The U.S.? Part of racial justice is understanding who has privilege and who doesn't. We follow one Indian American, inspired by Black Lives Matter, and his journey to check his own privilege.
NPR logo

What Does Caste Privilege Mean For South Asians In The U.S.?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/923170360/923170361" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
What Does Caste Privilege Mean For South Asians In The U.S.?

What Does Caste Privilege Mean For South Asians In The U.S.?

What Does Caste Privilege Mean For South Asians In The U.S.?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/923170360/923170361" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Part of racial justice is understanding who has privilege and who doesn't. We follow one Indian American, inspired by Black Lives Matter, and his journey to check his own privilege.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Yesterday, we told you about a workplace discrimination lawsuit in California. Some tech employees say India's caste system has made its way into workplaces in Silicon Valley. Today, NPR's Lauren Frayer has the story of an Indian American who's trying to check his own caste privilege.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Mauktik Kulkarni is an Indian American neuroscientist and filmmaker who never thought much about his own privilege until this spring...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMY COOPER: Sir, I'm asking you to stop recording me.

CHRISTIAN COOPER: Please don't come close to me.

FRAYER: ...When he saw a video of a white woman, Amy Cooper, in New York's Central Park.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

A COOPER: There is an African American man. I am in Central Park.

FRAYER: ...Who calls the cops on an African American birdwatcher who had asked her to leash her dog.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

A COOPER: I'm being threatened by a man in the Ramble. Please send the cops immediately.

MAUKTIK KULKARNI: She called 911 because instinctively she knew that the game is rigged. If the cops show up, they're not going to believe him.

FRAYER: Mauktik saw himself in this scene...

M KULKARNI: I just knew that this is me.

FRAYER: ...Except that Mauktik, a person of color, did not see himself in the Black man being threatened. He saw himself in the white woman. He was Amy Cooper.

M KULKARNI: And that sense of entitlement just took me back to my childhood.

FRAYER: Mauktik grew up in a Brahmin family in India. Brahmins were the Hindu priests. They were long considered the most pure. Mauktik's family had separate kitchen utensils for other castes who might visit. And despite affirmative action to elevate oppressed castes, Brahmins still wield disproportionate wealth and power. They're an elite minority in India, but you might be surprised at how many Indian Americans are Brahmins - Silicon Valley CEOs, celebrities and politicians.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "KAMALA HARRIS AND MINDY KALING COOK MASALA DOSA")

MINDY KALING: ...Sen. Kamala Harris.

KAMALA HARRIS: Hi, guys.

FRAYER: This is a video of actor and writer Mindy Kaling cooking Indian food last year with Sen. Kamala Harris.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "KAMALA HARRIS AND MINDY KALING COOK MASALA DOSA")

KALING: OK. So what we're going to cook today...

HARRIS: OK.

KALING: ...Is an Indian recipe...

HARRIS: Yes.

KALING: ...Because...

HARRIS: Yes.

KALING: ...You are Indian.

HARRIS: Yes.

FRAYER: Harris' mother was a Brahmin from South India.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "KAMALA HARRIS AND MINDY KALING COOK MASALA DOSA")

HARRIS: So South Indians - it's vegetarian. It's all vegetarian.

KALING: Obviously no meat.

FRAYER: Lots of Indian Americans loved this video. They gushed about it on Twitter. It reminded them of their own families. But you could watch this and think that vegetarians are the norm in India when, actually, most Indians eat meat. Brahmins are the ones who traditionally don't.

SURAJ YENGDE: So when I saw that, I clearly saw, you know, that is not my food.

FRAYER: Suraj Yengde is from the Dalit community. If Brahmins were the priests, Dalits were the sewer cleaners and often still are. Against all odds, Suraj also made it to the U.S. and is now a scholar of caste at Harvard. And what he saw in this cooking video was two dominant-caste people being chummy about their privilege.

YENGDE: You know, Kamala, I know I got you. Kamala says to Mindy, Mindy, I got you.

FRAYER: Maybe she just has fond memories of the food she ate with her grandparents. She's a second-generation immigrant. I mean, she could sort of be oblivious.

YENGDE: No, you're right. But what you miss is cuisine is the place where caste boundaries are drawn.

FRAYER: Sen. Harris' press secretary declined to comment on the record. Suraj says that once you start seeing caste, even in a seemingly innocuous cooking video, you can't stop seeing it, and this can be touchy. Mauktik, the neuroscientist, is a racial minority in America, but he also has this privilege as a Brahmin, and he never really acknowledged that until this summer when, inspired by Black Lives Matter, Mauktik decided to speak out.

M KULKARNI: Like they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, you have to vocally say that, yes, I have been privileged all my life and admit this is how it has helped me and then try to do something more constructive about it.

FRAYER: Mauktik called up the most famous Dalit scholar in the United States, Suraj at Harvard. And Suraj tells him he's got to take drastic measures.

YENGDE: You got to be a cultural suicide bomber. You have to utilize your cultural privilege and blow that up by challenging all of the other people who are sitting there comfortably.

FRAYER: Suraj says you've also got to challenge the very people who first bestowed you with that privilege.

It's +91.

M KULKARNI: Yeah. It's 2-5-7...

FRAYER: Mauktik had to call his mom.

M KULKARNI: (Speaking Marathi).

SONAL VIVEKANANDA KULKARNI: Hello.

FRAYER: Mauktik has had years of tense conversations with his mother about caste, but the struggle for racial justice in America has brought them all to a head. And he tells his mother on this call that he no longer considers himself a Brahmin, this thing that he inherited from her and all of their ancestors.

M KULKARNI: (Speaking Marathi).

FRAYER: His mom is hurt.

S KULKARNI: (Speaking Marathi).

FRAYER: Does she feel proud to be Brahmin?

S KULKARNI: Yes. Yes, yes, I am. I am proud (laughter).

FRAYER: But then she says something surprising, something that gives Mauktik some hope that all of his soul-searching in America might actually make an impact on his family back home in India.

S KULKARNI: (Speaking Marathi).

FRAYER: His mom says she's decided to no longer use separate utensils for other castes in her kitchen, and she says she's OK with Mauktik marrying outside of their caste.

Did she try to arrange a marriage for you within the Brahmin caste?

M KULKARNI: Yes.

S KULKARNI: Yes, I tried.

FRAYER: She just wants a daughter-in-law at this point, never mind her caste.

S KULKARNI: (Speaking Marathi).

FRAYER: "We've changed," she says. At least in Mauktik's family, his mother says, we've changed ourselves for your sake.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News.

KING: That story is from NPR's podcast Rough Translation. They're out with a new season now.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.