February 4, 2022
When Prem Pariyar moved from his home in Nepal to the U.S. in 2015, he expected a reprieve from the discrimination and violence he and his family experienced in Nepal due to their caste status.
Pariyar is a Dalit, a member of the group historically known as “untouchables,” who have endured social and economic discrimination for thousands of years. Caste, the system of social hierarchy determined by birth, is illegal in India and other South Asian countries but still exists in practice, impacting participation in everything from marriage to meal sharing.
Pariyar chose not to hide his last name, unlike many other Dalits in the U.S., which gave his caste away to those familiar with the system. He found himself ostracized in the U.S., as he had been in Nepal, unable to serve himself or enter the kitchen at gatherings because others thought he would spoil the food, he said.
The discrimination continued when he enrolled in the social work graduate program at California State University, East Bay, in 2019. Once, while waiting at a transit station, he introduced himself to two Nepali students, who immediately snubbed him after discovering his last name. And in classroom discussions about the intersections of race, gender and sexuality, he was shocked to find caste was not a part of the conversation.
“I was experiencing discrimination within the university and outside the university at the community level,” Pariyar said. “My ancestors, my dad, my mom, my grandparents, for generations have been experiencing caste discrimination … and there was no conversation about that.”
Pariyar began advocating for the addition of caste as a protected category in the CSU system’s nondiscrimination policy. He started with the social work program at East Bay, gaining supporters and allies until they eventually persuaded the department to update its mission statement to include caste.
Then Pariyar worked with the Academic Senate’s Faculty Diversity and Equity Committee at Cal State East Bay to, last February, pass a resolution adding caste as a protected class in the campus nondiscrimination policy. The campaign caught on; multiple student governments from other CSU campuses posted their own resolutions, as well, including those at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
In April, the Cal State Student Association, which represents all students in the CSU system, also passed a resolution supporting the addition of caste as a protected category in the entire university system. Additionally, Cal State’s faculty union included caste as a protected category in its collective bargaining agreement last year.
On Jan. 1, California State University, which has 23 campuses and educates more than 485,550 students every year, became the first university system to add caste to its nondiscrimination policy.