Brown University Adds Caste to Its Nondiscrimination Policy

The university's previous policy protected people experiencing caste discrimination, but officials and community members felt it was important to explicitly express a position on caste equity.
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  • Caste is a rigid system of social stratification that can persist among some populations of South Asian descent.
  • Brown University amended its nondiscrimination policy on Dec. 1.
  • Harvard previously added caste to its nondiscrimination policy for graduate student workers.

Brown University announced it is the first Ivy League school to add caste to its campuswide nondiscrimination policy.

"Caste is a structure of social stratification that is characterized by hereditary transmission of a set of practices, often including occupation, ritual practice, and social interaction," according to a recent Harvard Law Review analysis of caste discrimination lawsuits.

Caste discrimination generally revolves around the caste system that originated and can still exist in South Asia and its diaspora.

Brown on Dec. 1 amended its nondiscrimination policy to add caste, increasing protections for its community members and raising attention to this subtle and misunderstood form of structural inequality.

The university's previous policy protected people experiencing caste discrimination. However, officials and community members felt it was important to "explicitly express a position on caste equity," Sylvia Carey-Butler, Brown's vice president for institutional equity and diversity, said in a statement.

"Our nondiscrimination policies exist to ensure we're protecting people and to ensure the University environment is free of hurt and harm. We have a long-standing commitment to this work, and it is engrained into the fabric of who we are."

While Brown isn't the first to add a caste nondiscrimination policy, it says it is the first to implement it campuswide. Harvard added caste protections last year to its graduate student worker policy in a contract with its graduate student union.

Carey-Butler said that Brown students shared research on caste discrimination with her last spring.

South Asians are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States, they said, and a large part of that diaspora is considered "more esteemed" in the caste system. But students classified as being in a lower caste often report discrimination at educational institutions.

"Many caste-oppressed people remain 'closeted' about their caste identity in fear of experiencing retaliation or discrimination," the Brown students said in a statement. "The new language of the University's nondiscrimination policy offers caste-oppressed students who may be hiding their caste identity an option to report and address the harm they experience."