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Anita Lal: Why I Celebrate The Seattle Ordinance To Outlaw Caste Discrimination
"Just as my ancestors had dreams for me, I dream of a world where my nieces and nephews will not have to fight for caste equity and justice because they are born into it."
February 23, 2023 | 4.5 min. read | Opinion
On Tuesday, February 21, 2023, I sat in a crowded room full of tense bodies and hopeful hearts. As the City of Seattle Councilmembers voted to include caste as a protected class, I could feel our ancestors, born into subjugation and who died without such protections, celebrate alongside us in victory.
It was a very powerful moment. History had been made.
This legislation, put forward by Councilmember Kshama Sawant, was an epic watershed moment for caste equity and human rights movements. How amazing that it happened on the 75th anniversary of when Dr. B.R. Ambedkar submitted the draft constitution that abolished untouchability in India in 1948.
I realize some may not understand this day's importance, need or significance. I would not have appreciated this either if I had not started exploring my own Dalit identity years earlier.
My great-grandfather, Maya Ram Mehmi, came to Canada in 1906 and is documented as the first Dalit to arrive in North America. My family has lived on these lands for 117 years, and his legacy in Canada is seven generations deep. We are a Sikh family, a religion based on equity and the abolishment of caste. By all accounts, I really should not know what caste is or be affected by it. Yet, here I am, a caste abolitionist aware of my Dalit identity because I was born into a Chamaar family.
In a community that proudly speaks of the radical teachings of Guru Nanak Dev Ji and the key message of oneness in our Guru Granth Sahib Ji, we unapologetically continue to practice untouchability and casteism. The moment one flexes their caste, whether in music, in speech or their dating profiles, they perpetuate the centuries-old system of violence that continues to harm me, my family, and my community.
In social spaces, we openly practice caste. Marriages and relationships are still largely influenced by caste under the guise that it is cultural without holding ourselves accountable for how violent of a tradition this is. When someone says that ‘we marry within caste,’ they are saying that culturally they find ‘lower caste’ bodies, such as mine, impure and therefore marrying into a Dalit family would pollute their lineage. This hierarchical system finds it more acceptable to marry ‘up’ in caste than ‘down.’
In places of employment, this is also silently prominent. There are thousands of undocumented cases where casteist slurs have been used against caste-oppressed people, promotions have been given to others, or social exclusion is openly practiced. All these instances are unaddressed because there are no pathways to justice and no policies that provide them with protection or tools for employers to understand caste discrimination.
These systems of oppression are the same as white supremacy, and the same systems of discrimination that racism thrives under.
And as we have seen in the Black Lives Matter movement, transformative change happens on the back of policy changes and protections. Through the City of Seattle’s new anti-caste legislation, there will be pathways to ensure that there are consequences and justice when caste discrimination happens. This gives a community that has suffered for centuries protection and hope. Hope that this sets a precedent for more governing bodies to follow. Hope that they can have the fundamental human right to live a discrimination-free life.
In that room in Seattle, there were courageous people speaking truth to power and sharing how caste has affected them and their families, in tears, fighting for themselves and future generations. As they spoke, I felt the power of our ancestors again, who, through their sheer survival, fought for us and our right to exist. I thought of my Biji, Thakuri Kaur Lal (paternal grandmother), a true warrior that instilled in me the fight for justice. I thought of how proud she would have been.
This legislation came together through the hard work and hustle of a coalition of inter-faith, inter-caste, Ambedkarite, social justice organizations and labour unions. It took a whole community to make it happen.
In that room, we also had the oppressors that fought hard to preserve their right to continue the violence and harm. These protesters were backed by powerful right-wing groups such as Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP, a support organization for the RSS), Hindu America Foundation (HAF), and Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA). These are the same ideologies that some Canadian organizations align themselves with who have been organizing against progressive movements in Canada recently. We need to pay more attention to their politics.
The politics are important because true transformative change can only happen through policy changes. These policy changes happen when we unite and demand better of ourselves and our society. This is why this is such an epic moment because change does not come easy. This is generations of blood, sweat and tears.
This is a big step in a long history of advocacy.
As I celebrate this moment, I see more wins on the horizon that will create a better world for future generations. Just as my ancestors had dreams for me, I dream of a world where my nieces and nephews will not have to fight for caste equity and justice because they are born into it.
Anita Lal is the co-founder of Poetic Justice Foundation where she has been creating impactful and transformative programming to inspire and engage the South Asian community in change-making. Recently, her work has focused on creating space for anti-caste and Dalit narratives inspired by Dr. Ambedkar’s words: Educate. Agitate. Organize.
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