Caste-based Instances of Microaggression

1. Conversation between two close friends about university admissions. One friend accuses the other of stealing a spot from “more deserving” candidates by benefiting from the caste-based reservation policy. He also asserts that caste-based discrimination and oppression are a thing of the past.

Why is it an instance of microaggression?

a. The conversation reduces merit to the rank obtained in an entrance exam. This implies that the “lower” caste individual is less deserving/inferior based on his ranking. The aggressor is blind to the differing life experiences of “upper” and “lower” caste individuals. b. The person also denies the persistence of caste-based discrimination in contemporary India. It negates any discrimination faced by the hearer in their life. The conversation also insinuates that the reservation policy only promotes laziness.

What could be a good response?

As the aggressor in this instance is a good friend, it could be worthwhile for the hearer to openly express their feelings of discomfort. Most “upper” caste individuals who feel personally wronged by the reservation policy harbor the belief that all communities are now on an equal footing. This belief comes from a place of privilege and can be combated by sharing information with the aggressor about the persistence of caste-based discrimination and the continuing need for reservations in education.

2. “It is easy for you to get admission into college because of your caste.” “College admissions should be based on merit, not caste."

Why is it an instance of microaggression?

a. These statements are based on a twisted conception of merit that accounts neither for the privileges enjoyed by the “upper” castes, nor for the disadvantages suffered by the “lower” castes. b. As mentioned earlier, it also insinuates that the reservation policy only serves to increase laziness. The comments go a step further and suggest that it promotes mediocrity.

What could be a good response?

These assertions are often made by individuals existing in sheltered environments that blind them to their own privilege, as well as the blatant discrimination still rampant in most of the country. A good response here is alluding to the speaker’s upbringing and highlighting how their achievements are less meritorious and “self-made” than they let on.

3. Reluctance to physically touch individuals belonging to “lower” castes.

Why is it an instance of microaggression?

Article 17 of the Constitution of India abolishes the practice of Untouchability, which was further criminalized in 1955 by the Untouchability Offenses Act. Showing even the slightest reluctance while having any physical contact with an individual of a “lower” caste perpetuates the age-old discriminatory belief in the innately and legitimately inferior status of “Untouchables”.

What could be a good response?

If such an incident is minor and is restricted to the level of being construed as a microaggression, an attempt to reason with and to educate such individuals can be made. However, if the gravity of such transgressions crosses into the territory of being criminally liable, one must seek legal recourse against such an oppressor.

4. "Caste does not exist anymore - it is a thing of the past!"

Why is it an instance of microaggression?

Caste denial and caste blindness is an affectation available only to those belonging to a hierarchically privileged caste. The perceived “lower” castes cannot afford to be indifferent to caste as it affects their day to day life.

What could be a good response?

Inform the individual that their belief in the extinction of the Caste system stems from a place of privilege. Encourage them to educate themselves about the persistence of the Caste system in modern day India and the examples of discrimination seen on a daily basis.

5. Insisting, "What's your surname?"

Why is it an instance of microaggression?

Surnames often indicate caste. Insisting on knowing the surname of a stranger/new acquaintance/a friend could be a not so subtle ploy to find out their caste. Besides making a person deeply uncomfortable, it humiliatingly reduces all aspects of their identity to just one: that of their caste.

What could be a good response?

The person could refuse to share the surname. In case the other person is a friend, it’s a good idea to let them know clearly you find it uncomfortable, and consider it intrusive. A different approach could be to simply ask "Are you asking for my caste?"

6. Saying “You speak English so well…”, especially to an individual not belonging to the upper castes. It is irrelevant whether the caste of the victim is actually invoked in the conversation.

Why is it an instance of microaggression?

a. It socially demarcates the individual as an outcast, an “other”. b. It reinforces the caste system and solidifies the idea that individuals belonging to the lower castes are universally illiterate.

What could be a good response?

Confront them and ask why they think so, and try to tell them how this is an instance of microaggression and that thye should refrain from assuming and making such remarks in future.

7. “I don’t even know my own caste.”

Why is it an instance of microaggression?

While this seems to be a statement that tries to reflect that the individual does not care/believe/practise casteism, it is not. It simply demonstrates that the the individual is privileged enough (likely, an upper caste) to be ignorant to caste, or is trying their best to keep themselves ignorant to the still-prevailing caste systems and structures.

What could be a good response?

Confront them and ask why.

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