The California History Textbook Debate: Why Progressive South Asians and Hindus Must Speak Up

The California History Textbook Debate: Why Progressive South Asians and Hindus Must Speak Up

What should California’s sixth and seventh graders learn from their history and social studies books about the South Asian region and South Asian religions? Over the past few months, community advocates, organizations, and scholars have been engaged in a contentious process, proposing edits and counter-edits about how California textbooks should describe and characterize the South Asian region, South Asian history, and religions followed by South Asians.

On one side of the debate is a diverse coalition of 24 interfaith and intercaste organizations called South Asian Histories For All, which has been holding the line against the efforts of a well-funded Hindu lobby that includes groups such as the Hindu American Foundation, the Uberoi Foundation, the Hindu Education Foundation and the California Parents for the Equalization of Educational Materials (CAPEEM). These groups, as Eesha Pandit mentions in her piece here, have faced questions about their ties to Hindu nationalism. The South Asian Histories for All coalition has pointed out that the suggestions proposed by this Hindu lobby include distortions of Sikh and Muslim history, and the characterization of the caste system as merely a regional set of social practices, rather than as an oppressive institution rooted in Hinduism that discriminates against and marginalizes communities.

Progressive South Asians and Hindus must pay attention to these misleading, inaccurate and revisionist narratives, and most importantly, we must speak up. Doing so is often neither easy nor comfortable. In writing this piece, for example, I contended with my own caste privilege. As a light-skinned South Indian who was born into an Iyer Brahmin family, as my last name very visibly attests, I have operated for decades under the assumption that the caste system is an antiquated structure of a past that we left behind when my family immigrated to the United States from India in the mid-1980s.

But this is simply not true. Like many others, I have unwittingly and unknowingly gained benefits from being a member of a high Hindu caste, even if I do not subscribe to or embrace this identity in my daily life.

This is because as with many other ingrained biases and perceptions that South Asians hold, caste discrimination has migrated with the diaspora. Within the Hindu community in India, the United Kingdom and the United States, caste privilege and caste discrimination continue to exist, often unnoticed and under the surface, but with loud reverberations on the communities that are excluded and marginalized. We can spot it in the hierarchy of access within institutions that privilege Hindus, the hegemony of the Hindu religion in inter-faith spaces, the delivery of Hindu religious services, the decisions related to marriage within many families, and the unspoken standards of cultural and social acceptability that implicitly advantage people who are upper-caste, Hindu, and light-skinned.

This even happens in the non-profit sector and social justice spaces. During my work at a progressive national South Asian American organization for a decade, for example, my peers and I were very vigilant about creating safe spaces at community events that respected the diversity and complexity of class, immigration status, and language ability navigated by South Asians. But, we did not think enough about creating caste-safe spaces, in large part because of my own lack of understanding about the ongoing influence of caste bias in the diaspora.

Clearly, the caste system and its effects are not a remnant of the past or only a set of regional practices. Learning the truths then about the origins and ongoing impact of the caste system is not a wasted effort, especially for American children growing up in a country where the racial demographics are changing rapidly. If framed and presented truthfully, information in our children’s history textbooks about the caste system will result in increased empathy and understanding for others. Students will also be better equipped to make connections with other systems of oppression that they are learning about inside and outside their classrooms. In the same ways that learning about the system of Jim Crow segregation in the American South, the Japanese American internment, and the post 9/11 environment for Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim provides students with a critical lens to analyze race and immigration in America, so will information about the caste system give students an important critical lens to approach and understand the effects of discrimination and exclusion. Sanitizing history and erasing the experiences of marginalized peoples is not a worthwhile cause for those of us committed to diversity, justice, and equality.

One of the arguments that has emerged about the characterization of the caste system in the California textbook debate is that Indian and Hindu children will be forced to explain or defend their religion’s unsavory practices. The Washington Post has reported on a statement made by Akanksha Maddi, a California ninth grader, through the Hindu American Foundation. Maddi wrote: “My classmates and teachers think that we Hindus still believe in primitive and unjust practices…I don’t want my friends to look down upon me and my culture because of my textbook.”

I’m sure that many of us can relate to Maddi’s sentiments given our own experiences of being singled out in classrooms and having to respond to questions from peers and teachers. But our experiences will not change simply by excluding or mischaracterizing information about the caste system. Instead of focusing on the erasure or revision of history and practice, we should be ensuring that teachers are properly trained to present material in classrooms and are creating safe learning environments where no child has to experience what Maddi has. That’s how systemic change will happen.

Let’s also be clear about how and why anti-Hindu bigotry happens. While examples of anti-Hindu bigotry can be found in South Asian American history – think of the mobs that targeted “Hindoo” migrant workers at the turn of the twentieth century, or the Dotbusters who harassed and assaulted Indians in Jersey City in the 1980s, or the vandalism against Hindu temples in post 9/11 America – this type of discrimination occurs because Hindus and Indians are perceived as foreigners, outsiders, job-stealers, undesirable immigrants and “Muslim terrorists.” Anti-Hindu bias does not occur because its perpetrators have an analysis about or are motivated by caste bias. Caste is not easy to spot, whereas the characteristics of being brown in America today – the vulnerability factor for South Asians – are often very obvious.

The California textbook struggle offers an opportunity for progressive and upper caste Hindus to raise our voices. That means acknowledging our own caste privileges and the ways we benefit from it. It means committing to working towards the dismantlement of the caste system altogether, one that has been characterized by activists to slavery and apartheid. If South Asians are involved in efforts and rhetoric to tear down the system of white supremacy and to support Black and Latino communities in the United States around police brutality or the deportation crisis, we must also just as fiercely raise our voices against caste discrimination, Hindutva, and the influence of the Hindu nationalist lobby, especially in higher education.

This Thursday, the California Department of Education will be holding another hearing on proposed revisions to the history textbook struggle. Here’s what you can do.

What Can I Do?

  1. The first steps to annihilating caste are to learn more and to speak up. Learn about caste privilege and discrimination with this primer, and share this survey on caste in the diaspora widely.
  1. This week – and especially on Thursday, July 14th – send a message to the California Board of Education. It’s important for non-Californians to do so as well to demonstrate that we are listening and monitoring what is happening in Sacramento. Use or tweak the sample message below (ready for Twitter-use):

I’m a South Asian who wants children to learn the truth abt the caste system, @CADeptEd. Accept the edits of @desihistory4all

You can also call the department at 916-319-0800 or write to them through their online form.

If you are in California, attend the California Board of Education meeting on July 14th in Sacramento. For information please email

  1. Hold events, conversations, and online forums at summer leadership programs, college campuses, and places of worship about issues brought up in the California textbook debate, and how you will deal with them when your state starts to revise guidelines.

Deepa Iyer is the author of We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future. She blogs at and tweets @dviyer.

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