Sonja Thomas, associate professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at Colby College. Credit: Courtesy of Sonja Thomas

WATERVILLE, Maine — Colby College has banned campus discrimination based on caste, a system of inherited social class, and revised its nondiscrimination policy to add it to its list of protections for the campus community.

Colby had previously prohibited discimination based on race, color, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, pregnancy, parental or marital status, genetic information, national or ethnic origin, political beliefs, veteran or military status, and physical and mental disability,.

Across the country, few higher education institutions include caste in their nondiscrimination policies. In Colby’s announcement, the school declared that it is the second college in the nation to recognize caste. The college follows Brandeis University, which declared in late 2019 that it would prohibit caste discrimination on its campus.

Sonja Thomas, associate professor and department chair of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Colby, led efforts to revise the policy. Her interest in caste discrimination incidents in the United States further engaged her awareness of issues on college campuses.

In California, for instance, authorities sued Cisco and two of its employees for allegedly discriminating against an Indian engineer because he was from a lower caste than they were.

“Because policies didn’t recognize caste, there were no avenues to go forward,” said Thomas, who studies caste in Christianity. “I’m very much aware that when there’s a type of discrimination, people can just say, ‘Well, there’s nothing we can do about it.’ You have to first name what [discrimination] it is to say: this exists, we name it, we stand against it for us to even start to have a structure.”

Although Colby doesn’t have a large South Asian population — traditionally linked with casteism — it does have international students who might have at some point in their lives been affected by caste discrimination. It happens across religions, cultures and countries, even in industries such as academia and technology, Thomas said.

Colby enrolled 2,260 students this fall. Almost 10 percent of students are non-U.S. citizens, and about 30 percent identify as students of color, a Colby spokesperson said.

The college already protects students against religious and race-based discriminaton, which can be closely connected to a person’s caste distinction, according to Equality Labs, an international South Asian human rights organization.

In academia around the world, people might not recognize that they’re participating in caste discrimination, Thomas said. She pointed to scholars from South Asia, the vast majority of whom are in the dominant caste. Some don’t study the system because they are privileged.

“When they do [study caste], they have a very weird way of talking about it,” she said. “Just like racial privilege, the example I give is white people might not need to have the same discussion with their children about what to do when you’re stopped by the police in the same way that Black people in this country do with their children. People who have caste privilege might have blinders on when they study caste.”

Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Tayo Clyburn said it’s important for Colby to reflect on-campus policies that promote inclusivity, and to “adapt our policies in ways that are in keeping with the shifting needs of the populations we serve.”

Even if casteism isn’t blatant, exclusionary tendencies exist at colleges and universities nationwide, she said. Thomas recalled a speaker on campus who presented about how positive vegetarianism is in India, but how in the U.S. the meat industry’s marketing has ties to violence against women. She had a hard time supporting the lecture.

“It’s not that everybody in India is vegetarian,” she said. “That’s a very upper-caste thing. We are not talking about how many Dalit women in India face rape, let alone Dalit people who are suspected of eating beef have been murdered for that. If you are a Dalit person here and you see this is what the college is supporting, that can feel very exclusionary.”

Dalit is a name used for people who belong to the lowest caste in India.

When Thomas began spearheading the effort to revise the nondiscrimination policy last year, she collaborated with Clyburn and David Strohl, visiting assistant professor of anthropology who studies India. She also consulted with Brandeis University and the Colby College South Asian Society, a student group on campus.

Thomas expected pushback, but she was surprised by how supportive Colby administrators were once they began learning more about caste discrimination.

“If there was a hurdle, it was informing the community,” she said.

Thomas ran a series of lectures — she called them “teach-ins on caste” — in January and February and connected with student groups, faculty and committees on campus. People were receptive, and many had heard about the Cisco case or a book from journalist Isabel Wilkerson, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.”

Often, people think they can ignore issues that don’t affect them directly, Thomas said.

“As someone who has caste privilege, that is something my ancestors and my own family has maybe done,” she said. “Unless the most privileged step up and maybe say, ‘We need to talk about this oppression,’ it’s not going to change.”