2021 Deis Impact event series explores Im/Migration
A workshop on the migration of caste and a keynote address by award-winning journalist and producer, Jose Antonio Vargas, highlight contemporary issues related to diversity, migration and immigration.
This year’s annual Deis Impact festival of social justice showcased a wide variety of programs. Highlights from the event, which ran from April 7 to April 12, include: a workshop on the Migration of Caste, a keynote speech from Jose Antonio Vargas, a 7-Day Neurodiversity Challenge and a faculty panel that discussed immigration policy and social justice under the Biden Administration. This year’s Deis Impact theme was “Reflections on Im/Migration,” focusing on immigration, migration, asylum-seeking, refugee experiences, xenophobia, citizenship and nationality, according to the event website. Members of the Justice attended several of these events.
Migration of Caste Event:
Day one of the Deis Impact event series kicked off with a workshop that tackled concepts of the caste system and its diasporic effects, which have influenced regions of Southern Asia and continue to impact individuals currently living in the United States. The event was facilitated by Accessibility Specialist for Graduate Students Jaspreet Mahal of the Student Accessibility Support Office and included insights from several guest speakers.
Mahal began the presentation by acknowledging her experience with castes. “I am talking about caste... something that every folk from South Asia has been categorized into … but I have been born into a caste that has privileged me all my life so here I am, a person who is trying to work my way into the anti-caste movement,” she said.
Mahal defined the caste system as a hierarchical social structure that assigns human beings into unequal groups based on their birth. She explained that it “relate[s] to all aspects in society — economic, political and religious — in which human beings are automatically assigned into unequal groups [which don’t allow for] any upward mobility.” Mahal also compared aspects of the caste system as separating “pollution from purity.”
The next portion of the event introduced the documentary “The Indian Dalit.” The film features interviews conducted with Indian people who provided personal accounts of the continuous discrimination based on castes in India. Following the short film, attendees and the event moderators discussed theories of why it was difficult to let go of tradition and concepts of castes even today.
After this thought-provoking discussion, Mahal examined the concept of castes from its origins in India to its global reach that currently impacts the daily lives of Americans. She explained how ideas of castes have descended upon Black and brown communities in the United States. Mahal included two legal case examples — the CISCO Case (2020) and the California Textbook Case (2018) — to substantiate her explanation. In these cases, discrimination related to the caste system was ushered directly into American policies from the migration of South Asian people into the U.S.
Caste and its relation to American life brought forward another discussion point — how castes affect college campuses and student life. Participants were put into Zoom breakout rooms to explore issues of discrimination in classrooms, living spaces, social settings and student activities and their relationship to castes.
Mahal recognized that a critical step in reforming discriminatory policies and their institutional bases is first to recognize caste and the detrimental role it plays in people's lives. Mahal shared a sense of pride for Brandeis being one of the first universities to identify caste as a protected category in their non-discrimination policy.
The event concluded with insights from guest speakers Vishni Samaraweera ’23, the co-events chair for the Brandeis South Asian Student Association and an Undergraduate Departmental Representative for the South Asian Studies Program, and Sanjay Bhagat from the Boston Study Group, a nonprofit organization working within the anti-caste movement. Samaraweera shared with attendees some of her personal contributions in student organizations to “make student events and organizations more inclusive and provide safe spaces and opportunities for guest speakers in research in academia to share their work and experiences” that work toward eliminating concepts of castes. Bhagat added to the discussion of the origins of castes and their migration into America. He said, “Caste is everywhere partially due to diaspora. … It is a world problem because the caste system is not just related to the country — it is related to a South Asian religion that is over 2000-3000 years old.” He explained that migration along with the diffusion of global religions have allowed castes to remain prevalent and deeply rooted in contemporary societies.
The Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion's Dr. Aretina Hamilton and Lydia Casmier Derfler moderated the event.
The next day in the event series focused on Jose Antonio Vargas’s 2011 essay for The New York Times, where he explored his experience as an undocumented child immigrant from the Philippines. Vargas explained that he had never thought of himself as Asian before coming to the United States. “People from Asia don’t think of themselves as Asian. They think of themselves as Filipino, or Korean or Chinese until they get to America and are ‘Asian,’” he said.
Vargas explained that he was further conflicted with his identity when he found out he was here without legal documentation. “I went to get my driver’s license at 16 and was told my green card was fake,” he said. Vargas went on to explain that he hasn’t seen his mother since he left the Philippines at age 12. “She was denied a visa four times because she doesn’t have property or a college degree,” he said, “And I can’t leave America because there’s no guarantee I’d be allowed back in.”
Vargas’s life changed when he started reading the works of Toni Morrison. “In an interview she did with Bill Moyers from PBS, Morrison explained that there is a ‘master narrative’ created by white men that defines what is beautiful and what is lovely,” he said. Vargas saw himself in that “master narrative” Morrison was talking about. “I convinced myself that someone created a master narrative of ‘illegality’ — as if one’s existence can be illegal. … Every immigrant’s ‘legality’ was a product of the laws of the time,” he said.
A quote by Morrison — “narrative is radical: creating us as it is being created” — has been foundational to Vargas’s work. He explained that his nonprofit organization Define American “challenges how news media portrays immigrants and works with journalists to tell more accurate stories and Hollywood producers to create more nuanced movies.”
Vargas linked the importance of narratives with the violent Capitol attack on Jan. 6. “That [event] signified the rewriting of that ‘master narrative’ — and it’s turning out to be violent for a lot of white people in this country.” Vargas also emphasized how little immigration is prioritized, even in his own political circles. “Progressives say they care about immigration but it doesn’t even crack the top five issues they care about," he explained, "We talk about legalizing pot, and that’s great, but can we legalize people too?”
As a journalist, Vargas was forced to look beyond his own perspective. He traveled to 49 states asking people how they define the word "American." He explained that people on the left criticized and questioned his decision to speak with people in Alabama for this project. “My response was ‘um...because they’re there?’" he explained. "My job as a journalist is to understand an issue in its full capacity.”
Vargas explained that after his 2011 essay was published, he was afraid that his career as a journalist would be over. “Saying that I was undocumented made me seem like I had a bias or agenda, and that I couldn’t be trusted to be objective,” he said. He also noted the privilege he had in speaking out: “I’m privileged because of my connections... What about people without those resources? Most people can’t speak up in that way.”
After his article was published in The Times in 2011, Vargas was on the 2012 cover of TIME Magazine as part of a profile on undocumented immigrants. Vargas explained that since then, he’s been given opportunities to pursue projects in other mediums. He co-produced the 2019 Tony Award-nominated Broadway production “What the Constitution Means to Me” with Heidi Schreck, and is now working on a potential series with Netflix.
During a Q&A session, one participant asked Vargas what brings him joy amid the struggle and fight for immigration reform. “‘Freedom’ to me is to flex different muscles creatively," he said. "I might not get this show, and my new book might suck, but that’s freedom to be able to work on them.”
Vargas is a 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner, as well as an Emmy-nominated filmmaker and Tony-nominated producer and nominee for the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Documentary. His memoir, “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen,” was published in 2018, and his upcoming book, “White is Not a Country,” which will be published in 2023, examines what it means to be an American through the lens of immigrants around the world.
Prof. Yuri Doolan (HIST, WGS, AAPI) moderated the event.