Indian-American doctor in Joe Biden's Covid-19 team cops flak over caste name

US epidemiologist Celine Gounder.
PHOTO: Facebook/drcelinegounder

An Indian-American epidemiologist appointed to US President-elect Joe Biden ’s Covid-19 advisory board has come in for criticism online for keeping a caste name as her surname.

Celine Gounder, a professor of medicine and infectious diseases at New York University, shared a series of local media articles celebrating her new position and her Tamil heritage. But the initial enthusiasm soon turned into outrage after some Indian netizens questioned her decision to publicise her caste identity.

Gounder is the caste name of a politically influential bloc in Tamil Nadu state. When the professor’s father, Raj Natarajan, immigrated to the United States in the 1960s, he found Americans had a hard time pronouncing his last name, so he adopted the name of his caste.

“My father changed his name to Gounder in the early 1970s before I was born,” said Gounder, who last visited her ancestral village in 2018.

“My name is my name. It’s part of my history and identity, even if some of that history is painful. I didn’t change my name when I got married. I’m not changing it now.” She is married to American sports journalist Grant Wahl.

To buttress her argument, Gounder shared a story about Republican Senator David Perdue who last month wilfully mispronounced the first name of vice-president-elect Kamala Harris at a campaign rally.

Harris has Tamil ancestry from her mother, who hailed from Tamil Nadu.

But some people said Gounder’s decision to retain the name was helping to keep casteism alive.

In India, the social order is based on a Hindu hierarchical system with “Brahmins” at the top and “Dalits” at the bottom.

According to a 2018 report by India’s National Crime Records Bureau, there were some 193,000 crimes committed against Dalits that year – more than six times the number recorded five years before.

Many Indians who immigrate to America belong to upper castes, resulting in discrimination among the community.

A report by Equality Labs in 2018 found that 67 per cent of Dalits in the US had faced caste discrimination at the workplace, 40 per cent in schools, and 40 per cent at temples.

“Do you still need ‘Gounder’ behind your name? After this much achievement,” one user tweeted.

Another wrote: “Celine is enough. Why Gounder? Highly educated American Tamil doctor still carrying [a] caste name?”

Some came to the professor’s defence by saying that surnames were part of a person’s cultural identity, while others urged Gounder to drop the name and reject casteism.

“Tamils [have existed] all over the world for 1000s of years … they can’t lose their surnames for your local politics … it’s their identity,” a user posted.

But another said: “Unless you can drop your caste name and openly denounce casteism, all that pride leads to a fall.”

Biden’s 13-member coronavirus task force will be led by former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, ex-Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler, and Marcella Nunez-Smith, a professor of public health at Yale University.

The group is mapping out policies to end shortages of personal protective equipment for frontline health workers and increase the availability of testing.

Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister K. Palaniswami, himself from the Gounder community, congratulated both Celine and Murthy – another Indian-American doctor of Tamil ancestry.

“I am extremely happy that @celinegounder & @vivek_murthy have been appointed to the National Pandemic Taskforce of US to combat #COVID19.

Both of them have made India proud, and I’m very glad to learn that Dr. Gounder has a Tamil heritage. My best wishes to both of them,” he tweeted.

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.