Caste: The Origins of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. Random House, 496 pages.
Why is it that so many persons of Indian origin thrive in America? Look anywhere—many of the titans of big industries are brown people from South Asia. Why is it that so many Indian doctors or dentists take care of American ailments? And that the culture, literary, and media industries also have so many Indian people? What is that secret sauce that makes this possible? To understand this better we need a caste lens. The many Indians who sit at the top of the American dream are largely from the dominant castes of Indian society. Their upbringing, mannerisms, deftness, way of thinking and claiming pride, belief in culture, dominant oppressive status, easy access to lowest caste labor, and the confidence to “walk in and win” are all traits shared by their “cousins” on American soil. Indians coming to America is a homecoming of dominant castes.
The many Indians who are invested in a politics of supremacy, hatred, and profit over human values find a natural home in the Republican Party: the likes of Nikki Haley, Bobby Jindal, Dinesh D’ Souza and, in the recent Capitol Hill insurrection crowd, a contingent of Indians proudly hailing Indian tricolor claiming their allegiance to the GOP. The Indian leaders of the Republican Party have upheld the values of the American caste system by reclaiming their dominant caste status in their adopted land. Any immigrant in the right-wing party in America or anywhere else in the world has a singular agenda. It is to retain their caste position. This arrow of prejudice is aimed at putting the oppressed caste in the lowest position.
It is no accident that Aryans found a spiritual homeland in India’s Hindu laws and its callous caste system.
Many South Asians of dominant caste status in America use a selective memory to argue for their legacy in America. Progressives do not utter a word about Akhay Kumar Mozumdar, the first Indian to argue for his white citizenship in America based on his high-caste ancestral lineage in 1911. Mozumdar distinguished himself as a high caste kshatriya from the Sikhs who were impure “mixed blood.” However, the Sikhs strove to establish their whiteness in order to claim equal and superior status. In the famous case of United States vs. Bhagat Singh Thind, a U.S. Army veteran employed caste superiority to make his case for whiteness. However, his application for whiteness was rejected by Justice Sutherland because the “common man’s” perception of a Hindu (read Indian) was physically distinguishable from the perception of whites.
Indians like Thind, Mozumdar, and Lala Lajpat Rai, the famous Indian freedom fighter, had chosen to side with the white castes of America by using racial-caste theories to claim their “pure blood” Aryan family lineage while at the same time discarding any doubt of untouchable or Negro blood. Incidentally, Rai spent considerable time trying to learn about the black struggle in America. His impression of black leaders, especially W.E.B. Du Bois, was relative. Rai went on to form a now right-wing conservative Hindu Mahasabha in India. The dominant castes of South Asia have always chosen to find a natural home in the white caste values of America.
Post-1960s professional immigrants from Asia and the Middle East got favorable attention as they scaled the American class ladder without much difficulty. The lack of barriers associated with being from a privileged caste in their own country made this transition possible. The inherited traits of being from a dominant caste give one what it takes to thrive. A dominant-caste immigrant, even if poor, is still advantaged with the cultural traits, societal building of confidence, and social and professional techniques needed in an ugly age of caste-capitalist competition. Thus, it is no accident that dominant-caste immigrant groups thrive and excel in America. American society has unwritten codes for that encourage harmony between groups who favor and validate casteism. It is easy for the dominant “upper” castes not to upset the foundations of casteist society, which hinges on making the lowest group untouchable and unseeable.
In every upper-middle-class, non-Americanized-accent-speaking household I’ve observed, one could notice the immense faith that the dominant castes had in the validity of the American caste system. They held on to the values of hard work and merit-based advancement, denigrating the lowest castes as lazy and unworthy. Without a significant presence for more than a few decades, the dominant-caste immigrants ally themselves with their long-lost cousins of other societies—Aryan Germany, white America, or Brahmin India. It is no accident that Aryans found a spiritual homeland in India’s Hindu laws and its callous caste system.
The intersection of Hindu Indian society’s caste hierarchy and America’s racial hierarchy are addressed with subtlety in Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of our Discontents. Her engaging text allows the experiences of oppressed people from both countries to sit across from each other and not feel like strangers because of their superficial “differences.” In fact, as Wilkerson shows, there are so many parallels between oppressed castes in different societies that their experiences naturally align. They become simulacra—like gasping at the sight of one’s own reflection in a mirror.
Caste is a work of historical anthropology that was left to a forgotten past. Wilkerson, like in her earlier work The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010), weaves the stories of black individuals escaping southern oppression to the north, east and west in what came to be known as the “Great Migration.” By fusing the narratives of escapade, hope, and refugee settlement, Wilkerson highlights the stories of intra-migrants who contributed to American art, literature, and humanities. Wilkerson is a chronicler of dying memories. She does this work with the passion of a historian, the dedication of an archivist, and a journalistic flair. This book is a compilation of America’s quests to find answers to itself. What is slavery in a context of dispossession, exploitation, capitalism, and immovable hierarchy? It has to mean something more than merely the eighteenth-century imaginative theories of a few Europeans. To correctly realize itself in the oppressive characterization of power, a postbellum politics of sophistication underscored the caste paradigm to make sense of the extremely complex and still-forming American society. Among the liberal abolitionists like Charles Sumner and other Northern elites, caste was widely acknowledged as a theoretical concept of America’s slave order. This vocabulary was prevalent in public and academic knowledge. Du Bois, for example, entertains this concept to explain the “color-caste” system of America in his writings.
As is common with American exceptionalism, “caste” itself was not allowed to enter the mainstream lexicon.
Beneath the carapace of racialized conceptualizing, the ruling castes of American society perpetrated economic atrocities upon their subjects as a social language of racism. By simplifying the problem to one’s appearance—and to the untrue pseudoscientific conception of race—the peddlers of this supremacy guarded their supreme caste status. Wilkerson emphatically argues how the dominant castes were given upper-class status with exorbitant privileges as white Americans upon landing in the caste-stratified America that practiced discrimination upon the lower castes who were considered non-European. The poor whites, comparatively, had only the “complexion to console them for being born into a higher caste” remarked a Virginia slaveholder in 1832. Wilkerson looks at America’s caste system against the backdrop of India’s much older Brahminic caste system. The outcasts of the American caste system are the enslaved blacks and their descendants, whose status still warrants them stigma and trauma. Meanwhile, non-African American groups including Asians, Hispanics, Africans, Caribbeans, Arab, and South Asians try to cling to the upper to middle rungs of the American vertical caste order to guard their interests and present their status as higher. In this they try to escape the dreadful condition of the lowest “subordinated” caste identifier of African Americans.
Much of the activism of the nineteenth century carried forward the analysis of the color-caste system. This became a primary anchor for thinkers and scholars in the twentieth century. Anthropology, sociology, and anatomy became increasingly concerned with the caste concept of American discrimination.
As is common with American exceptionalism, “caste” itself was not allowed to enter the mainstream lexicon. Instead, an artificial, unscientific, and unnatural theory of “race” was promoted, subsuming the complexities of color, caste, and class. By the 1740s, naturalists, anatomists, medical science experts, and philosophers took notes from Europe—particularly from J.F. Blumenbach, credited to be the originator of race theory and its divisions according to geographies. This remained prevalent among both the religious population and scientists until it finally received a strong rebuttal from liberals and progressives from black and white quarters of America and Africa. Wilkerson dives into the theories of the 1930–1950s that redesigned the American structuralism. Her protagonists are W. Lloyd Garner, Allison Davis, Gerarld Berreman—her heroes who convincingly articulated the caste makeup of American society. This caste is then easily seen as analogous to German anti-Semitism and the Indian system—its origin.
The Jewish victim of the Holocaust was part of a larger scheme to establish a white planetary republic. Thus, through sharing notes on how to dominate by domesticating the conditions of colonized society, a mythical caste-color coded white supremacy was validated. Caste in India underwent iterative changes to subjugate the native mass under the colonial-invading influence of Aryan-Brahminic doctrine. In essence, caste in the United States, Germany, and India is adapted to the sociological structure of each society. It offers an older, realer picture of a problem that was glossed over during the restructuring of these societies.
Wilkerson follows a long line of African American scholars in using a foreign social rubric—in this case, caste—to understand the nature of oppression in American society. There is a school of thought in African American academia that attempts to look at the world through the disadvantages of color. This school of thought took off in the mid-twentieth century. Du Bois framed this question through color-caste, but in later iterations—and with the growth of anti-colonial praxis—the social movement subverted the supposed negativity of blackness through pride and culture. Another school of thought employs the idea of “Negritude,” a framework that foregrounds a Pan-African model of black identity and rejects colonialism entirely. The latter school theorizes race through African kinship, regardless of diasporic identity. In some versions of the idea, that kinship is even extended to oppressed or darker-skinned groups. A similar approach was taken by African American scholars to study caste as a color problem in the Indian subcontinent. Noted Africanist Runoko Rashidi found similarities of physical characteristics among some Indian tribes and Dalit groups to that of Africans. He attributed their existence to a “Global African Presence.” It was his template to decipher the anthropologically unsound yet resonant similarities between groups living on the margins of each society. His approach relied on the colonial tools of anthropometric models pseudo-biological observation of human traits. Rashidi was all too flattered to notice African-ness amongst the Dalit population of India.
Similar contexts are used to convey the blackness of Dalits to Africa. The only problem here is that Dalits are not oppressed primarily by Europeans. Similarly, black Africans are victimized by other Africans. How do we then look at their oppression without essentializing color?
The lenses of Africanness a la blackness, and colorism, though apparent to a foreign eye, reduce the extremely minute levels of nuance to simple generalizations. Caste offers much clarity to—and shows much forethought in—the system of oppression in the peninsula. This is the callous genius of the makers of caste who set out for each succeeding generation to improvise upon the rules to suit their conditions. Caste then becomes an evolving amoeba, shifting its base and adopting new shapes while remaining fundamentally the same. Caste also goes deeper than arbitrary phenotypical limitations to excavate the habits of the soul—the theory of karma animating before and after death. It is nirgun—formless.
Beyond the particular experiences of being African American, Jew, or Dalit, this universal experience occurs across all societies.
Any Dalit who voids the codes of caste order is declared rowdy, deceitful, in some cases criminal or even a rapist. Dalits who try to break the mold of caste are time and again reminded of their lower status. If not, threatening acts from micro-aggression to psychic and physical violence are directed at them. Caste expresses itself through both overt and indirect measures. Through strict control of sex and sexual flow via endogamy. Through the absolute filthiest, most denigrating jobs without adequate compensation being given only to Dalits. Through the punitive response to Dalits’ assertion of their rights guaranteed under the constitution of India.
There have been attempts by scholars to anatomize caste morality, but their usual thesis has not covered the sky of casteism. Caste is everywhere, for as long as there continues to be a rigid, unbreakable hierarchy and immobility from one’s birth rank. Each society has their untouchables—the lowborn, servant-slave castes. Some societies have not tortured their untouchables as cruelly as the Brahminic-Aryans did the South Asians. This is how epochal shifts in caste governmentality are made—by spiritualizing the untouchable/touchable principle of division.
By focusing on these aspects of caste, Wilkerson has joined a host of other honorable American scholars to reintroduce the caste framework to the American public discourse. She looks at society through the lens of its pervasive oppression. She, like me, is mounting her camera on the shoulders of the victims so as to see through their lens instead of slapping on outsiders’ sophisticated interpretations of their lives. Wilkerson has flicked the tip of a volcanic mountain with her index finger. This is going to open a Pandora’s box of deeply buried and layered expressions of human anger, frustration, and atrocity. Wilkerson has brought us to witness the magnitude of oppression that any society will commit upon its lowest castes. Beyond the particular experiences of being African American, Jew, or Dalit, this universal experience occurs across all societies. The specific oppressions need to be appreciated through caste dictions.
There is an incident in the book where Wilkerson describes observing a person at an academic caste conference at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in summer 2018. “After one session,” she writes, “I went up to a woman presenter whose caste I had ascertained from observing her interactions. I noticed that she had reflexively stood over the Dalit speaker and had taken it upon herself to explain what the Dalit woman had just said or meant, to take a position of authority as if by second nature, perhaps without realizing it.” This liberal wokeness with regard to Indian caste hierarchy is now entering the Dalit freedom struggle outside India.
“I could see that the upper-caste people took positions of authority, were forthright, at ease with being in charge, correcting and talking over the lower-caste people,” Wilkerson noticed. This dominant-caste habit of taking over our spaces is epidemic and very rarely does the offending group realize this. In academia, journalism, and even in the social justice movements one will see overwhelming representation of dominant castes, with these groups controlling the entire narrative of Dalits. With Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s rise to national importance in the past century, some of these toxic behaviors of the dominant castes have begun to be put in check. In 1919 Ambedkar expressed his reservations over dominant castes representing the Dalit cause. Two dominant-caste, progressive male leaders from western India, Shinde and Chandvarkar, wanted to lead the untouchable cause and had invited Ambedkar to join their platform in an attempt to garner legitimacy. Ambedkar chose to remain distant from such saviors, I call “Brahmin savior mode.”
Caste is not a foreign, old, traditional Indian problem, it is as American as white supremacy.
The legacy of Ambedkar was carried forward by the Dalit literary sphere and sociopolitical movements. It is carried forward by contemporary Dalit activists and writers who stand in defense against any non-Dalit interpretation of Dalit humanity. Many dominant-caste scholars have made careers studying Dalits and their condition, while paying little or no attention to their own caste privileges as a project of social science study. We see writing and scholarly opportunities like the introduction to Ambedkar’s classic Annihilation of Caste (1936) still given to members of the dominant castes, such as Arundhati Roy (whom I count as a dear friend), when they would provide a perfect chance to showcase a Dalit voice and Dalit talent.
How can non-Dalits, who have not experienced Dalit life, who are not born from an untouchable woman’s womb, write or analyze Dalit being? One can be an expert on caste by consuming theory or detailing ethnography, but one can hardly anthropologize the Dalit being without knowing the Dalit mind and other invisible traits that remain in the gut. Non-Dalits can only romanticize with fancy words and daunting sentences. This analysis could apply to the distant narratives and emotionally removed, objective studies on African Americans by outsiders.
Will universities fund research on caste in America and around the world? There are adequate influential scholars of caste like Gopal Guru, Anand Teltumbde, Sukhdeo Thorat, Vimal Thorat, Vivek Kumar, Gajendran Ayyathurai, Chinnaiah Jangam, Suryakant Waghmore, K Satyanarayana, Mangesh Dahiwale, Chandraiah Gopani, Shailaja Paik, Gaurav Pathania, Lalit Khandare, Harish Wankhede, Varsha Ayyar—among a galaxy of others who have devoted their careers to exposing caste.
Caste is not a foreign, old, traditional Indian problem; it is as American as white supremacy. The policing of the conduct and biopower of marginalized bodies. A fixated, theoretical, and pervasive system that reproduces for new eras the same channels of oppression upon which this society was developed. Overall, the society that hangs on to caste lies to itself—and surrenders important resources to validate that lie. To caste-ize the rest of the world is to add a voluble strength to the anti-caste struggle of people of different hues, colors, characteristics, and nations. But a global call to action cannot be simply Americanized from the Indian context. It has to be globally centered, with sensibilities that can be applied to others suffering in similar circumstances. As Wilkerson’s book helps to demonstrate, caste needs a renewed focus, for it has the potential to subvert hegemonic tropes across the world.