Caste by Isabel Wilkerson shares an anecdote:
In the winter of 1959, Martin Luther King, Jr., and his wife, Coretta, visited India. When they arrived in Mumbai, King told reporters, “To other countries, I may go as a tourist, but to India, I come as a pilgrim.” King was fascinated by Gandhi’s non-violent struggle against the British and had long dreamed of going to India.
The couple stayed back in India for an entire month. One afternoon, King and his wife visited a high school where the children belonging to Untouchable castes were taught. The school principal made an introduction: “Young people, I would like to present you a fellow of untouchable caste from the United States of America.”
King was appalled at the comparison. He never expected himself to be addressed as untouchable, for he was an alien to the system. When King began to think about the reality of the lives of the 20 million African Americans he was fighting for. He said to himself, “Yes, I am an untouchable, and every Negro in the United States of America is untouchable.”
Caste by Isabel Wilkerson and Everything Dividing Us
In her bestselling book Caste: The Lies That Divide Us, Isabel Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, introduce caste as a guiding framework to analyse racial hierarchy and stigmatization that holds African Americans at the bottom of the ladder.
Caste is divided into seven parts, each addressing the broad contours of caste and the interplay between caste and race in the United States. Her work is lyrically absorbing with its brilliant use of anecdotes, allegories, and metaphors about “an old house.”
Throughout her work, Wilkerson uses words such as ‘dominant caste,’ ‘middle caste,’ ‘disfavoured caste’, or ‘lowest caste’ instead of, or in addition to, ‘white,’ ‘Asian or Latino,’ and ‘African American’ to refer to the American caste system.
Definition of Caste by Isabel Wilkerson
Wilkerson defines caste as the “architecture of human hierarchy, the subconscious code of instructions” for sustaining social order. A caste system “is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of the other,” she writes.
In her thesis, Wilkerson notes that the caste hierarchy is “not about feelings or morality”, but power, resources, authority and respect — which groups have it and which do not, who gets to acquire and control them, and who does not.
To understand caste and its implicit use of unconscious ranking of human characteristics “used to justify brutalities against entire groups within our species,” Wilkerson draws stark parallels between the “tragically accelerated, chilling, and officially vanquishing caste system” of Hitler’s Germany that exterminated millions of Jews, lasting 12 years; the “lingering, millennia-long caste system of India” that continues to stigmatize Dalits — the former untouchables — even to this day; and the “shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid in the US,” that has been dehumanising the African American community for centuries.
Wilkerson’s Caste in the United States
Wilkerson, in her work, analyses the interplay between race and caste in the United States. For this purpose, she explores the writings of Ashley Montagu, Gunnar Myrdal, Allison Davis, and W.E.B. Du Bois, among others.
In his path-breaking work Deep South (1941), Allison Davis, an African American social anthropologist, examines the parallel between the African Americans under the Jim Crow South in the United States and Dalits in India.
In his 1944 comprehensive report on race in America titled: An American Dilemma, Social economist Gunnar Myrdal concludes that “the most accurate term for American society is not a race, but caste.”
Drawing from their works, Wilkerson contends that “caste and race coexist in the same culture”, and they serve to reinforce one another. In the American caste system, the signal of rank in the form of one’s colour and appearance is known as race. And in the language of race, caste is the underlying grammar defining it.
Race is what one sees — the physical traits with arbitrary meanings — and caste is the “powerful infrastructure” that holds each group in its place.
In Caste, Wilkerson identifies eight “pillars of caste” — divine will, heritability, endogamy, occupational hierarchy, dehumanization and stigma, terror as enforcement and cruelty as means of control, and inheritance of superiority and inferiority — that underlie the working of caste across societies. She illustrates these features using examples from India, Nazi Germany, and the United States.
Tentacles of Caste
In the “tentacles of caste,” Wilkerson describes various ways caste permeates a society infected by it. She addresses the “unconscious bias” embedded deep within one’s culture and its function of perpetuating caste. And the role of lower castes as “scapegoats” of the caste system. Wilkerson notes, “As scapegoats, they are seen as the reason for societal ills.”
She adds that the “caste system thrives on dissension and inequality, envy and false rivalries” that result from scarcity in societies. In another chapter, Wilkerson discusses the inherent “narcissism” that sustains the caste system.
Dominant and Subordinate Castes in Racial Structure
The dominant caste acts as “the sun around which all other castes revolve”, and these castes are ranked in “descending order by their physical proximity” to the dominant caste.
“Caste behaviour,” Wilkerson writes, “is a response to one’s assigned place in the hierarchy.” And the culture enables one to take instructions from dominant castes — follow them, revere them, and not argue with them when they are wrong.
Although Wilkerson’s work elaborates on race in the caste hierarchy, she doesn’t explicate on class privilege in terms of one’s inheritance of intergenerational trauma and post-memory among African Americans.
Wilkerson uses India’s most enduring caste framework, consisting of four varnas — Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra — and Dalits, former untouchables. However, jatis, the subset of varna, represents the sustained harsh reality of Indian society. These jatis are not rigid.
And some jatis, as shown by several Indian social anthropologists, have climbed up the ladder, and several others have slipped down. The postcolonial scholarship on caste has further shown us that British colonialism has imposed a certain rigidity in structuring caste as it exists today.
What captures most of Wilkerson’s attention is the textualized division of caste in its purest form of hierarchy, division, and the normalised stigma — varna. Through this caste framework, she opens up a debate on what constitutes caste in our society.
Wilkerson writes, “caste is the powerful institution that holds each group in its place”. We see caste everywhere when we apply this understanding to our day-to-day lives.
Personal Reflection on Caste
In my childhood, I attended a boarding school in Kadapatti — A temple town for the caste crusader, Basava, in southern India.
On Sundays and other holidays, we, as children, would stand behind the windows of an unknown neighbourhood, peep through the tinted glasses, and stare at the Television, watching dramatic Kannada movies, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), and the Cricket World Cup.
As young as nine, we knew our positions, roles, and functions as we huddled through those tinted glasses.
Looking back, I understand that the mere notion of “peeping through the tinted glasses” and “owning a Television” shows us the caste structure — and the roles and behaviours it elicits.
Where There Is No Caste: Utopia
Caste, in its truest sense, is one’s inability to accept others as ourselves. And this form of caste exists everywhere.
This inability enables the rich to look at the people without food and shelter in tatters with particular disgust.
In a rural Indian household, the women — all their lives — are taught that their role is restricted to the four-walled kitchen. In international society, developed countries look down upon the third world. And the transgender community still faces perpetual stigma in South Asian societies.
Wilkerson’s appropriation of caste into Western societies — the tendency to define caste in Western terms — might blur the harsh realities of caste in India.
A new legitimised caste structure has emerged in the modern capitalist system. A factory has a particular structure with foremen, supervisors, the board of directors, and the executive heads — each playing their roles in their institutionalized hierarchy with a scalar chain of command.
In his Annihilation of Caste (1935), Ambedkar (whom Wilkerson calls the Martin Luther King, Jr. of India) wrote, “caste does not bring about the division of labour; it brings about the division of labourers.” The caste roles enable the blue-collared employees to be treated in a particular manner as opposed to white-collared employees.
It enables the watchman of an organisation to behave in a particular manner — and salute the ones that come through those gates. These caste behaviours are inevitably defined and structured regarding one’s socio-economic and political power.
Critiques of Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste
Wilkerson does not, however, delve deep into the modern manifestations of caste in our society. But, she commences a debate on the term “caste” and its varied existence in human society, with Nazi Germany, America, and the Indian variant of caste as merely some of the many forms.
As Wilkerson notes, “Caste, like grammar, becomes an invisible guide not only to how we speak but how we process information.” Caste is against humanity. It divides humans based on their arbitrarily presumed worth.
It does not just assume that all humans are not born equal, but caste provides the basis for our behaviour and rules of engagement and encourages stigmatisation of the other. Wilkerson’s Caste enables us to rethink our complacency towards the perpetuating caste in our societies in its various forms.
Conclusion: Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste
In Wilkerson’s thesis, the caste framework helps one to understand “racism” and the “racial stigma” against African Americans in the United States. She concludes her essential essay on caste by helping us recognise it and then enabling us to dismantle it.
It is possible, Wilkerson writes, to create a “world without caste [that] would set everyone free”, for it requires both individual bravery and enormous collective will of dominant castes.
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