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 the non-violent struggle of Gandhi 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 untouchable 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 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.”
Isabel Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, in her bestselling book Caste: The Lies That Divide Us, introduces caste as a guiding framework to analyse racial hierarchy and stigmatization that holds African-Americans at the bottom of the ladder. Caste is broadly 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.
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 it is about 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, 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. Allison Davis, an African-American social anthropologist, in his path-breaking work Deep South (1941) that examines the parallel between the African-Americans under the Jim Crow South in the United States and Dalits in India. Social economist Gunnar Myrdal, in his 1944 comprehensive report on race in America titled: An American Dilemma concludes that “the most accurate term for American society is not 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 are known as race. And in the language of race caste as the underlying grammar defining it. The 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 the examples from India, Nazi Germany, and the United States.
In the “tentacles of caste,” Wilkerson describes various ways in which caste permeates in a society that is infected by it. She goes on to address 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, further, adds that the “caste system thrives on dissension and inequality, envy and false rivalries” that builds up as a result of scarcity in societies. In another chapter, Wilkerson talks about the inherent “narcissism” that sustains the caste system.
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 essentially 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 terms of the caste hierarchy, she doesn’t explicate on the class privilege in terms of one’s inheritance of intergenerational trauma and post-memory among African Americans.
Wilkerson uses the most enduring caste framework, India’s, consisting of four varnas — Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra — and Dalits, former untouchables. However, jatis, the subset of varna, represent 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 the British colonialism has imposed a certain rigidity in the structuring of 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”. When we apply this understanding to our day-to-day living, we see caste everywhere.
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-years-olds, we knew our positions, roles, and the functions as we huddled through those tinted glasses. When I look 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.
Caste, in its truest sense, is one’s inability to accept the other as ourselves. And this form of caste exists everywhere. It is exactly this inability that enables the rich to look at the poor-in-tatters with a certain 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, the third-world is looked down upon by developed countries. And the transgender community still faces perpetual stigma in South Asian societies among others. Wilkerson’s very appropriation of caste into western societies — the tendency to define caste in western terms — might blur harsh lived-realities of caste in India.
In the modern capitalist system, a new form of legitimised caste structure has emerged. A factory has a certain 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 division of labourers.” The caste roles enable the blue-collared employees to be treated in a certain manner as opposed to that of white-collared employees. It enables the watchman of an organisation ought to behave in a certain manner — and salute the ones that come through those gates. These caste behaviours are inevitably defined and structured in terms of one’s socio-economic and political power.
What Wilkerson does not, however, delve deep into is 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, 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 various forms it exists.
In Wilkerson’s thesis, the caste framework helps one to understand “racism” and the “racial stigma” against the African Americans in the United States. She concludes her important essay on caste by helping us to recognise caste 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.