Caste: The Origins of our Discontents

As another year comes to a close, I reflect on the books that had the greatest impact on me in 2020. In the genre of non fiction, Caste by Isabel Wilkerson is the most powerful book I have read this year. The title itself piqued my interest. The premise of the book is that ‘caste’, a term traditionally associated with India, is a better word to describe racism in the US. As someone who has grown up in India, caste is not just a term I am familiar with, but something that has seeped into every aspect of my existence, knowingly or unknowingly. It is so deeply ingrained in the psyche that often people are not even aware of how they are perpetuating the caste system even if they openly and truly condemn it. In that aspect, caste is very similar to white supremacy and Wilkerson posits that African Americans in the United States are at the lowest rung in a hierarchy analogous to both the caste system in India and the Nazi rule in Germany. She claims that “Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste…. Caste is the bones, race the skin.”

One might wonder if these cross cultural comparisons have any merit for how do we compare 400 years of American history with 12 years of Nazi rule and 3000 years of a complex system of social stratification in India? The three share basic methods of subjugation and the underlying feeling of dehumanization is the same. So caste and not race is the lens though which we should view America, according to Wilkerson. It is not just a matter of semantics but a better framework to understand and analyze the inequities. Wilkerson says that Nazi Germany was inspired by American segregation laws and believe it or not, they thought the American system was too extreme. I have often wondered why people are only shocked by Nazis and their brutality when what African Americans endured as slaves was no less. Even the Nazis thought that determining the percentage of blood that made you black to be too harsh. It is only on reading this book I realized that there was no basis to the one drop of blood rule ( which even black people have come to believe- so deep is the brainwashing or rather whitewashing) and that theory was touted just to keep black people in their place.

Wilkerson delineates 8 pillars of caste that are common across the three societies and gives examples from each category to illustrate her point. Endomagy is one of the pillars of caste I found fascinating as a comparison. She equates the past ban on interracial marriages in the US to the control of marriage and mating in India where traditionally people married into their own caste. Alabama was the last state in the union to overturn the ban on interracial marriage in 2000, 33 years after the Supreme Court ruled in Loving vs Virginia that such laws were unconstitutional in all states. And yet, more than 40% of Alabamians voted against overturning it. Now, in the US and in India, legally you are allowed to marry any one you want. But only 10% of the population in India marries outside its caste and only 15% of marriages in the US are interracial. This number includes Hispanics and Asians as well. The percentage would be a lot lower if it were only blacks. Sadly, the figures speak for themselves.

Another pillar of caste that I found striking to compare is the emphasis on pollution and purity. Black people were considered impure and dirty just as Dalits who belong to the lowest echelons of the caste system in India and whose very shadows were once considered polluting and who often eat and drink from separate containers to this day. It was no different for black people till a few decades ago when they drank water from separate fountains and were not allowed to use swimming pools frequented by white people. Wilkerson cites the example of Al Bright, the only black child on the Little League Team in the town of Youngston, Ohio who was banned from using a swimming pool when his team went on a celebration outing. When parents and coaches protested, he was allowed to float on a raft without his feet touching the water, towed around the pool by the manager only after all the white kids had vacated the pool. This incident took place in 1951.   

The book traces the history of enslavement in the South from 1619 when the first Africans were brought to Virginia to the Civil War and subsequent period when the caste system was perpetuated through the Jim Crow South. Even after the abolition of slavery, the country found ways to keep black people subjugated. Wilkerson describes in detail discriminatory housing policies, unethical medical experiments and horrific lynchings where the white community would come to view the spectacle, collect body parts as souvenirs and send postcards of the event to family and friends. This was an astounding revelation to me for as a recent immigrant, I didn’t fully know or understand the extent of the horrors African Americans were subjected to in the past. I had always viewed America as the leader of the free world. But what a paradox then that the country that espouses the values of liberty and justice for all fails many of its citizens on just those counts? For unless the racism inherent in society is acknowledged and addressed, any claim to be the beacon of democracy rings hollow.

“Americans are loathe to talk about enslavement in part because what little we know about it goes against our perception of our country as a just and enlightened nation, a beacon of democracy for the world. Slavery is commonly dismissed as a “sad, dark chapter” in the country’s history, It is as if the greater the distance we can create between slavery and ourselves, the better to stave off the guilt or shame it induces.”  

We are loathe to talk about past horrors but events that happened long ago still color our thinking. The book depicts current realities too with the backlash to Obama’s election and the rise of Trump and Trumpism. Wilkerson believes that white voters vote against their own self interest when the power they hold is threatened for the reality is that in a few decades, they will no longer be the majority of the population. She goes on to ask this uncomfortable question: ”..if people were given the choice between democracy and whiteness, how many would choose whiteness?” In the US, there is controversy over the removal of Confederate monuments whereas Germany has no statues or memorials to Nazi officers and looks back upon the Third Reich as a shameful part of its history. Americans not willing to dismantle monuments is emblematic of the larger unwillingness to dismantle the system.

Wilkerson lays bare some stark and painful truths about race relations with scholarly research and compelling personal anecdotes. She describes how she was viewed with suspicion while traveling business class. She was followed in the airport and questioned by agents on a car rental company’s shuttle bus and not one passenger came to her defense. Throughout the book she employs striking metaphors to drive home her point. She likens caste variously to the foundation of an old house, to a computer operating system, and to a staged performance. “Caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance.”

There are some gaps in the arguments Wilkerson puts forth. She tends to view caste as a binary and has omitted the plight of Native Americans and other minorities and does not dwell much on how class operates within caste- for instance how do we explain the success of Asian immigrants in the US who are not white? Some of the comparisons of the treatment of African American to Jews seem tenuous too. The Nazis wanted to eliminate Jews and not dominate them while black people in the US and Dalits in India were needed by the dominant class for economic exploitation. 

In addressing the caste system in India, Wilkerson focuses mainly on Brahmins and Dalits but caste is far from a two tier system in India. It is an extremely complex dynamic whose definition is broader and more nuanced. There are four main castes or ‘varna’. Interestingly, the Sanskrit word varna itself means color indicating that originally skin color was used to determine place in a hierarchy. The four castes are Brahmin, Kshatriya,Vaishya and Shudra or the priestly, the warrior, the merchant and the laborer respectively and each caste is further divided into sub castes. Dalits once known as ‘ untouchables’ and whose work involves removal of garbage and animal carcasses, cleaning toilets and sewers, are the most oppressed group. They are even excluded from the traditional classification and form a fifth caste.

There could be more than 5000 castes and sub castes in India and often a subjugated group also subjugates in turn, those they perceive to be lower on the rung. Besides the caste system is not restricted to Hindus but is practiced in some form or other by Muslims and Christians too. Caste is not the exclusive domain of religion but has insidiously seeped into Indian culture. Wilkerson cites sociological research and discusses the activism of Dalit scholar B. R. Ambedkar but does not take into account current realities in India where the government has implemented affirmative action initiatives for the marginalized and where we witness the evolution of a rapidly growing Dalit political movement to fight caste hegemony and Hindu nationalism as they continue to be targets of lynching and rape.

Despite these shortcomings, the book is illuminating. It inspired me to do some soul searching about my own heritage and my complicity in keeping the machinery going. Call it unconscious or silent bias, in the end the discrimination whether in the US or in India is part of an underlying unspoken system of hierarchy. We have accepted this system and adapted to it. I naively believed that caste was not something that was all that prevalent in urban India where I grew up and was mostly confined to rural pockets of the country. I didn’t care what castes my friends belonged to or what last names they went by. Yet, I was guilty of not protesting when the domestic helpers drank water from separate glasses or were not allowed to use the bathrooms at home. Often in a high rise I would come across separate lifts- one for the residents of the building and one ‘ for servants and dogs’. I remember being shocked and angered by it but not enough to do anything about it. Not only do we need to have empathy but ‘radical empathy’, to borrow Wilkerson’s words, to bring about social change.

Caste is an eye opening book especially for those born into privilege who need to shoulder the responsibility for the inequities in society and work to eradicate the deeply entrenched social malady but the sad part is that not everyone is willing to open their eyes to the truth. Although the book ends on a note of hope, it is a long and tortuous road ahead. And there was a part of me that wondered despondently if it is truly possible to live in a world without any implicit hierarchy of race, caste or class!

The Bluest Eye




I recently read an article about a homeless woman sentenced to five years in prison for using her friend’s address to enroll her son in school. And last week I heard that a rich actress who cheated to get her child to college got away with just fourteen days and community service. Needless to say, the poor homeless woman is black and the rich celebrity is white. Racial discrimination is rooted in a long history of oppression that continues to this day in mostly covert but shockingly, on occasion, in overt ways too. Literature is a safe space for black people to express their grievances and angst. Ever since I read To Kill a Mockingbird, I’ve been drawn to narratives chronicling the experience of America’s ‘free’ but still bonded people. When I heard about the recent demise of Toni Morrison, I started reading the books penned by her that I hadn’t read yet. I wanted to read her in chronological order to follow her development as a writer and began with her debut novel, The Bluest Eye.

Set in Lorain Ohio, the author’s childhood home, the story begins with the perspective of a young girl Claudia who bemoans the fact that no marigolds bloomed in the fall of 1941. She adds that they thought it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds didn’t grow. Pecola’s father had dropped his seed in his own plot of black dirt and just like the seeds shriveled and died, so did her baby. What? In the beginning of the novel itself we are told that Pecola is going to be impregnated by her father and that her baby is going to die. What a punch to the gut!

At that point I wanted to put the book down. Actually I wanted to fling it away. I can handle pretty much any topic but incest and pedophilia are where I draw the line. Yet I persisted. The lyrical writing pulled me in. Besides I wanted to know what happened to the child. How did she cope and did she emerge a survivor? The defeated narrator declares: “There is really nothing more to say- except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.” We already have the facts. We just learn the details as we move along.

Through different perspectives in a series of flashbacks, we learn about the events that led to the tragedy. Two young black girls, Claudia and Frieda MacTeer, live with their parents in Ohio. For a brief period they take in an eleven year old girl called Pecola Breedlove ( notice the ominous name) who comes from a troubled household. Her father is often drunk and her parents are physically and verbally abusive to each other and to her and her brother Sammy. She considers herself ugly and is perceived as hideous by her own community. She believes that if she were to have blue eyes, she would be pretty. If there is anyone more vulnerable than a black girl in our society, it is an ugly black girl.

But how exactly do we define ugliness? Eurocentic standards of beauty have been touted as ideal as a result of widespread colonialism and people who don’t live up to those ideals are conditioned to believe that they are inferior:

“You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question. The master had said, ‘You are ugly people.’ They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance. . ‘Yes,’ they had said, ‘You are right.’ And they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it.”

Claudia feels anger towards the image of Shirley Temple, the quintessential pretty American child, staring at her from a blue and white cup and in a fit of rage, she dismembers her white doll. To be white is to be beautiful is the message screaming at her from billboards and magazines. There are very few white characters in this novel and they only appear in the periphery. The racism Morrison describes is internalized racism emanating from self-loathing. The book was inspired by a conversation she had with an African-American girl at elementary school who wished for blue eyes.

What prompts an Indian girl to stay out of the sun, a Nigerian girl to use skin whitening creams, a Chinese girl to consider eyelid surgery or an African-American girl to hide her naturally textured hair and go for hair straightening treatments? They have internalized all the messages of hatred they have heard throughout their lives. Even actress Lupita Nyong’o confessed that as a child she wished that she were not so ‘unbeautiful’!  It was not uncommon for me to see a dark-skinned girl in India treat someone who was darker with the same disdain she faced from someone who was lighter skinned. It is a vicious circle and this issue of ‘colorism’, ‘shadeism’ or ‘whitewashing’ or whatever else we may call it is far from black and white and is prevalent world wide across all races and cultures.

There is a character named Geraldine who calls herself colored as opposed to black as if color were on a spectrum. She thinks she is more cultured than other people of her race. Her son is not allowed to play with other black children. She unjustly accuses Pecola of killing a cat and calls her by a nasty racist epithet. A picture of Jesus on the wall looks down on this scene with sad and unsurprised eyes. Even God is helpless and unable to intervene. You would expect her to commiserate with people of her own race but her inferiority complex makes her treat with condescension people who are less powerful than she is.

One unforgettable scene that will stay with me forever is Pecola’s mother consoling and comforting the white child of her employer with affectionate words while she beats her own daughter for a minor accident. She is projecting everything she hates about herself on the little girl. In fact, just about everyone in town is guilty of doing it:

All of our waste which we dumped on her and which she absorbed. And all of our beauty, which was hers first and which she gave to us. All of us–all who knew her–felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her. We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness. her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we had a sense of humor. Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent. Her poverty kept us generous. Even her waking dreams we used–to silence our own nightmares. And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt. We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength.” 

The inexorable passing of the seasons marks the progression of the plot but the narrative structure is disjointed as the point of view shifts continuously from character to character. There are different third person narrators and narrative insets by other characters in the first person. For me the most compelling part of the narration was observing the story through the eyes of another innocent child, Claudia. I wish Morrison had retained this structure for the entire story but the shifts in perspective may be to make us comprehend the behavior and motivations of the characters. She is not condoning their actions but wants us to understand what makes people who they are. In the afterword to the novel, she remarks in hindsight:

“My solution–break the narrative into parts that had to be reassembled by the reader–seemed to me a good idea, the execution of which does not satisfy me now. Besides, it didn’t work: many readers remained touched but not moved.”

Pecola’s parents led terrible lives too. Her mother escapes from her loneliness and her poverty by cleaning a white woman’s house. Vendors respect her when she shops for her white employers but she is invisible as a black woman. Pecola’s father was abandoned as a child and experienced sexual humiliation at the hands of white thugs. There is no excuse whatsoever for sexual assault and violence but could society have prevented this rape? If only the world had been kinder to these people dehumanized by society, maybe..just maybe Pecola wouldn’t have ended up being raped.

The Dick and Jane reading primer used in the forties and fifties in classrooms to teach students to read serves as a framing device to show the difference between what is considered the ideal family in America and the chaotic and uncertain world the girls live in. The Dick and Jane booklet of a happy and financially stable white family contrasts with Pecola’s dysfunctional family. Morrison uses the simple words of the text to show how a family disintegrates. As she shares passages from the texts through the course of the novel, the words are strung together in a smaller font, without punctuation and then without spaces between words. Eventually the grammar and sentence structure fall apart.

This is an excellent and hard-hitting first novel but it is definitely not for the faint of heart. I can see why it was banned in schools but I think it would fit well in the curriculum with To Kill A Mocking Bird and Why the Caged Bird Sings and can engender powerful conversations on race with older and more mature students. Through the intersectional prism of class, race and gender, we understand the complexities of power imbalances. Frieda is a black girl too and has an experience with someone touching her inappropriately but her parents who belong to a higher economic class protect her and throw the lecherous man out of the house.

I was curious about what happened to Pecola after the disaster. The girl who so yearned to be noticed is noticed alright but not in the way she wants and with devastating consequences. In her desperate longing for blue eyes, she seeks the assistance of the creepy Soaphead Church, a con artist and pedophile masking as a man of God, and eventually retreats into her own private world.

Children are the most powerless members of society. Pecola’s parents had failed her, her friends had failed her and the entire town had failed her. The novel ends on a note of despair. The soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers which will never bloom. But despite the despondent tone, one hopes that some progress has been made over the decades and that we can confidently state that maybe some marigolds will bloom after all in spite of the unyielding earth.