Caste in America

Growing up in India, I sensed, long before I had words to express it, that caste and its realities were at glaring odds with the secular, liberal democratic society the country seemed on the way to forging. I used to think that if I ignored caste, it would somehow go away. As a society, in my lifetime, we would surely come to see what a terrible thing it was, how unjust, how divisive. We would, I imagined, outgrow it.

How wrong I was.

Now Isabel Wilkerson, author of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is nudging me to think of caste, the concept, to use it as a lens for looking at power and privilege, oppression and history, in the country to which I immigrated back on 1979.

In a Throughline podcast interview, Wilkerson says:

“So much of the history that we have received, as Americans, has been from a singular perspective, and we are only now beginning to hear the voices of people who have been in the shadows–not seen, not heard. And that means we have not had the full history. We have not had the full experience of knowing what the complete picture is of our country…”

She looked at India, and at Nazi Germany, trying to understand how institutionalized hierarchy uses the language of oppression. No coincidence that the Nazis studied Jim Crow laws, or that Martin Luther King, Jr., on his famous visit to India in 1959, suddenly found himself thinking that he himself was a kind of untouchable in his own country.

In India, I see that Wilkerson’s book is subtitled The Lies That Divide Us.

Wilkerson says, “This is the house that we have inherited.” I am presuming, then, as a woman who left India for America, to lay claim to more than one house. They are both crumbling structures, and Wilkerson has convinced me that caste has been foundational to them both. She, however, sees “caste” as a more useful term than race, because to her, it’s simply descriptive. It doesn’t come loaded with emotional baggage. Me? I think that long-lasting damage wreaked in the name of caste and caste divisions, the crimes committed–all of it still exists. At this moment, one of my countries is waking up to the existence of this wound upon its being–the other, alas, is leaning into the structure of caste. That structure may, in fact, be more adaptable, and therefore more malleable and capable of manipulation, than Dr. King could have foreseen in 1959.

What’s Correct? Who’s Correct? Who Decides?

I’m just back from a trip to India, which is always a soul-stirring, mind boggling kind of experience. I always return filled with questions, and certain of only one thing–how very little I know about anything that really matters.

In the realm of raising questions that matter, consider this film by student filmmakers Ankita Bhatkhande, Dinesh Kumar Mahapatra, Eleanor Almeida, Jamminlian Vualnam, and Shuaib Shafi. Students, I’m proud to say, of my school friend from the last century, Anjali Monteiro and her partner K.P. Jayasankar. Antar Bhaasha means “inner language.”

The language in question is Marathi but the class and caste divides brought to light in this film exist in many Indian languages. Class and regional differences exist, as we all know, in North America as well. Ask any indigenous person whose parents or grandparents endured a boarding school education. Ask someone from Appalachia about the assumptions commonly made regarding that region’s version of standard American English.

The movie raises all kinds of questions about correctness and privilege. In the end, the children’s voices mash together in a poignant call. What do we do to young minds when we tell them that the language they use is not worth speaking?