America’s Enduring Caste System
July 2, 2020 3:23 PM   Subscribe

Long-form article by Pulitzer winner Isabel Wilkerson. Reading it, I got the feeling that caste has been a missing link in my vocabulary.
posted by kconner (29 comments total) 62 users marked this as a favorite
That old-house metaphor is so deep and so good. I've had a lot of conversations in the past few weeks that this article brought to mind and helped to illuminate. Thanks.
posted by potrzebie at 5:38 PM on July 2 [2 favorites]

Huh I literally was just about to point to the old house metaphor too. Super-useful in my, very different country, which nonetheless shares all the issues of a settler society.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:43 PM on July 2

Am I the only one weirded out by the use of "caste" here? Particularly the casual use of a word that is, at least among the Indian diaspora, the equivalent of the N-word?
posted by basalganglia at 5:55 PM on July 2 [5 favorites]

I had no idea the word had such negative meaning in that community...
posted by PhineasGage at 6:25 PM on July 2 [6 favorites]

"...a word that is, at least among the Indian diaspora, the equivalent of the N-word?"

is the word avoided entirely?
posted by Time To Sharpen Our Knives at 6:37 PM on July 2 [1 favorite]

It's the central argument of the article, why do you think it's used casually?
“Young people,” he said, “I would like to present to you a fellow untouchable from the United States of America.”

[Dr. M. L.] King was floored. He had not expected that word to be applied to him. He was, in fact, put off by it at first. He had flown in from another continent, had dined with the prime minister. He did not see the connection, did not see what the Indian caste system had to do directly with him, did not immediately see why the lowest-caste people in India would view him, an American Negro and a distinguished visitor, as low-caste like themselves, see him as one of them.
posted by clew at 6:51 PM on July 2 [13 favorites]

[A few comments deleted. If the best engagement you can muster with this lengthy essay is to identify the one sentence you think is lackluster, please skip the thread.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 7:52 PM on July 2 [4 favorites]

This twitter thread by Nikitha Rai, a commentator on South Asian issues and author of the "Chai Talks" newsletter, is a short response to Wilkerson's analogy with "caste" that is worth reading.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 8:36 PM on July 2 [25 favorites]

Threadreader version of demonic winged headgear’s link.
posted by nat at 10:27 PM on July 2 [8 favorites]

Wow. This was a powerful read. Lots to think about. There are lots of great bits, the house metaphor, caste as a silent usher, but this quote hit home quite hard, about the man who didn't believe the author was who she said she was: a journalist from the Times there to interview him.
I will not mention the name, not because of censorship or a desire to protect any company’s reputation but because of our cultural tendency to believe that if we just identify the presumed-to-be-rare offending outlier, we will have rooted out the problem. The problem could have happened anyplace, because the problem is, in fact, at the root.
I was struck by the fact that as someone who wants to be "white and woke" I want to identify and remove the "outlier". It's much more uncomfortable to examine my own unspoken and unexamined thought patterns. It's much more challenging to change a system, both official and unofficial, rather than choosing a scapegoat.

I also thought the section titled "the R word" was very interesting also:
What does racism mean in an era when even extremists won’t admit to it? What is the litmus test for racism? Who is racist in a society where someone can refuse to rent to people of color, arrest brown immigrants en masse or display a Confederate flag but not be “certified” as a racist unless he or she confesses to it or is caught using derogatory signage or slurs?
I also thank the commenters above for educating me about the slur equivalent for the Indian diaspora, I wasn't aware and I will take care not to use it going forward.
posted by freethefeet at 3:33 AM on July 3 [10 favorites]

Oh, and thank you for the thread reader link, I should have read that before commenting.

However, the unspoken system is something that is highlighted for me in Wilkerson's article, even if it's not directly comparable to India's caste system.
posted by freethefeet at 3:38 AM on July 3

Time to Sharpen Our Knives: I don't know if the word is avoided entirely by all Indians and Indian-Americans. It carries a similar emotional valence to me as the N-word, and I don't use it. Even my conservative, anti-affirmative action family members won't use it.

demonic winged headgear and nat: Thanks for posting that Twitter/Threadreader link! It makes the case for why you can't just slap one hierarchy system on another, much better than I could. I'd encourage everyone commenting on this thread to read it.

clew: I'm not saying the caste analogy is casual; as you say, it's the central argument of the piece (one I happen to disagree with, but still a valid argument). I'm talking specifically about the "oh, it's totally ok to call a human being [this word] because Historical" attitude. To be fair, she does use "Dalit" later in the text.

It's also a bit ... myopic? ... to talk about similarities between African Americans and Dalits without describing the civil rights activism of Dr. Ambedkar beyond a throwaway reference. (Also, calling B.R. Ambedkar "Bhimrao Ambedkar" is a little like calling Martin Luther King "Martin King" -- I'm nitpicking, but it belies a total lack of familiarity with the whole subject). Dr. Ambedkar died a few years before Dr. King's visit, but I wish I knew if they had corresponded!

Honestly, there's a lot going on in that visit of Dr. King's -- and his shock at being compared to Dalits -- that goes unexplored here. I get that's not really the story that Wilkerson wants to tell. But there's just ... a lot there about how Dr. King mentally placed himself near the top of the social hierarchy when in India; like of course an American is going to be superior to an Indian. It reminds me of the way a lot of Western media (including this article) writes about India with an Orientalist gaze of "here is this ancient and mystical system which will explain what is wrong with our society." Sometimes it's longform thinkpieces in the New York Times. Sometimes it's goat yoga.

I think Wilkerson does do a good job of outlining the hierarchies and systems of oppression that function to keep Black Americans subordinate in the United States. I just wish she hadn't felt the need to do it by referencing a totally separate hierarchy that most Americans -- including her! -- know little about.
posted by basalganglia at 4:18 AM on July 3 [42 favorites]

P.S. I am not Dalit myself; I'm using terminology that I learned from my parents who were born in the 1950s. If there are any Mefites who identify with that community, asking them about their preferred term would be best!
posted by basalganglia at 4:27 AM on July 3 [6 favorites]

MetaFilter: Sometimes it's goat yoga.

Seriously though, thank you for the insights, basalganglia. They certainly help me put the original article in better context.
posted by bcd at 5:21 AM on July 3 [9 favorites]

I'm grateful for all the commentary.

If I understand, you're saying that "caste" is itself a slur? Is there a more appropriate word to discuss the concept? Is bringing up the concept inflammatory regardless of the word? (I don't mean to delegate the research, but my googling isn't getting far, and I imagine others here also want to engage and learn.)
posted by kconner at 7:16 AM on July 3 [1 favorite]

I believe the slur is the other term used to refer to Dalits in the original article, beginning with Un--
posted by suelac at 7:46 AM on July 3 [2 favorites]

As an Indian from a higher caste, here is my scant understanding of the usage of Dalit from memoirs. Insofar as a label is preferred, "Dalit" is preferred to the official "Scheduled Caste and Scheduled tribe" or "harijan" . Recent work from Anand Teltumbde suggests that this is not always the case. (goes without saying : somebody who identifies as one or is working in these areas will know better about this).

Regarding the use of caste, I have only seen explicit accusations of "reverse-casteism" or diversity hiring, as in people from upper castes invoke that to pull down recipients of caste-based reservation (I guess similar to affirmative action) in college admissions, jobs. On the other hand, the unspoken use of it as a slur is "he/she is from a different caste " (roughly translated from Tamil, அவா வேற ஜாதிக்காறாள் , highlighting my own caste in that vernacular usage). It pervades almost all interactions to even be considered special.
posted by ssri at 7:46 AM on July 3 [8 favorites]

suelac has it. It's not the concept of caste or the word "caste" that is a slur; it's the term implying that some people are inherently filthy, evil, and sub-human.

I can see that my original hot-take comment was kind of unclear; sorry for the confusion, but I'm glad to have sparked some thoughtful conversation here, and maybe pushed a few folks away from a reductionist X = Y analogy.
posted by basalganglia at 8:18 AM on July 3 [3 favorites]

[Couple comments and reply deleted. otherchaz, leaving weird hypotheticals are absolutely inappropriate here and super distracting from the conversation at hand. Please don't do that again. Please see guidelines.
posted by travelingthyme (staff) at 9:01 AM on July 3 [8 favorites]

You apply a general class term to an individual and thus you apply a whole body of characteristics to that individual whether or not that individual has any of those characteristics. Your terminology has consequences. Simple words, with the semantic baggage they carry, can both psychologically and physically oppress other people.
posted by njohnson23 at 9:02 AM on July 3

[A comment and reply deleted. Mrs Potato, referring to "holders of third world passports" as coming from "backward countries" is super not ok. I've addressed the impact of your choice of language before, this needs to not happen again.]
posted by travelingthyme (staff) at 10:52 AM on July 3 [12 favorites]

Fromm identified this kind of group narcissism in two nations in particular: “the racial narcissism which existed in Hitler’s Germany, and which is found in the American South,” he wrote in 1964, at the height of the civil rights era. In both instances, Fromm found the working class to be among the most susceptible, harboring an “inflated image of itself as the most admirable group in the world, and of being superior to another racial group that is singled out as inferior,” he wrote. A person in this group “feels: ‘Even though I am poor and uncultured, I am somebody important because I belong to the most admirable group in the world — I am white’; or ‘I am an Aryan.’”
I've wondered what part the American private school system has played in this. The top of the American class ladder is the private prep school and the Ivy League university. It is much, much easier to rise to the top of American business or politics if you've been put through both of those. This is not a completely closed system like the religious line between Brahmins and others in India - enough money can get you in, especially if the money has had a couple of generations to have its rough edges worn off - but entering it is not a realistic prospect for 99% of working-class whites. It was still the case in 2016 in the U.S. that y'all talked about who somebody's roommates were in Harvard or Yale when considering a presidential candidate, which sounded weird to these Canadian ears.

I don't know the detailed history of these institutions, but it seems like they were purposely set up to train the upper decision-making stratum of America, with the assumption that they'd be something of a class set apart, what with "legacy admissions" and all that. Is it possible that the maintenance of this upper class has helped to maintain the angry racial self-importance of the foot soldiers who maintain America's racial system, in the way that Fromm describes?

The Ivy League universities are changing, of course, admitting a much more diverse student body than they have in the past, but the prep school pipeline still seems to be maintaining its exclusivity. I wonder how both those facts will change America in the future.
posted by clawsoon at 11:50 AM on July 3

Some synchronicity with current events this week:

California regulators have sued Cisco Systems for discriminating against an engineer at the company's headquarters because he is a Dalit Indian

The D-word is used in almost all of the stories, US papers, Times of India, Al Jazeera, wire services, foreign language pubs...either the style guides haven't caught up (possible!) or the issue isn't so intense as to second guess the word choice.
posted by rhizome at 1:56 PM on July 3 [1 favorite]

I've had an Indian CTO say to me that lower-caste Indians are genetically inferior when it comes to intellectual occupations due to evolutionary selection for intelligence among Brahmins, so at least some have transferred the prejudice from a religious basis to a "scientific" one. Not unlike the grumpy white male engineers on Slashdot or Slate Star Codex who'll let you know that they're just being "realistic" and "scientific" when they happen to come to the same conclusions as "biblical" racists.
posted by clawsoon at 2:22 PM on July 3 [8 favorites]

To be clear: I am not aware of Dalit being used as a slur (though again, my family is a different caste and I probably have some caste privilege in this setting). It was the preferred term of BR Ambedkar and at least one Dalit family I know.

Un*, on the other hand, is a very dated and frankly offensive term, although it tends to be the only term known to Western audiences, which can make writing articles intended for a non-Indian audience challenging. That ABC article uses it just once, in a syntax that makes it clear that it's not a socially acceptable term anymore.

The concept of caste, and specifically the concept that there are some people who are deemed to be unworthy of participating in civilized society (because traditionally, Dalits were not merely at the bottom of the caste hierarchy; they were literally shunned) throws a long shadow over Indian "race" relations (caste relations?) in a way that is very difficult to convey unless you've grown up in it. Like, the biggest Indian dating site in the diaspora openly discriminates along caste, which they say is ok because "community" and "lifestyle." If you think this is bullshit, you are right.

Because of all this, as the Twitter/Threadreader link above points out, caste is really not a good analogy for the Black American experience. There are some similarities, sure, as in any hierarchy where you have an oppressor and an oppressed class. But it's fundamentally on a different axis.

Proactive apologies if my comments come across as harsh to anyone. Between Wilkerson's article, the Cisco lawsuit above (which I heard about on the radio yesterday), the umpteenth yoga AskMe, and NPR's "sacred cows" headline this morning, I'm just ... done.
posted by basalganglia at 2:43 PM on July 3 [16 favorites]

Fwiw, I didn’t think the article made the offensiveness of the word(s) even remotely clear enough.

I completely agree that caste isn’t a great analogy here. I’m not sure why though, other than what you already said. I also noticed that the article doesn’t discuss racism very much and how it relates or intersects with this concept and I don’t understand why this is either.

I also found the house metaphor to be problematic and ill fitting, but I can’t articulate why quite yet too. Maybe it’s to do with America being relatively young and naive rather than old and wise like a sturdy house, maybe it’s to do with the way the ground was described (which would be referring to the preexisting people and culture upon which this foundation was settled, no?), maybe it’s my own resistance to this idea for which I need to question and explore further (is this my bias, privilege or ignorance showing?).

I’m really interested in other’s thoughts on this and I’ll keep thinking, reading, listening too.
posted by iamkimiam at 5:41 PM on July 3

Then [Dr King] began to think about the reality of the lives of the people he was fighting for — 20 million people, consigned to the lowest rank in America for centuries, “still smothering in an airtight cage of poverty,” quarantined in isolated ghettos, exiled in their own country.

Like the term "caste", the author's use of the word "ghetto" is itself a metaphor; one that was adopted relatively recently. These metaphors never capture the whole meaning of a term's original use, but I think that failure may actually provide a benefit: while seeking to distinguish the borrowed from the original use we come to see each of them more clearly. And I feel the word caste is not always an inappropriate way to describe the Black experience. In New Orleans, for instance, the hierarchies of race and colour were complex and non-binary; "caste" has at least some explanatory power.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:38 AM on July 4 [1 favorite]

Michelle Alexander talks about caste in The New Jim Crow.

"History seemed to repeat itself. Just as the white elite had successfully driven a wedge between poor whites and blacks following Bacon’s Rebellion by creating the institution of black slavery, another racial caste system was emerging nearly two centuries later, in part due to efforts by white elites to decimate a multiracial alliance of poor people. By the turn of the twentieth century, every state in the South had laws on the books that disenfranchised blacks and discriminated against them in virtually every sphere of life."
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 6:34 AM on July 4

I also found the house metaphor to be problematic and ill fitting, but I can’t articulate why quite yet too.

Because the people who own the house are still the same ones as who built it! Except they are no longer interested in keeping it up but rather holding on as it crumbles around them because the taxes are low. Maybe some grown children live there too, but they have the same beliefs as their parents. It's not gone to a 2nd owner yet, who has yet to discover its secrets.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:26 AM on July 6

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