Editorial Note: The obsession with Indians and the things Indian, lies deep in the American psyche. Indians are forever a deep threat (living “pagans”) to this new “Christian Nation”. The threat from the other group of Indians (100+ Million of them) was successfully seen off, thanks to the collective creative genocidal efforts of the Christian settlers. Fast Forward to the 21st Century: A new group of “pagan” Indians ( from the “pagan” nation of (dharmic) India) pose a looming threat to the fabric of the (christian) Nation of the USA. Similar to the volumes of Atrocity Literature created to justify the elimination of the earlier Indians , new narratives are being created to set the stage for the elimination of the new perceived threat. From Isabella to Isabel the obsession with India and Indians continues. India and Indians continue to be used in mind-bending new ways to justify the rabid excesses of the collective: White Western Christian Sin (genocide, slavery, racism, nazism, Black injustice …).
Prologue: The Original Sin of Caste
A long time ago, groups of men speaking an Indo-European language began migrating into fertile land whose native inhabitants had built elaborate cities with an astonishing degree of mathematical precision. Yet these darker-skinned people quickly succumbed to these Indo-European warriors on horseback. Despite being forced to obey the dictates of the priestly class, many traditions, such as worshipping a female divinity, persisted.
Eventually, many of these new Indo-European warriors, priests, merchants, and later peasant settlers began mixing with the original native inhabitants, other colonists, and even imported slaves. These admixed peoples gradually coalesced into social units they referred to as castes – often distinguishable from their skin tones and genetic proximity to Europeans.
This may seem like another example of a type of problematic western Indology narrative, but it isn’t.
The paragraphs above are an account of the Iberian colonization of the Americas. The ‘Indo-European’ languages are Spanish or Portuguese, the priests are Catholic padres, not Hindu Brahmins, and the dark-skinned Indios are various Native American communities.
While that narrative might be technically correct to some degree, it is unorthodox, intended not to recount history, but instead serve as a rhetorical device that resonates with a specific audience (as in Indian Indians).
And as such, devoting serious attention to context, accuracy, or methodological rigor to explaining the Iberian sistema de castas colonial is of little priority.
Why go through this rhetorical exercise? To sell books of course!
It is precisely such a distorted narrative, applied to the Indian caste system, that permeates Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson’s new best-selling book Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents.
Worse is in the pursuit of documenting African Americans’ struggles. Wilkerson throws Hindus (even those who could be perceived as Hindu) under the bus, but nobody in America; not publishers, Indian Americans, not even Oprah Winfrey herself seem to care.
India : Eye of the Beholder
Released in the wake of widespread protests over the death of George Floyd, this Oprah Book Club pick is a retelling of African history through the lens of “caste” which Wilkerson defines as:
an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups based on ancestry and often immutable traits…A caste system uses rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep the ranked groupings apart, distinct from one another and in their assigned places. (16-17)
Although Wilkerson acknowledges the Portuguese origins of the term caste, she curiously chose not to devote any space to seriously exploring the Iberian caste system – particularly odd, given the shared history of enslaving black Africans. To her, the Jim Crow South, India, and Nazi Germany are the three ‘best-known’ caste systems in human history – or at least best for the purposes of writing (selling) a book.
Connections between African American and Indian intellectuals and political movements are, of course, nothing new. So too are exchanges between African American intellectuals, their counterparts in India, and various Dalit organizations. More than ten years ago in Breaking India, Sri Rajiv Malhotra noted:
In the 1990s, an African-American scholar at Princeton University casually told me that he had returned from a trip to India, where he was working with the ‘Afro-Dalit Project.’ Upon inquiry, I found that this US-operated and -financed project frames inter-jati/varna interactions and the Dalit movement using American cultural and historical lenses. The Afro-Dalit project purports to paint Dalits as the ‘Blacks’ of India and non-Dalits as India’s ‘whites’. (8)
Wilkerson continues this tradition, albeit with marginally less fantasy and superior prose. When striking up a conversation with a Kshatriya geologist in London at a conference on Dalit issues, she first describes his rather frail, un-warrior like physique. She also tells him,
I am assigned to the lowest caste, the American Untouchables. I am an American Dalit. And I am living proof that caste is artificial.
For a book on caste, there is surprisingly scant background information on India, Hinduism, or even the historical origins of the caste system. Given the presumably American target audience, such omission is at best extremely problematic. While she does provide some essential explanations on terms such as jati or varna (unlike the state of California), there’s little evidence that she seriously examined India’s millennia-long history beyond materials whatever Dalit activist groups shared with her.
Instead, she shares primarily personal anecdotes from trips to India or interactions with Indian people in a manner engineered to resonate with American audiences. According to her, just like Indian Dalits were forbidden to draw water from the Brahmin’s well, so were African Americans barred from sharing the White man’s water fountain. And just as Brahmins complain about caste reservations, the whites complain about affirmative action.
She even discusses how men’ mansplain,’ whites’ whitesplain,’ and Brahmins’ Brahminsplain.’
For example, Wilkerson narrates an encounter with an Indian upper-caste ‘Karen’ in Delhi:
A Dalit scholar and I were communing about our kindred perspectives when an upper-caste woman walked up and broke into the conversation to tell the Dalit woman what she should have included in her presentation, a point that she missed and which she would do well to include the next time.
The upper-caste woman interrupted us with a sense of entitlement, without excusing herself for breaking in, disregarding the conversation in progress, disregarding me, the person with whom the Dalit woman was talking, as if whatever we were saying could wait. She chided the Dalit scholar with an air of condescension and superiority and proceeded to instruct the Dalit scholar on the Dalit behavior that the Dalit scholar had researched and written about.
Instead of a data and fact-based account of Indian caste, casteism, and power dynamics between upper and lower castes, we instead get passages like this:
And so, at gatherings of Indians of different castes, I could see that the upper-caste people took positions of authority, were forthright, at ease with being in charge, correcting and talking over the lower-caste people. It echoed a similar dynamic in the United States, an expectation that an upper-caste person must assert superiority of knowledge and intellect in all things, having been socialized to be first and to be central, a pressure to be right and the need to remind the lower-caste person, subtly or not, of their historic, cultural, spatial, and familial inferiority. (273)
Wilkerson grants little to no weight to the possibility of culture clashes (as in American verses Indian) or that the Indian Karen was a rude and arrogant woman. Caste in India and the Indian people are only literary devices – their centuries of existence, the complexity of motives, social fault lines other than caste, or aspirations do not matter. The impact of a one-dimensional caricature of Indians who follow a Hindu caste system analogous to Jim Crow apartheid or Nazi Germany also does not matter.
Listening and Learning
The death of George Floyd and subsequent nationwide protests reminded Americans they are far from healing the wounds of the past, something meticulously documented in Wilkerson’s book. One can critique all its distortions and inaccuracies regarding India and caste, but perhaps the most critical questions are:
- Does ‘caste’ provide a useful framework for understanding the African American struggle?
- Why are one-dimensional, politically partisan narratives of India considered acceptable when India is a country of over 1.2 billion people (there are over four million Indian Americans), and involves thousands of years of complicated history?
Thinking back to the ‘Indo-Aryanized’ version of the history of New Spain and Portugal, perhaps not. It indeed runs counter to what many in the Black Lives Matter movement expect of non-blacks. One key message is that the economic marginalization, systemic racism, and literal murder by police that African Americans continue to face, arise from a particularly unique set of circumstances.
Common sayings such as ‘I don’t see color’ or ‘all lives matter,’ mute the ‘Black community’s particular and acute sense of suffering, which can be viewed as insensitive and inappropriate.’ Therefore, an Indian American cannot assume they understand the African American struggle simply because they also happen to be a dark-skinned ethnic minority. Furthermore, implying their paths to success are available and applicable to African Americans is tantamount to an outright denial and trivialization of the African American experience.
Yet is this not precisely what Wilkerson is doing?
In the pursuit of selling a book about a few hundred years of American history, is she not erasing thousands of years of complex interactions, nuance, and fluidity among the thousands of jati-varna communities throughout the Indian subcontinent?
Even if Wilkerson can indeed be described as an ‘American untouchable,’ she is also a respected author with a large platform and institutional legitimacy discussing civilization and religion most Americans know nothing about. As a result, her depictions of India, Hinduism, caste, and Dalits, if unchallenged, can and will become the de facto understanding of the Indian people and civilization in the United States. And given there are four million Indian Americans, this is not without consequences.
Perhaps from an American perspective, Wilkerson is an African American voice worth hearing. Her gross negligence on portraying Indian caste does not mean the accounts of the brutal, heartbreaking struggles of African Americans are untrue. Those portions alone are things all Americans, especially white Americans should understand – it’s likely the main reason the book earned the coveted Oprah blessing.
Whatever inaccuracies also don’t absolve Indian Americans from honestly reflecting on their prejudices and interactions with the African American community, or Indians in India facing the legacy of caste. For those in America that remain myopically focused on caste, whether as an Equality Labs affiliated activist or someone who supports casteism – both should question whether they and their ideas have any place in the United States of America. Indian Americans in America are free to be free of caste.
Regardless of success in America or connection to India, not having an Indian Grand Narrative, maintaining a ‘chalta hai’ approach to fact-based historical analysis, or lack of ability and interest in explaining India to non-Indians have real consequences. Many offended Hindus will undoubtedly take to Twitter to attack Wilkerson for her injustices.
But how many of them will take this as a call to show the world that a truly Dharmic society is not the Jim Crow South or Nazi Germany?
How many will make the effort to effectively convey that it is only Dharmic traditions that can build the world Wilkerson says she wants:
“In a world without caste, instead of a false swagger over our tribe or family or ascribed community, we would look upon all of humanity with wonderment: the lithe beauty of an Ethiopian runner, the bravery of a Swedish girl determined to save the planet, the physics-defying aerobatics of an African-American Olympian, the brilliance of a composer of Puerto Rican descent who can rap the history of the founding of America at 144 words a minute—all of these feats should fill us with astonishment at what the species is capable of and gratitude to be alive for this.” (387-388).