caste, racism, and hierarchy -- 4/7/21

Today's selection -- from Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. The origins of the word caste and the concept of racism:

"The word caste, which has become synonymous with India, did not, it turns out, originate in India. It comes from the Portuguese word casta, a Renaissance Era word for 'race' or 'breed.' The Portuguese, who were among the earliest European traders in South Asia, applied the term to the people of India upon observing Hindu divisions. Thus, a word we now ascribe to India actually arose from the Western culture that created America. 

"The Indian concept of rankings, however, goes back millennia and is thousands of years older than the European concept of race. The rankings were originally known as varnas, the ancient term for the major categories in what Indians have in recent centuries called the caste system. The human impulse to create hierarchies runs across societies and cultures, predates the idea of race, and thus is farther reaching, deeper, and older than raw racism and the comparatively new division of humans by skin color. 

"Before Europeans expanded to the New World and collided with people who looked different from themselves, the concept of racism as we know it did not exist in Western culture. 'Racism is a modern conception,' wrote the historian Dante Puzzo, 'for prior to the XVIth century there was virtually nothing in the life and thought of the West that can be described as racist.' ...

"In the half century since civil rights protests forced the United States into making state-sanctioned discrimination illegal, what Americans consider to be racism has shifted, and now the word is one of the most contentious and misunderstood in American culture. For the dominant caste, the word is radioactive -- resented, feared, denied, lobbed back toward anyone who dares suggest it. Resistance to the word often derails any discussion of the underlying behavior it is meant to describe, thus eroding it of meaning. 

"Social scientists often define racism as the combination of racial bias and systemic power, seeing racism, like sexism, as primarily the action of people or systems with personal or group power over another person or group with less power, as men have power over women, whites over people of color, and the dominant over the subordinate.

"But over time, racism has often been reduced to a feeling, a character flaw, conflated with prejudice, connected to whether one is a good person or not. It has come to mean overt and declared hatred of a person or group because of the race ascribed to them, a perspective few would ever own up to. While people will admit to or call out sexism or xenophobia and homophobia, people may immediately deflect accusations of racism, saying they don't have 'a racist bone in their body,' or are the 'least racist person you could ever meet,' that they 'don't see color,' that their 'best friend is black,' and they may have even convinced themselves on a conscious level of these things.

"What does racist 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? The fixation with smoking out individual racists or sexists can seem a losing battle in which we fool ourselves into thinking we are rooting out injustice by forcing an admission that (a) is not likely to come, (b) keeps the focus on a single individual rather than the system that created that individual, and (c) gives cover for those who, by aiming at others, can present themselves as noble and bias-free for having pointed the finger first, all of which keeps the hierarchy intact.  

"Oddly enough, the instinctive desire to reject the very idea of current discrimination on the basis of a chemical compound in the skin is an unconscious admission of the absurdity of race as a concept."



Isabel Wilkerson


Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents


Random House


Copyright 2020 by Isabel Wilkerson


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