Casteism Makes Racism Easy

In response to a comment on (Asian-American) “Arizona man arrested after being …” (racist) in The Root.

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Anti-Black racism of Asian-Americans is real, and has been real probably since the first indentured laborers were brought here from South and East Asia to work on the railroads. It is enough of a thing that for AAPI month in 2019 the progressive HR person at my Bay Area Tech company organized a workshop on AntiBlack racism in the AAPI community so we could counter it. It (anti-Black racism) exists not just amongst Asians in America, it expresses itself against African students in Indian colleges too.

I don’t know the underlying reason for racism in the East Asian community, other than they experience it internally as well: Han are superior to everybody else, Japanese are superior to Koreans and the list goes on.

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The racism in Indians and other South Asians is somewhat more obvious to explain. We have casteism deeply entrenched in our culture — it is the sea we swim in starting at birth, some might argue since before this particular incarnation ;-! ; and I think it hard wires our brains with its deformity.

How deeply entrenched is it? The take-away from the book about open defecation and its insalubrious effects in India Where India Goes by Coffey and Spears can be condensed to “Upper Caste Hindu Indians Would Literally Rather Eat Shit And Die Than Give Up Casteism”.

Casteism has a few characteristics germane to racism:

1. It is a system for classifying people (originally based on profession, sort of like guilds in Medieval Europe) in mutually exclusive categories.

2. There is a vertical hierarchy — it is not just “leatherworker ‘not equal to’ merchant”; rather, “leatherworker ‘is less than’ merchant”. At the caste level, the structure is linear and fully ordered: Brahmin (gatekeepers of religion and possibly rulers) > Kshatriya (warriors and rulers)> Vaishya (merchants and tradespeople) > Shudhra (menial laborers), though the order of the top two are sometimes under dispute regionally. However at the subcaste level it may be only partially ordered, e.g. spice shopkeeper and furniture shopkeeper may both be above some sub-castes and below other sub-castes but may not have a hierarchical relationship between them. 60% or so of India’s population is “out caste”. Gandhi coined the term Harijan or “God’s people”, but the political power term used for self-reference is Dalit, popularized by Dr. Ambedkar. (On a side note, if early MLK Jr is analogous to Gandhi, then Malcolm X and the later MLK Jr should be analogous to Dr. Ambedkar.) Officially, per the Constitution I think, we have Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes and another term which Indians should be ashamed of using.

3. This classification is immutable and inherited from your parents. You can never gain caste, but you can “lose caste” by way of various infractions, unless you are high caste to begin with and powerful enough to make it “not matter”. Rules are rules, except when they aren’t. (One way that you could lose caste was by “crossing the seas”, which became verboten more than a thousand years ago and is credited with Indian coastal kingdoms losing their seafaring prowess.) A big difference between caste and race is that you can’t be “mixed caste” — strictly speaking both progenitors and all offspring are outcaste; a more benign outcome is that the family acquires the lower of the two progenitors’ castes. Perhaps it is similar to the “one drop” rule for Whiteness?

4. Finally, but not least important, caste is strongly associated with skin color. Guess what that association is. The precursors of the Hindu religion and casteism came along with the Aryan settlers, who were fairer than the inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent. (Hey, Modi! “Invaders! Send them back!”)

The above 4 characteristics of casteism make it incredibly easy for us (South Asians) to adopt racism when we get to the US. Add to that our history of being colonized — we are happy to be accorded secondary status: as long as we are not at the bottom rung of the ladder and we can pretend to ourselves to be “aspiring White” and we will do what we can to preserve the ladder. Even Gandhi -that paragon of Civil Rights- got his start in South Africa fighting for the rights of those of Indian descent to board First Class on the trains. Tolstoy Farm didn’t include any Africans.

Casteism is not just a “Hindu” thing, though that is where it originated — it is extant in Sikhs, Jains, Muslims and Christians in India. In the 1990s the Supreme Court of India recognized the existence of caste in Indian Christians and Indian Muslims and accorded them protections -such as there are- as SC/ST. Ambedkar Buddhists, Jews and Zarathustrians seem to be immune to this brain deficiency.

I’ve ordered Caste: … by Isabel Wilkerson at a local bookshop and am eager to read it.

I stop to miau to cats.

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