While studying development sociology at Cornell in my early twenties, I took a trip to see my Marathi family in India. I was pleasantly sipping tea with older relatives whom my father was making conversation with.
“One of Amod’s colleagues in his graduate program is Marathi,” he said. The family members nodded appreciatively and expressed their approval.
“And her name is Rukmini,” he added. The family nodded appreciatively again. “Ah! Rukmini! Very nice.”
Wanting to add to the conversation, I chimed in: “Yes, Rukmini Potdar.”
Suddenly the tone in the room took a dramatic shift. “Oh, Potdar,” one of them spat as they all rolled their eyes and shook their heads. I looked around in bewilderment – what was so wrong with being called Potdar? – but no further explanation came up. The conversation just moved on to different topics.
After we left, I turned to my father. “What happened there?” I asked him. Rukmini was a perfectly nice person and Potdar seemed to me a perfectly nice name. What did they have to object to?
“Well,” he said, “Rukmini is a nice old-fashioned Marathi name, so they appreciated that. But Potdar is a Bania name.”
I had stumbled into the world of modern Indian caste prejudice.
My family on his side are the extremely highly placed Chitpavan brahmins. Banias are traditionally merchants – roughly what in Sanskrit would have been called vaiṣyas. Rukmini was a fine name that other brahmins might have given their children. But my older family members wanted nothing to do with a mere Bania.
I come back to this conversation when friends back home talk about their more “rednecked” American family members. In the educated urban world I inhabit, overt racism is prohibited. I sometimes encounter overt racism from strangers; among people I know, many of us might do badly on implicit bias tests, and some comments unintentionally feel insulting – so-called microaggressions. But in no conversation here would anyone I know unapologetically admit to thinking less of someone because of their race. Such comments are something my friends encounter from rednecked relatives back in the countryside or the South, and it can strain those family relationships. I’ve never encountered anything like that in my family with respect to race. But I have encountered it with respect to caste. My father tells me that when they encounter someone behaving incompetently at work, some family members will shrug it off with “what do you expect? He’s an SC” – scheduled caste, the official government term for the groups once called untouchable.
Caste functions in India very much like race does in the US – enough so that one can plausibly map the groups in one hierarchy onto the group in the other. Brahmins, like white people, have traditionally been on the top of everything, and retain a lot of that position, though social mobility does exist and make it more complicated. SCs (most commonly known to academics as Dalits, “oppressed”), like black people, were traditionally despised openly and treated like dirt – and have long been the beneficiaries of affirmative-action programs that have not yet been sufficient to remedy this. The largest group in the Indian caste hierarchy is known as OBCs (“other backward castes”), who, like American Latinos, were traditionally low but not at the bottom, and now span a wide range of social and economic statuses. Banias, like Asians in the US, are generally well off but still face the kind of prejudice my family expressed. And this hierarchy was all imposed from outside on indigenous peoples – called Scheduled Tribes in India – who are typically poor and often ignored. I’m oversimplifying considerably with these parallels – zoom in a little bit and you’d find many details according to which the mapping works less well – but the fact that I can draw them at all, even in this oversimplified way, should indicate that Indian caste and American race have a lot in common.
Race – unlike sex and gender – is not a universal feature of human societies. The concept of race as we know it was invented by Europeans in the colonial era. What’s more common, if not universal, is humans making prejudiced distinctions between groups, saying people in this group are better than people in that group – and often reinforcing those distinctions in (or deriving them from) hierarchies of social, economic, and political power.
What the Indian experience reminds us is that that prejudice is not fundamentally about biology. (Varṇa, the older Sanskrit word for caste, can also literally mean “colour”, but as far as I know its usage for caste is never connected to colour of skin.) You can’t tell whether someone is a brahmin or an SC by looking at their facial features. You know because of social connections – locally, in a less-mobile society like India’s, everyone knows everyone. Or when it’s someone more distant, you go by last name, as in the case of poor Dr. Potdar. That’s more than enough for people to discriminate overtly in exactly the sorts of ways that, were the groups defined differently, we would describe as racism.
And, also like race in the US, caste in India is a complex phenomenon, where prejudices don’t run only one way. Once, during a long wait for a plane in Bombay airport, I started chatting with an Indian-American woman next to me, who had come to India for medical school because the tuition was cheaper. A group of her fellow students had told her, “You’re a brahmin, so we wouldn’t normally hang out with you – but you’re American, so it’s okay.”
I haven’t yet had a chance to read Isabel Wilkerson’s book that uses the concept of caste to theorize hierarchies including race, but I’m pretty sympathetic to the idea, for reasons I’ve just explained. In its own way the English word caste – from casta, the word for “lineage” that the Portuguese used to describe the hierarchy they saw in India – is already a theoretical generalization, because it lumps together two separate Sanskrit words whose relationship to each other is always muddy. The traditional classification of human beings into four neat categories, found prescriptively in the Vedas and dharmaśāstra and descriptively in the Pali canon, is referred to as varṇa; but the messier modern hierarchy I’ve talked about here is jāti. English-speakers refer to “the Indian caste system” in ways that don’t distinguish between varṇa and jāti; it’s not possible to do that using native Indian words. When you have a concept like “caste” that already implicitly generalizes theoretically between varṇa and jāti, why not have it generalize to race too?