Authors: Isabel Wilkerson
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. She castigated her in front of me, a complete stranger to both of them. I was there on a mission of my own, and an upper-caste woman was making herself the center of someone else’s conversation and was keeping me from my task.
It evoked a convention of the American caste system that often places the word of a dominant-caste person above the word of a subordinate-caste person even in matters that the subordinated person would be more likely to know about. For most of American history, African-Americans were not permitted to sit on juries, for example, or to testify against a white person. Even in more recent times, accusations of racial discrimination often carry more weight if a dominant-caste person vouches for it.
Now, on the other side of the world, a dominant-caste woman in India was presuming the same privilege in a parallel universe. In American social justice circles, her castigation of the Dalit woman would be seen as a kind of Brahmin-splaining, as with mansplaining and whitesplaining—a dominant-caste person lecturing a subordinate-caste person about something on which the subordinate-caste person may, in fact, be an authority.
When the upper-caste woman left after making her points, it was hard to get our footing again. She had jarred us from our parallel caste communing. I asked the Dalit woman if she knew the woman who had just interrupted us, because she had spoken with such familiarity and comfort. “No,” the Dalit scholar said. “You see, that is what happens. She just let me know that she was upper caste and above me.”
Though they may not recognize it on a conscious level, dominant-caste Americans often show nearly as much curiosity about the ethnic, and thus caste, origins of their fellow Americans as do people in India. When Americans seek to locate themselves in the hierarchy, the line of inquiry may be more subtle and may not have the same life-or-death consequences as in India. But it is there.
They will question a person whose race is ambiguous until they are satisfied of an origin. If descended from western Europe, they might query an Italian-American about their roots—what part of Italy, north or south, countryside or city—out of genuine interest or because they have visited or wish to, but also perhaps to locate them in the southern European hierarchy. If a person is part Irish and part Czech, they might emphasize, upon meeting someone, the Irish grandfather rather than the Czech grandmother. A white person might describe him- or herself as a mutt or as a “Heinz 57,” which handily obscures lineage outside of northwestern Europe.
The old eugenics hierarchy of presumed value still lurks beneath the surface. A woman whose grandparents immigrated from Poland might say to an Irish-American—whose status is perceived as higher than hers—that they came from Austria (justifying it to herself by recalling the shifting borders in the twentieth century). But the same woman might “admit” that they came from Poland to an African-American of presumed lower rank, whom she had no need to impress, her higher status secure and understood.
Not long ago, in Boston and Chicago and Cleveland, people spoke of “white ethnics” from southern and eastern Europe as political voting blocs. They distinguished the “
lace-curtain Irish” from the “shanty Irish.” Once, at the end of a meeting in the Northeast a few years ago, a young white assistant in a room with black professionals was asked the routine question of how her name was spelled, which could have been Kathryn, Catherine, Katherine, or maybe Katharine. She straightened her back and answered pertly, “The English spelling,” which seemed no answer at all and a curious bid to set herself apart from everyone else in the room, to pull rank with Anglo-Saxony, which no actual Anglo-Saxon would need to do. I thought to myself,
And exactly what spelling would that be?
Three white women were once catching up over dinner about people they had known for years, their conversation flowing along caste lines beyond conscious awareness. One woman, of Irish descent, brought up someone whose family, she pointed out, had arrived from Germany in the first half of the twentieth century. This prompted a second woman to chime in that her family had come from Germany earlier. They arrived in the 1860s. The third woman brought up someone who had an unusual last name. The other two immediately asked its origin. “Is it German?” “No, Danish,” came the answer. They moved on to another acquaintance. “Isn’t his wife Spanish?” one woman asked another. “Oh, she’s from a country in South America,” another said, “like Colombia or Venezuela.”
The conversation turned to the third woman and the strawberry-colored hair of some of her relatives. The German-American woman said they looked Irish.
“No,” the third woman said. “We’re Nordic.”
The other two, the Irish-American and the German-American, fell silent. The conversation paused. Somehow everyone in the room realized the power of the word
in all of its ambiguous specificity, ambiguous because it’s not a country, specific in that it is language inherited from early twentieth-century eugenics, passed down through culture and lore. No one asked which country her family had come from—Sweden? Norway? Finland? Iceland?—or when they had arrived. If one was Nordic, it did not matter.
was the kind of label that in earlier decades preceded the word
stock, on a now-debunked scale of European “races.” Nordics and Anglo-Saxons were the two groups that had always been welcome in America. Nordic was what the drafters of the 1924 immigration law coveted. Nordic had inspired an entire ideology,
which declared Nordics the most superior of all the Aryans.
Nordic was the region of Europe on which the forty-fifth president of the United States seemed fixated nearly a century after the eugenics movement and whose people he wished would immigrate to America instead of Mexicans, Muslims, or Haitians.
The word shut down conversation momentarily. Nordic has long been at the top of the hierarchy. And after all these decades, it still trumped everyone in the room.
There came a time during World War II that most every Jewish resident had vanished from German life. They were abducted or forced underground, and their absence left a vacuum and a paranoia among the Aryans who remained. Without a scapegoat to look down upon, the people had only themselves to regard and to distinguish, one from the other, and they scanned their countrymen for someone else to be better than.
The fixation on purity had put everyone on high alert, and, in the north of the country, in a village near Hanover, someone made a passing remark to a young German girl, raising suspicions about her appearance and, by extension, her lineage, and thus her worth.
The air was dense with nervous surveillance, a hunting hyperawareness of the least sign of difference. People had noticed that the girl’s hair was darker than most, closer to that of Iberians to the south of them than to many Germans. Of course, the
himself had pitch-dark hair, and, for this, dark-haired Germans could console themselves if they happened to have this trait in common with their leader. But his hair was bristle straight, and on this score, too, the German girl near Hanover strayed from Aryan convention.
People thought it curious that this girl from a solid German family looked, to them, as if she could be from the Middle East, that she looked, as best they could tell from their limited knowledge, Persian. It was not clear that villagers had actually known any Persians, but the idea somehow got embedded in their minds. Did the family have any Persian blood or the blood of people from that part of the world in their background? More ominously, and implied if not said outright, any Jewish blood?
People noticed, and took the time to comment, that her hair curved in waves, fell in dark ripples rather than the flaxen silk that flowed straight down the backs of many Aryan girls. Not only that, people noticed that her skin was perceptibly if ever so slightly darker than that of many Germans, leaning golden and olive, one might say, rather than ivory and alabaster like the people around her, even those in her own family, as if a buried trait had somehow surfaced in her.
These are the minute distinctions that can take on greater significance when there are fewer distinctions to make. Under the Nazis, these distinctions carried graver consequences than idle chatter. This was an explosive observation at a time when Reich citizens were under threat to live up to Aryan ideals in order to survive.
The comments, or rather, in that era, accusations, rattled the German teenager. And so she went to a mirror with a measuring tape and measured the width and length of her eyes, her forehead and nose to see if they were within some standard that people spoke of in the era of eugenics and Aryan conformity. She had pictures taken of herself gauging the features of her face to find some reassurance beyond her hair and skin.
The mere mention of perceived deviations from the Aryan standard brought unwanted, potentially dangerous scrutiny. As it was, Germans knew to have a “
racial passport” on hand in the event that their Aryan status came into question. Even priests and nuns were arrested after a Jewish ancestor was uncovered.
The family grew concerned enough to make a discreet search into their family tree. Genealogists did brisk business in the Third Reich. Germans combed family Bibles and church records and government offices in case they were called upon to defend their origins. So, before they could be further accused, the family went back three generations to see for themselves if something other than Aryan blood had somehow slipped into their veins, some unwelcome intruder that a forebear might have adored but whose presence was now cause for shame.
The family happened to have found themselves in the clear and maintained their status as good Germans. The girl with the dark, wavy hair survived the war. She married and had children and grandchildren but spoke little of the Reich or the war that had defined her adolescence.
Decades later, a granddaughter would find a photograph of her. It shows a teenage girl holding a measuring tape to her face, a relic of the paranoia of the dominant caste. Even the favored ones were diminished and driven to fear in the shadow of supposed perfection.
Over the centuries, people at the margins have had to study those at the center of power, learn their invisible codes and boundaries, commit to memory the protocols and idiosyncrasies, because their survival depends upon knowing them as well as if not better than their own dreams and wishes. From the sidelines, they learn to be watchful of the needs and tempers of the dominant caste. They decode how those in power are getting along with one another or not, who is gaining or losing favor, as women historically have watched their men, or as a child watches for signs of discord in their parents’ marriage, intertwined as they are with those who are in charge of the household.
They must develop powers of perception if they are to navigate from below.
Knowledge without wisdom is adequate for the powerful,” wrote the sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, “but wisdom is essential to the survival of the subordinate.”
To thrive, they must somehow adjust themselves to the expectations of the dominant caste, to play out their role upon the stage, and, while they may choose not to fully submit, they find that things go easier for them if they default to the script handed down through the ages, if they accept their assignment of serving and entertaining, comforting and consoling, forgiving any trespass without expectation of atonement from their trespassers.
The first moral duty is resignation and acceptance,” wrote the social anthropologist Edmund Leach of the expected behavior of the lowest caste in India. “The individual gains personal merit by fulfilling the tasks which are proper to the station into which he has been born….The rewards for virtue will come in the next life.”
The ancient code for the subordinate caste calls upon them to see the world not with their own eyes but as the dominant caste sees it, demands that they extend compassion even when none is forthcoming in exchange, a fusion of dominant and subordinate that brings to mind the Stockholm Syndrome.
Though the syndrome has no universally accepted definition or diagnosis, it is generally seen as a phenomenon of people bonding with those who abuse or hold them hostage. It takes its name from a 1973 bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden, where the hostages came to feel empathy for the men who held them captive during the six-day siege. It is regarded as a survival mechanism in which people must become attuned to the people with power over them and learn to adjust themselves to their expectations to please them.
In the fall of 2019, a Dallas courtroom became a set piece for the display of the interlocking roles and power imbalances of caste. In a rare case in American history, a white former police officer was convicted of killing a black man who had been having ice cream and watching television in his own apartment, an apartment the officer argued she had mistaken for her own. The conviction carried a sentence of up to ninety years. The prosecutor recommended twenty-eight years, the age the victim would have been at the time had the defendant not killed him. In the end, the former officer was sentenced to ten years, with eligibility for parole in five.
The brother of the slain man extended his forgiveness to the dominant-caste woman who had killed his brother, and he hugged her in a scene that went all over the world. As the dominant-caste woman was sobbing over her conviction, the bailiff, a black woman, went over to her and began stroking the blond hair of a woman who had killed an innocent man of the bailiff’s own caste. Had the inverse occurred and a black man taken the life of a white woman under similar circumstances, it is inconceivable that the murder sentence would have been ten years or the felon been hugged and his hair stroked, nor would it be remotely expected.
Many observers in the dominant caste were comforted by the bailiff’s gesture, which they saw as an act of loving, maternal compassion. Many in the subordinate caste saw it as a demeaning fetishization of a dominant-caste woman who was being extended comfort and leniency that are denied African-Americans, who are treated more harshly in an era of mass incarceration and in society over all. Was the bailiff showing empathy for a fellow officer? Was she patting her down, as some thought, and if so, why did she not wear gloves or have the convict stand, and why stroke only her hair? Was the bailiff channeling the convict’s pain, responding to ancient cues to protect the upper caste at all times, thus fulfilling the unspoken role assigned the subordinate caste for generations?
The judge was also a woman from the subordinate caste, and she stepped down from the bench to give the convicted killer a Bible. Then she held the dominant-caste woman close to her bosom and prayed on her and with her. No one could remember ever seeing such a thing, a judge or an officer of the court hugging and consoling a newly convicted felon. The judge’s embrace seemed not so far removed from the comfort black maids extended to the disconsolate white children in their care as they wiped away their tears over the centuries.
It’s almost impossible to imagine the same level of compassion,” wrote the journalist Ashley Reese, “being extended toward a black person who was just charged with murder.”
Around the same time, in fact, a twenty-one-year-old black man in Florida was sentenced to ten days in jail for the
crime of arriving late to jury duty. The judge, a man from the dominant caste, showed none of the compassion shown a dominant-caste woman who had killed a man in his own home. The judge excoriated the young juror, threw the full weight of the law at him for a single misstep rather than show mercy.
The judge even took the young man, Deandre Somerville, to task over the composition of the jury, saying that the man was needed at the trial because he was the only black juror. Somerville was, in effect, singled out and held to a different standard from white jurors—he alone was being blamed for inadequacies of a system that happened not to have enough people who looked like him. He had not had a criminal record, and now, on the cusp of life, due to the one-way expectation of empathy from the powerless toward the empowered, he did.
This expectation feels fueled by a perverse need to see harmed people demonstrate nobility,” the poet Hanif Abdurraqib wrote in
“because that’s how we can believe the myths that political suffering builds character, and that righteousness rather than power will inevitably triumph.”
From the moment I saw the pictures, they rattled me. It was November 2014, in the middle of the post-Ferguson protests against police brutality. At a rally in Portland, Oregon, there appeared a melancholy black boy in front of a crowd of protesters, holding a sign in the direction of the officers that said, “Free hugs.”
There was something deeply unsettling about that image that I could not figure out at first. For one thing, the boy’s face looked more like that of a man’s on a child’s small frame. His face was contorted in anguish, tears glistening down his cheeks, a wrenching emotion out of sync with the circumstances. He was wearing a fedora that seemed of another century. He did not have the carefree look of a child nor the affectionate cheer of someone offering hugs to strangers.
A white police officer responded to the sign and hugged the boy. The photograph went viral, shown on every television network. It comforted many in the dominant caste to see this gesture of compassion and grace. Here was
a black child wanting to hug someone from a group that had been in contention with young black males in the months before this encounter. They were moved by the way the boy hugged the officer long and deep, as if clutching him for dear life.
What was disturbing about that picture could only be seen if one applied the same standards of human behavior to subordinated people as to others. Few black mothers, or mothers in general for that matter, would insist that their sons, and especially their black sons, go over and hug a police officer or any stranger they didn’t know. And few children would willingly do so. The boy’s face showed far more than discomfort but a despair of someone older than he appeared to be.
The world would not know the tragedy beneath that moment until years later.
Two white women in Minnesota had adopted the boy, Devonte Hart, and five other black children from Texas, receiving more than $2,000 a month from the state for doing so. Over the course of ten years, the women essentially held the children captive, keeping them isolated in remote locations, withholding food from them.
They used them as props to attract a social media following with staged videos of the children forced to dance and sing for their captors. Off-camera, the women beat the children with belts and closed fists and held one girl’s head under cold water as punishment after the women found a penny in the girl’s pocket. When the children sought help and food from neighbors and teachers, the women defaulted to caste stereotypes, told the other adults not to feed them, that the children were playing the “food card,” that they were lying, that they were “drug babies,” whose birth mothers, they told people, were addicted while pregnant.
Authorities in multiple states inquired into reports of abuse but seemed unable to protect the children. Even after one of the women pleaded guilty in Minnesota in 2010 to misdemeanor assault of one of the daughters, the children remained in their custody. After that, whenever anyone got close enough to intervene, the women pulled the children out of school and moved to a different jurisdiction. They were able to rely on both the patchwork of disconnected social service agencies and their own caste privilege—the presumptions of competency and the benefit of the doubt accorded them—to evade state investigations and to deflect the children’s pleas for help.
That day in November 2014, they posted pictures of Devonte hugging the police officer and got adulation from people all over the world. People saw what they wanted to see and not the agony in the face of a twelve-year-old boy who had the body of an eight-year-old due to starvation, his hug, on some level, a bid to be rescued. People saw a picture of black grace when what the world was actually looking at was an abused hostage.
On March 26, 2018, with caseworkers closing in, the two women put the children in their SUV and
drove off a cliff in Northern California along the Pacific Coast Highway, killing themselves and the children they had held captive. Blindness to the depth of pain in the boy’s face, the latitude granted these white saviors to abuse children seen as throwaways, the collective desire to solve tribal wounds with superficial gestures of grace from the wounded—all of these things contributed to this tragedy and haunt many of us still. We were all witness to a crime that ended in horror.
Years before, in 2015, nine black parishioners were massacred in a Charleston church, and the families of the victims almost immediately extended forgiveness to the unrepentant white killer of their loved ones. It was an act of abiding faith that captivated the world but was also in line with society’s expectation that the subordinate caste bear its suffering and absolve its transgressors.
Black forgiveness of dominant-caste sin has become a spiritual form of having to be twice as good, in trauma, as in other aspects of life, to be seen as half as worthy.
White people embrace narratives about forgiveness,” wrote the essayist and author Roxane Gay after the massacre, “so they can pretend the world is a fairer place than it actually is and that racism is merely a vestige of a painful past instead of this indelible part of our present.”
The act of forgiveness seems a silent clause in a one-sided contract between the subordinate and the dominant. “
Black people forgive because we need to survive,” Gay wrote. “We have to forgive time and time again while racism or white silence in the face of racism continues to thrive. We have had to forgive slavery, segregation, Jim Crow laws, lynching, inequity in every realm, mass incarceration, voter disenfranchisement, inadequate representation in popular culture, microaggressions and more. We forgive and forgive and forgive and those who trespass against us continue to trespass against us.”
In 2018, as every week seemed to bring a new case of dominant-caste people calling the police on black people going about their daily lives, a middle-aged white woman in Brooklyn called the police on a nine-year-old boy who she said had sexually assaulted her as he passed her at the register at a corner deli. The boy said he had not done such a thing, had not touched her, and began to cry.
What saved the boy from further action was the store video, which later went viral. It shows the boy passing the woman in the crowded deli and his bag brushing against her, unbeknownst to him as he walked by.
The woman was shamed into apologizing for the false accusation. Afterward, people wanted to know, had he forgiven her? The boy had not learned all the rules of caste yet, had not lived long enough to have read the whole script or have it completely downloaded to his subconscious. He was thinking with the still-free mind of an innocent who had not yet faced the consequences of breaking caste. “I don’t forgive the woman,” he said, “and she needs help.”
The little boy had the X-ray vision of childhood. He had not accepted the inversion of right and wrong, had not been willing to concede a privilege that should not be extracted but granted freely at the discretion of the aggrieved.
What white people are really asking for when they demand forgiveness from a traumatized community is absolution,” Gay wrote. “They want absolution from the racism that infects us all even though forgiveness cannot reconcile America’s racist sins.”
One cannot live in a caste system, breathe its air, without absorbing the message of caste supremacy. The subordinated castes are trained to admire, worship, fear, love, covet, and want to be like those at the center of society, at the top of the hierarchy. In India, it is said that you can try to leave caste, but caste never leaves you. Most immigrants to the United States from India are among the most accomplished and well-to-do from their mother country, and thus few Dalits have the resources to get to America. By some estimates, Dalits are less than 2 percent of people of Indian descent in America. For those who manage to make it across the ocean,
caste often migrates with them.