Authors: Isabel Wilkerson
And so a brilliant Dalit from India, a Ph.D. at a prestigious university on the East Coast, paced and shifted his weight from one foot to the other, growing agitated, triggered, in the common parlance of early-twenty-first-century America, at the very mention of the surnames of his upper-caste countrymen. These are names that might have little meaning to most Americans but which signify rank and privilege in India. The names Gupta and Mehta and Mukherjee, common among Indian immigrants in America, are among the most revered in their homeland.
“These names,” the Dalit scholar said, shaking his head and looking down toward the carpet. “I can’t look them straight in the face. I can’t look them in the eye. I don’t know what to say. These were our masters. My grandfathers were the workers of their grandfathers. I would never be invited inside their homes. In India, they would not speak to me. Man, I could not imagine talking with them even here in America. They are of a completely different caste from me.”
He began pacing again. “The trauma to cross that line,” he said. “I have been here three years. I still do not have the confidence to talk with them.”
At the bottom of the hierarchy, the message of inferiority comes at you in whispers and billboards. It burrows into your identity. The violence and terror used to maintain the hierarchy keep you in your place without signage.
“It is a feeling of danger,” the Dalit scholar said, just the thought of upper-caste people. “They are a danger to me. I feel danger with them.”
Caste is more than rank, it is a state of mind that holds everyone captive, the dominant imprisoned in an illusion of their own entitlement, the subordinate trapped in the purgatory of someone else’s definition of who they are and who they should be.
The Dalit Ph.D. was the only one in his entire family who had a passport, the only one to ever step outside of India. The others had no passport and saw no need of a passport. “Where would they go?” he asked. The caste system had deprived them of the need or the use of a basic human trait, one’s imagination.
The first to break through from a family in a marginalized caste, he bears the weight of the dreams of everyone back home and the stigma and expectation of failure from the larger society. “If I make a mistake, my community makes a mistake,” he said. “If I fall, the community falls. I walk a very thin line.”
Back home in India, when the scholar goes into a store, they watch him and hound him like a thief, as with a black person in a store in America. He has absorbed that expectation and adjusted to it to survive. “I never ask about the quality of an item,” the scholar said. “I ask the price. If I ask the quality, they will say, ‘You can’t afford this, why are you wasting my time?’ If I say I want to see it, they will say, ‘Get out. I will call the police.’ So I come back with friends who are not Dalit, who can speak their language and get it for me.”
It is for that reason that he stood there in the lobby of a high-end hotel after a dinner near campus and pointed to his shoes, his leather-clad sneakers. He bent down and pressed the empty toe box of his sneakers. “These shoes I bought,” he said, “they are not my size. They are too big for me. I bought them because I did not want to trouble the salesman. I did not have the confidence to ask for another size. So I bought what he gave me.”
He, like subordinate-caste people wherever there is caste, has had to create an entire protocol to protect himself from insult. “If I go into a store and stay thirty minutes, I have to buy something,” he said. “I have so many things that I was afraid to return.”
Dalits have suffered brutal assaults for caste infractions, forbidden even today in the rural precincts from walking the same roads as the dominant caste. A family in the Vellore district was forced to carry a deceased loved one along the back roads to reach the funeral pyre. The men had to lower the body, wrapped in cloth and leaves, by a rope from a bridge, the body dangling on descent, as the men below stretched their arms up to receive it. They had been denied access to public roads that they would have been seen as polluting.
They do what they must to avoid further insult.
“For us, it is dignity,” he said. “If I go someplace, they might say, you can’t afford this, you are wasting my time. So when I go to a restaurant, I don’t want to take up the waiter’s time. They might attack us, and then they say that we are hostile, when for us it is a matter of dignity. Our dignity is under assault.”
He once accompanied two white American women to a store and was astonished at their behavior. “They took up the owner’s time and did not buy anything,” he said. “I could not imagine doing that.”
The fear runs deep within his soul.
I asked him, “Is this fear of anticipated rejection or the actual rejection itself?”
“It is the former caused by the latter,” he answered.
“What would help you feel better in these situations?” I asked him.
“What I need is to feel better inside my own skin,” he said.
At the dinner hour on a nineteenth-century steamboat in the antebellum South, the caste ritual went as follows: At the first bell, the white passengers were seated with the captain for their meal. After they finished, the second bell rang for the white crewmen—the engineers, the pilot, the servants. Only after all of the white people on board, of every class and status, completed their meals would the third bell ring, and the black crewmen, slave or free, be permitted to eat.
A problem arose, however, if there happened to be free black passengers in their midst. Free blacks paid their fare and were on paper in the same category as the white passengers. They were likely middle-class, but what mattered was that they were lowest caste. And historically, caste trumps class.
It was taboo for blacks and whites to sit, stand, or eat in the same space at the same time or even to use the same utensils. So they were not going to eat with their white counterparts or with the white crewmen who were presumably lower in class than they.
But there was more to it than that. Free blacks were an affront to the caste system, always brushing against its borders. By their very existence, moving about as equals to the dominant caste, having the means to enter spaces considered the preserve of their betters, and having had the ingenuity to gain their freedom and to walk around in it, they threw the entire caste belief system into question. If people in the lowest caste had the capacity to be equal, why were they being enslaved? If they were smart enough to do something other than pick cotton or scrub floors, why then were they picking cotton and scrubbing floors? It was too mind-twisting to contemplate.
After the dinner service was cleared away and everyone else aboard had eaten and retired to their cabins or posts, the small group of black passengers, all women in this case, were permitted to eat in the pantry, “
standing at the butler’s table.”
From the start of the caste system in America, people who were lowest caste but who had managed somehow to rise above their station have been the shock troops on the front lines of hierarchy. People who appear in places or positions where they are not expected can become foot soldiers in an ongoing quest for respect and legitimacy in a fight they had hoped was long over.
Public conveyances and recreational spaces have been the soundstage for caste confrontation precisely because they bring together in a confined space, for a limited time and purpose, groups that have historically been kept apart. They become test tubes of caste interaction, with its written and unwritten codes, its unspoken but understood rules of engagement.
In 2015, the members of a black women’s book club were traveling by train on a wine tour of Napa Valley. They were laughing and chatting as were other tourists, given the nature of the outing and what all the passengers had been imbibing. But they alone seemed to attract the notice of the maître d’. “
When you laugh,” the maître d’ told them, “I see it on the [other] passengers’ faces.” Soon the train stopped, and the black women, some of them senior citizens, were ejected and met by police, “as if we were criminals,” they later said.
In 2018, the owner of
a Pennsylvania golf club ordered black women club members to leave and called the police on them after white golfers complained that they were not moving fast enough. The women described themselves as experienced players aware of the game’s protocols and said they had paced themselves according to the groups behind and in front of them. They said they noted that the men behind them were on break and were not ready to tee up. After arriving on the scene, the police determined that no charges were warranted. But the women said the confrontation had put them on edge, and they left to avoid further humiliation.
My work has required me to spend many, many hours in settings where I am often the only person of my ethnicity and gender, most often on planes. A flight attendant once commented on the miles I log year in and year out, “You fly more than we do.” Because I fly so often, I frequently have cause to be seated in first or business class, which can turn me into a living, breathing social experiment without wanting to be. The things that have happened to me are far from the most grievous a person might suffer when traveling in a domain that can bring out the worst in most anyone. But some have stood out as a commentary on caste in action and can be demoralizing in the unexpected moment of intrusion.
For a flight out of Denver, I happened to be one of the first to board the plane, along with others in the front cabin. I could see the lead flight attendant greeting passengers at the boarding door. He was a man in his late twenties or early thirties, short blondish hair, and behind him was a second flight attendant, her brunette hair in a French twist.
The tendinitis in my wrist had been flaring up, and, as I stepped onto the plane with a splint on my forearm, I looked over to the lead flight attendant for help with my carry-on.
“Sir,” I said, “I’m having a problem with my wrist, and I wondered if you would help me get my bag in the bin.”
He looked past me to the men behind me at the boarding door, the kind of men who would come to mind when you think of first class. He waved me along as if I were holding up the line, though no one was moving at the moment. He seemed insulted even to have been asked, as if I was not aware of how the boarding process worked.
“There are two flight attendants in the back,” he said. “They can help you when you get back there.”
With those curt instructions, it was as if he had pulled me out of a lineup, singled me out from the other business travelers as the one who, on sight, did not belong, the one trespassing and now seeking special treatment to which I was not entitled. Marginalized people have a hard enough time moving about in a world built for others. Now it was as if I were taking up space that belonged to its rightful passengers. It came as a shock to me, perhaps because this clipped dismissal came from a man whose generation would not be expected to hold such retrograde assumptions. Somehow the air had turned confrontational. I had asked for something he did not believe I deserved.
“But I’m in first,” I said.
That seemed only to make things worse. He had been caught in his moment of stereotyping and in front of others. He had disregarded all information inputs to the contrary, that I was boarding early, that luggage tags dangling from the bag I was seeking help with proclaimed that I had reached the highest possible level of loyalty to his airline. He could only have come to the conclusion he made on the basis of one thing alone: what I looked like.
He tried to recover from the faux pas of an openly dismissive caste assumption, for what is caste if not where one belongs in a hierarchy? He had to find a way to retain his own caste position, now that a flight attendant under him in the airline’s hierarchy had heard him speak so brusquely to a passenger, wherever she happened to be seated.
“Well, leave it here, and we’ll have to see what to do with it,” he said, sighing as if it were a bass violin instead of a rolling bag.
The woman flight attendant who stood there during the exchange stepped forward and tried to set things right, cover for him, her superior.
“Here,” she said, “let me help you with it. What seat are you in?”
She walked me to the seat and helped me hoist the bag into the bin. I thanked her for her kindness.
It was uncomfortable the rest of the flight. He was the only attendant in that cabin, and each time he passed through the aisle, the tension rose. I could feel the edge of it. He had been outed, and he punished me with a curt hostility until we landed.
It was a late-night flight from Portland, Oregon, to the East Coast. I had just boarded, and the flight attendant and I were looking for space to fit my roller bag into the haphazardly filled overhead compartments. Every time the flight attendant and I touched a bag to turn it on its side or to move it to the next bin, someone said, “No, you can’t touch that one, that’s my bag.”
The man in the aisle seat behind me had two carry-ons overhead, taking up more space than allowed. I was anxious to get seated and out of this uncomfortable testing of wills. I offered to let him put his bag under my seat so that it would not take up space in front of him, anything to get the bag stored and get on our way.
“I’d be glad to do it,” I told him and the flight attendant.
He let out a heavy breath.
“I put my bag where I wanted it. I don’t want it under another seat.”
He took the bag from the flight attendant and shoved it under his own seat. He then began complaining to the man in the window seat beside him, a man, like him, from the dominant caste, seated directly behind me.
“That’s what happens when they let just anybody in first class,” the owner of the bag said to the man next to him, loud enough for anyone around us to hear. “They should know better how to treat paying customers. I paid for my first-class ticket, and this is how they treat you.”
The two men commiserated the whole flight, having found common cause and united by a shared resentment. It was a night flight, and I was exhausted from a long day of lectures. I needed to sleep. I let down the seat back. What did I do that for?
The man in the window seat behind me, who had been grousing about the unfairness of it all with the man whose bag had been moved, let out a howl.
“What do you think you’re doing!” he yelled. “I’m trying to work here! Look what you’ve done. I’ve got my laptop out and you’ve shoved it into me!”
He slammed the back of my seat and pounded the tray forward, jostling me as he continued to hit from behind.
“I had no control over the seatback,” I told him, looking back. “I’m just trying to get some rest.” I looked over at the white man next to me, who had seen all of this, who would have felt the shudder of my seat being pushed from behind. He would not return a glance, isolating me further.
The men behind me continued to talk about the intrusions into first class. The air was thick with venom and made it impossible to sleep. I got up to tell the flight attendant to see if she might be able to help.
“I am desperately tired, and I need to sleep,” I told her. “The man behind me is shoving my seat and making it impossible to get rest. Is there anything you could do? Could you explain the rules to him to defuse the situation?”
“Frankly, I don’t know if it would help,” she said. “Why don’t you stay up here the rest of the flight?”
“I need to rest,” I told her. “I can’t sleep standing up here, and besides, I have a seat, and I should be able to sit in it.”
“I know,” she said. “I don’t know what to tell you. It’s up to you if you want to stay up here or go back.”
I went back and sat up straight, across the length of the country. The caste system had put me in my place.
I had been up since before five in the morning for the flight out of Idaho Falls. The original flight was canceled, the second one delayed, and now, finally, I was on the last leg of the journey, the connecting flight out of Salt Lake City that would not get me in until ten-thirty
. I was in seat 2D, a window in first, the only passenger in that cabin who was African-American.
The lead attendant was a black man, small in frame, cheerful, and efficient.
“What are you having, my friend?” he asked the male passengers as he chatted them up.
“And you?” he said, terse and impatient, when he got to me.
Upon landing, the mad shuffle began for everyone’s respective bag in the overhead compartments. Passengers crowded into the aisle, and I was standing behind a man who looked to be in his thirties, his light hair in a buzz cut. He asked a woman next to him if she needed help with her bag. He pulled it down for her, and she thanked him.
Then he began to reach for his own bag. It was in the compartment above and behind me. He did not speak nor gesture in my direction. Instead, he reached back and up and over me, wordlessly leaned farther and farther, his body at a backward angle against mine, pinning me under his torso and leaving me no escape because of the wall of passengers packed behind me.
I was in disbelief, forced to arch my body back, as he rammed himself harder against me, heavy and sweaty, shifting his feet now, shoving his thick arm across my face and against the side of my neck to unloosen the bag from the compartment. He thrust his full weight, his entire frame, into mine, his back muscles crushing my breasts, his buttocks protruding into my pelvis, violating my body in full view of other passengers, and no one was saying or doing a thing.
“Hey, I can’t go back any further!” I told him in a plea for help, loud enough for everyone around me to hear.
He said nothing, as if I were not there, as if nobody were there, as if the laws of physics or privacy did not apply. I tried to hold my head away from his shoulder blades so that I could breathe. It was taking the ground crew forever to open the boarding door. I looked around for whoever would recognize the horror of a complete stranger forcing himself onto you. I looked over to the two young women who were inches away and who could see what he was doing. I gave them a look of distress and shock at the man’s aggression. I was needing empathy. They were standing so close, they could share a sense of womanly outrage at what was happening. But their faces were blank. They looked into space, returned no glance.
A silence of complicity had overtaken the entire first-class cabin, and I was alone in a packed compartment. Not one of these passengers would have lost their job or a promotion, lost money or privilege, had they stood up that day. Very likely they would never see these other passengers again in their lives, and stepping up would have had no material consequences. But that day, with so very little at stake to themselves, they chose caste solidarity over principle, tribe over empathy.
The boarding door finally opened. The passengers filed out. And the man finally eased his behind off of me. The black flight attendant, who had seen all of it, had not come to my aid nor spoken up, though he was the flight attendant in charge.