Authors: Isabel Wilkerson
In a parallel universe with laws of nature similar to our own, a conquering people with powerful weaponry journeyed across the oceans and discovered people who looked different from themselves. They were startled to chance upon humans who towered above them, were taller than any humans they had ever seen before. They did not know what to make of this discovery. They had thought of, and measured themselves as, the standard for human existence. But the indigenous people they saw were at the outer limits of a particular human trait: their height. Even the women averaged over six feet, some of the men approached seven. The well-armed explorers were the opposite. Their weapons were deadly, and their bodies were closer to the ground.
At this moment in human history, as the world was being claimed by competing tribes of the well-armed, two peoples who were at the extremes of a highly visible yet arbitrary human characteristic—being tall or short—were confronting each other for the first time. A tribe of the shortest humans were now face-to-face with the tallest. Those with the most advanced weapons prevailed and found use for the tallest people. They decided to transport them to the New World they were creating.
They joined forces with other Shorts around the world, with whom they made common cause. With their superior guns and stratagems, they conquered the Talls, captured and enslaved them for a quarter millennium, and built a great democracy. They told themselves the Talls deserved no better, that they were uncultured, backward, inferior, had not made use of their strengths and resources. They were an altogether different species, born to serve the conquerors, deserving of their debasement. They were a separate and subordinate race.
This story of conquest sounds preposterous to our ears, not because it did not happen, but because of the seeming absurdity of height as a means of categorizing humanity and determining race.
We could have been divided up by any number of other traits. And yet height, like skin pigment, is
overwhelmingly an inherited trait, controlled by as much as 80 percent of one’s genes and fairly consistent in family and tribal groupings. As with the pigment of skin, height falls within a wide range among adults in the species, with most people in the middle and with extremes at the poles, from a maximum of seven feet for adults to a minimum of under four feet. Were height the measure for determining race, as arbitrary a measure as any and less arbitrary than some, the Dutch people of the Netherlands would be the same “race” as the Nilote people of South Sudan or the Tutsis of Rwanda, as they are all among the tallest in our species, even the women averaging well over six feet. On the other end, the Pygmies and Sardinians would be their own separate “race,” as they have historically been among the shortest humans.
If current caste behavior were any guide, everyone else would be in the middle, perhaps playing up to whichever height was in power, wearing platform heels if the Tall people ruled, bragging that height ran in their families, choosing the tallest people to date and to marry to gain the advantages of the ruling caste. Stereotypes would calcify, as they already do for extremes in height, but magnify to justify the lowly or elevated position of whichever group was in power.
In a caste system dominated by Short people, anyone in the subordinate race of Tall people would be dismissed merely as brawn, consigned to menial, servile positions, seen as good only for entertainment or servitude. Short people would be seen as born to leadership due to their presumed innate intellect and culture, admired for the longevity said to attend people smaller in stature, regarded as the standard of beauty, the default setting for human.
Tall people would be made to feel insecure and self-conscious, gangly and unappealing, having been born at the opposite end of the ideal. Society would assume that any Tall person was good at sports and physical labor, whether or not he or she had interest or aptitude. Scientists might devise tests to measure the difference between Talls and Shorts beyond height alone, tests that would largely track the results of generations of either advantage or exclusion and likely affirm widely held assumptions about the Shorts’ inherent supremacy and the Talls’ misfortune of deficits. There would be few Tall people in the boardrooms and corridors of power, and a disproportionate number of them in prisons and on the streets. Being tall would become shorthand for inferior in a caste system ruled by Short people, and vice versa.
Ludicrous though it may sound to us now, had height been the means of categorizing humans for centuries as it has been for skin color and facial features, people would have accepted it as the received wisdom of the laws of nature. It would have seemed ridiculous that, in an alternate universe, people would ever be divided by color, given that, clearly, it would have been obvious that height was the determining factor in beauty, intelligence, leadership, and supremacy. The idea of linking disparate groups together on the basis of an arbitrary shared characteristic of being extremely tall or short sounds farcical to us, but only because this characteristic is not the one that has been used to divide humans into seemingly immutable “races.”
The idea of race is a recent phenomenon in human history. It dates to the start of the transatlantic slave trade and thus to the subsequent caste system that arose from slavery. The word
likely derived from the Spanish word
and was originally used to refer to the “ ‘
caste or quality of authentic horses,’ which are branded with an iron so as to be recognized,” wrote the anthropologists Audrey and Brian Smedley. As Europeans explored the world, they began using the word to refer to the new people they encountered. Ultimately, “the English in North America developed the most rigid and exclusionist form of race ideology,” the Smedleys wrote. “Race in the American mind was and is a statement about profound and unbridgeable differences….It conveys the meaning of social distance that cannot be transcended.”
Geneticists and anthropologists have long seen race as a man-made invention with no basis in science or biology. The nineteenth-century
anthropologist Paul Broca tried to use thirty-four shades of skin color to delineate the races, but could come to no conclusion. If all the humans on the planet were lined up by a single physical trait, say, height or color, in ascending or descending order, tallest to shortest, darkest to lightest, it would confound us to choose the line between these arbitrary divisions. One human would blend into the next and it would be nearly impossible to make the cutoff between, say, the San people of South Africa and the indigenous people along the Marañón River in Peru, who are scientifically measured to be the same color, even though they live thousands of miles apart and do not share the same immediate ancestry.
As a window into the random nature of these categories, the use of the term
to label people descended from Europe is a relatively new and arbitrary practice in human history.
The word was not passed down from the ancients but rather sprang from the mind of a German professor of medicine, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, in 1795. Blumenbach spent decades studying and measuring human skulls—the foreheads, the jawbones, the eye sockets—in an attempt to classify the varieties of humankind.
He coined the term
on the basis of a favorite skull of his that had come into his possession from the Caucasus Mountains of Russia. To him, the skull was the most beautiful of all that he owned. So he gave the group to which he belonged, the Europeans, the same name as the region that had produced it. That is how people now identified as white got the scientific-sounding yet random name Caucasian.
More than a century later, in 1914, a citizenship trial was under way in America over whether a Syrian could be a Caucasian (and thus white), which led an expert witness in the case to say of Blumenbach’s confusing and fateful discovery: “Never has a single head done more harm to science.”
The epic mapping of the human genome and the quieter, long-dreamt-of results of DNA kits ordered in time for a family reunion have shown us that race as we have come to know it is not real. It is a fiction told by modern humans for so long that it has come to be seen as a sacred truth.
Two decades ago, analysis of the human genome established that all human beings are 99.9 percent the same. “
Race is a social concept, not a scientific one,” said J. Craig Venter, the geneticist who ran Celera Genomics when the mapping was completed in 2000. “We all evolved in the last 100,000 years from the small number of tribes that migrated out of Africa and colonized the world.” Which means that an entire racial caste system, the catalyst of hatreds and civil war, was built on what the anthropologist Ashley Montagu called “
an arbitrary and superficial selection of traits,” derived from a few of the thousands of genes that make up a human being. “The idea of race,” Montagu wrote, “was, in fact, the deliberate creation of an exploiting class seeking to maintain and defend its privileges against what was profitably regarded as an inferior caste.”
We accept the illogic of race because these are the things we have been told. We see a person with skin that is whiter than that of most “white” people, and we accept that they are not “white” (and thus of a different category) because of the minutest difference in the folds of their eyelids and because perhaps their great-grandparents were born in Japan. We see a person whose skin is espresso, darker than most “black” people in America, and accept that he is, in fact, not “black,” absolutely not “black” (and is thus a completely separate category), because his hair has a looser curl and perhaps he was born in Madagascar. We have to be taught this illogic. Small children who have yet to learn the rules will describe people as they see them, not by the political designations of black, white, Asian, or Latino, until adults “correct” them to use the proper caste designations to make the irrational sound reasoned. Color is a fact. Race is a social construct.
“We think we ‘see’ race when we encounter certain physical differences among people such as skin color, eye shape, and hair texture,” the Smedleys wrote. “What we actually ‘see’…are the learned social meanings, the stereotypes, that have been linked to those physical features by the ideology of race and the historical legacy it has left us.”
And yet, observed the historian Nell Irvin Painter, “
Americans cling to race as the unschooled cling to superstition.”
which has become synonymous with India, did not, it turns out, originate in India. It comes from the Portuguese word
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 Europeans’ interpretations of what they saw; it sprang 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
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.”
What we face in our current day is not the classical racism of our forefathers’ era, but a mutation of the software that adjusts to the updated needs of the operating system. 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 to 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.
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.
This is not to say that the consequences of this social construct are not real or that abuses should not be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. It is to say that the word
may not stand as the only term or the most useful term to describe the phenomena and tensions we experience in our era. Rather than deploying
as an either/or accusation against an individual, it may be more constructive to focus on derogatory actions that harm a less powerful group rather than on what is commonly seen as an easily deniable, impossible-to-measure attribute.
With no universally agreed-upon definition, we might see racism as a continuum rather than an absolute. We might release ourselves of the purity test of whether someone is or is not racist and exchange that mindset for one that sees people as existing on a scale based on the toxins they have absorbed from the polluted and inescapable air of social instruction we receive from childhood.
Caste, on the other hand, predates the notion of race and has survived the era of formal, state-sponsored racism that had long been openly practiced in the mainstream. The modern-day version of easily deniable racism may be able to cloak the invisible structure that created and maintains hierarchy and inequality. But caste does not allow us to ignore structure. Caste
structure. Caste is ranking. Caste is the boundaries that reinforce the fixed assignments based upon what people look like. Caste is a living, breathing entity. It is like a corporation that seeks to sustain itself at all costs. To achieve a truly egalitarian world requires looking deeper than what we think we see. We cannot win against a hologram.
Caste is the granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy. Caste pushes back against an African-American woman who, without humor or apology, takes a seat at the head of the table speaking Russian. It prefers an Asian-American man to put his technological expertise at the service of the company but not aspire to CEO. Yet it sees as logical a sixteen-year-old white teenager serving as store manager over employees from the subordinate caste three times his age. Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred, it is not necessarily personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things.
What is the difference between racism and casteism? Because caste and race are interwoven in America, it can be hard to separate the two. Any action or institution that mocks, harms, assumes, or attaches inferiority or stereotype on the basis of the social construct of race can be considered racism. Any action or structure that seeks to limit, hold back, or put someone in a defined ranking, seeks to keep someone in their place by elevating or denigrating that person on the basis of their perceived category, can be seen as casteism.
Casteism is the investment in keeping the hierarchy as it is in order to maintain your own ranking, advantage, privilege, or to elevate yourself above others or keep others beneath you. For those in the marginalized castes, casteism can mean seeking to keep those on your disfavored rung from gaining on you, to curry the favor and remain in the good graces of the dominant caste, all of which serve to keep the structure intact.
In the United States, racism and casteism frequently occur at the same time, or overlap or figure into the same scenario. Casteism is about positioning and restricting those positions, vis-à-vis others. What race and its precursor, racism, do extraordinarily well is to confuse and distract from the underlying structural and more powerful Sith Lord of caste. Like the cast on a broken arm, like the cast in a play, a caste system holds everyone in a fixed place.
For this reason, many people—including those we might see as good and kind people—could be casteist, meaning invested in keeping the hierarchy as it is or content to do nothing to change it, but not racist in the classical sense, not active and openly hateful of this or that group. Actual racists, actual haters, would by definition be casteist, as their hatred demands that those they perceive as beneath them know and keep their place in the hierarchy.
In everyday terms, it is not racism that prompts a white shopper in a clothing store to go up to a random black or brown person who is also shopping and to ask for a sweater in a different size, or for a white guest at a party to ask a black or brown person who is also a guest to fetch them a drink,
as happened to Barack Obama as a state senator, or even perhaps a judge to sentence a subordinate-caste person for an offense for which a dominant-caste person might not even be charged. It is caste or rather the policing of and adherence to the caste system. It’s the autonomic, unconscious, reflexive response to expectations from a thousand imaging inputs and neurological societal downloads that affix people to certain roles based upon what they look like and what they historically have been assigned to or the characteristics and stereotypes by which they have been categorized. No ethnic or racial category is immune to the messaging we all receive about the hierarchy, and thus no one escapes its consequences.
What some people call racism could be seen as merely one manifestation of the degree to which we have internalized the larger American caste system, a measure of how much we ascribe to it and how deeply we uphold it, act upon it, and enforce it, often unconsciously, in our daily lives.
When we assume that the woman is not equipped to lead the meeting or the company or the country, or that a person of color or an immigrant could not be the one in authority, is not a resident of a certain community, could not have attended a particular school or deserved to have attended a particular school, when we feel a pang of shock and resentment, a personal wounding and sense of unfairness and perhaps even shame at our discomfort upon seeing someone from a marginalized group in a job or car or house or college or appointment more prestigious than we have been led to expect, when we assume that the senior citizen should be playing Parcheesi rather than developing software, we are reflecting the efficient encoding of caste, the subconscious recognition that the person has stepped out of his or her assumed place in our society. We are responding to our embedded instructions of who should be where and who should be doing what, the breaching of the structure and boundaries that are the hallmarks of caste.
Race and caste are not the cause and do not account for every poor outcome or unpleasant encounter. But caste becomes a factor, to whatever infinitesimal degree, in interactions and decisions across gender, ethnicity, race, immigrant status, sexual orientation, age, or religion that have consequences in our everyday lives and in policies that affect our country and beyond. It may not be as all-consuming as its targets may perceive it to be, but neither is it the ancient relic, the long-ago anachronism, that post-racialists, post-haters of everything, keep wishing away. Its invisibility is what gives it power and longevity. Caste, along with its faithful servant race, is an x-factor in most any American equation, and any answer one might ever come up with to address our current challenges is flawed without it.