In her new book, Caste, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson looks towards the Indian caste system to understand the stubborn persistence of racism in the US. In a similar vein Indians, particularly in the diaspora, can look towards the recent soul searching over white racial privilege in the US in the wake the Black Lives Matter protests, to reflect on how caste-based segregation endures.
The recent caste discrimination lawsuit launched against Cisco by the State of California has generated defensiveness among some in the Indian immigrant community with declarations of caste being a thing of the past and no longer a relevant influence on diasporic life. In our book Seeing White: An Introduction to White Privilege, we explored the seeming invisibility of whiteness; white Americans are not conscious of being white, they perceive themselves and their experiences as the good, normal way of being.
At the same time, they are hyper aware of other races and the ways in which people are not “white”. In much the same way, upper caste experiences in the Indian diaspora are often thought of as the normal or good Indian immigrant success story.
The power of selective nostalgia
In a 2019 New York Times profile, Indira Nooyi the former chief executive of PepsiCo, a first- generation Indian immigrant often heralded for being one of the few high-profile female CEOs in the US, volunteered her caste identity. Her family, she mentioned “was a good, conservative Brahmin family, deeply steeped in learning and education. That was the only focus. The expectation was you would get, at a minimum, a master’s degree.”
In openly proclaiming her upper caste identity, she portrayed Brahminism in the same romanticised manner that some white Americans reminisce about the genteel, elegant and old-world charm of southern plantation life. But the gentility of an old southern plantation lifestyle of course rested on the horrific extraction of wealth and profits from the slave labour of African Americans.
Nostalgia for the elegance of plantation owners not only represents an erasure of the brutality of slavery but also perpetuates a myth of refinement of white in contrast to the supposed lack of refinement of the non-white who were denied access to the means of refinement. In the same way, the proclivity towards education is reflective of the Brahmin privilege of access to education, a basic right that was explicitly forbidden to those belonging to the Dalit strata for several centuries.
As a result, Brahmin households like Nooyi’s often have access to long legacies of educated family members and extended networks that Dalit households with their much more recent access to education have never had the opportunity to build. In perpetuating the myth of a good Brahmin tradition of education, Nooyi follows the same pattern of erasure and myth making of cultural superiority as southern whiteness.
The Cisco case rests on this very same reflexive elevation of Brahmin access to educational networks. An Indian origin Dalit Cisco engineer complained about being denied professional opportunities by his Brahmin managers who became aware of his Dalit status. The managers’ bias, it seems, stemmed from the engineer’s admission to a prestigious engineering college in India on the basis of caste-based affirmative action rather than the caste-based Brahmin privilege of access to education.
Nooyi or the Cisco managers are not alone; Indians in the diaspora often exhibit casual and unthinking pride in the ritualistic traditions of their upper castes families like thread ceremonies and certain dress codes, without a corresponding recognition of the exclusion and oppression it represents. A growing recognition of the ongoing harm of such selective nostalgia has prompted a re-evaluation of the popular plantation wedding industry in the US that used to promote southern slave plantation houses as romantic sites for wedding celebrations in the genteel southern tradition. Hollywood star Ryan Reynolds recently apologised for having had such a plantation wedding. Similarly, the Indian upper caste diaspora, particularly those in positions of power like Nooyi, must reflect on the harm their selective and unthinking memorialisation of upper caste family traditions of privilege cause those without the caste access.
What’s in a name
Reynold’s apology for a plantation wedding is part of recent a wave of high-profile awakening on the cultural glorification of symbols of segregation in the US. Popular music bands like Dixie Chics and Lady Antebellum have recently accepted their unthinking complicity in elevating narratives of superiority by using words like “Dixie” and “Antebellum” that are related to a sense of pride in a pre-emancipation South. A similar history of names relates to the Indian caste system. Upper caste Hindus often use surnames that are caste names.
The early 20th century Dravidian movement in Southern India led by anti-caste reformers like E Ve Ramaswamy (Periyar) actively campaigned against this practice as a way to create space for individual identity and self-respect as opposed to identities based on caste power. As a result, the use of caste names like Iyer and Iyengar receded for a time among the Tamil community in India. Yet the practice is common now particularly among diaspora Indians.
In testimonies collected by the Ambedkar King Study Circle California, several Dalit immigrants mention discomfort with frequent probing of names among Indian community groups and colleagues in order to discern caste identity. Similar to the rethink over words like Dixie and Antebellum, those with upper caste Indian heritage must reflect on the culture of names that evoke caste dominance.
Who belongs where
In her comparison of white racial privilege to caste privilege Wilkerson mentions that while attending academic conferences on caste in the US, she began to recognise South Asians from dominant castes by the way they seemed to have a “certitude of being,” a confidence about their place in life. It is this certitude that Indira Nooyi exhibited when she prefaced her comments about her family by saying “we never lacked for anything, but we didn’t have much.”
In openly proclaiming both her Brahminical identity as well as her lack of class privilege Nooyi and many successful upper caste Indians signal a story of individual achievement where caste privilege either no longer exists or is rapidly fading. Yet the same open declaration of lower class origins would not be possible for someone from a Dalit background without a fear of their achievements being diminished as the outcome of undeserving affirmative action as seems to have been the experience in the Cisco case.
Concluding her exploration of caste and race, Wilkerson mentions that racial privilege will continue to persist unless every one examines the ways they feed into the structure of white dominance in small and large ways through everyday actions. Similarly upper caste Indian immigrants must reconcile an awareness of the structural privileges they have inherited even as they find ways to celebrate their personal successes and family histories.
Ramya Vijaya is Professor of Economics at Stockton University.