Caste, Unlike Race
Differences between the two based on my personal experience
I am from a middle-class Telugu Brahmin family in South India. My understanding of caste is based on my experience living nearly three decades in Hyderabad, Chennai, and Pune. I have some additional knowledge through school lessons, a few good movies, and the occasional newspaper or magazine article. My opinions are as a lay urbanite from an upper caste.
My understanding of race is from adulting for a decade in New York. I have watched a few good movies and read a handful of good books that deal with race. Due to the current social climate, I have also been saturated with as much media and social media as people who are very online are. So my opinions are as a layperson who is a privileged non-white alien (young techie) living in a liberal bubble.
In India, I rarely come across discussions about race. In the US, I have occasionally come across discussions about caste. Before moving to the US, I assumed that racism would be something like casteism. Here, I have seen Americans interpret casteism in terms of racism. There are some similarities. But there are also major differences.
In my social circles in the US, I am one of the few with some knowledge about caste. The same is true about race in my social circles in India. Most people's interest in these topics is casual curiosity, and they aren't necessarily seeking more and better-informed sources. I am in the seemingly uncomfortable position of being perceived as an authority, despite the narrowness of my perspectives. This essay captures much of what I know and think.
Both issues are important. We have made progress in reducing both individual and systemic bias over the decades. But there are still challenges in eradicating them. I sometimes read things about India that appear to be written to appeal to Americans. I am inclined to believe that elites are prone to push for premature imitation (PDF) on various fronts, and that this can have negative impacts on socio-economic progress. My main point is that understanding one issue in terms of the other paints an incomplete picture.
In the US, most of the population is covered by a handful of racial categories: white, hispanic, black, and asian. They are relatively unambiguous.
In India, formal treatments of caste start with the concept of varna. Professions in ancient Hindu society were classified into four categories: brahmins (scholars, priests, and teachers), kshatriyas (rulers, warriors, and administrators), vaishyas (agriculturalists and merchants), and shudras (laborers and servants). Because most people (men) learnt what their parents (fathers) did and inherited the family trade or profession, the categories stayed siloed for centuries. This is still true in rural areas, but I don't know to what extent. It is becoming irrelevant in urban India where one-third of the population lives – a person's varna no longer correlates with their job much. However, the categories solidified into a rigid hierarchy that represents the caste system that continues to this day.
If you ask an Indian what their caste is, they are likely to give a proper noun that has no obvious connection to any of these varnas. There are thousands of castes and sub-castes. No one knows what they all are and what the differences are without looking up an imaginary castepedia. According to this Wikipedia section, and in the colloquial terminology of reservations, castes can be grouped into categories like scheduled castes (SC), scheduled tribes (ST), other backward (OBC), Non-Hindu, and general (everything else).
India being a sub-continent of many peoples, and caste being a social grouping, most castes are limited to a region. There are different castes in different regions, and the same caste may have different names in different regions. Of the seven castes under the general category that are listed in that Wikipedia page (including one called "Others"), I know the Telugu name of only my caste. Though I know several castes among Telugu people, I couldn't say which ones fall under which category (SC/ST/OBC/General) except for my caste.
Caste is by definition a social construct. I understand that race is also increasingly being considered as such. To the extent that race can be treated as the summary of the ancestry composition section of a DNA Report, it seems immutable for an individual. But caste can neither be determined through any biological test nor is it immutable.
All this to say, caste is a more nebulous concept.
In terms of categories like white, latin, black, asian, south asian, it is easy to deduce a person's race from physical appearance. There are exceptions, but even Indians, for whom race isn't part of their daily lives, can usually tell the race of an actor in a Hollywood movie or a cricketer in an international match. Knowledge about race feels inescapable.
Unlike that, caste has no identifying physical characteristics. Knowledge about caste can be kept private. There are many situations where it can be consciously or unconsciously ignored. e.g. I don't know the caste of most of my Indian friends and colleagues. Even if the topic ever comes up, it can be treated solely as trivia and then forgotten. In cases where the topic came up and I learnt about a friend's caste, I may at most remember whether or not we are of the same caste.
Besides physical appearance, various cultural markers are supposed to be useful for socially identifying the caste of a person. Things like surname, diction or dialect, dressing style, food habits, etc.
One example. Until high school, my Telugu diction and vocabulary were considered to be more bookish and formal than that of my peers. I assumed that it was related to my caste. Starting in ninth grade, I had some friends with different dialects who were from the same caste. Starting in undergrad, I had classmates whose speech was more pristine than mine, who were from a different caste. This dimension turned out to be more of an urban-rural divide, as the latter population are more likely to be taught in Telugu in schools and generally have greater exposure and expertise in the language.
Another example. My family is vegetarian, and I knew this to be a dietary law of my caste. I knew that Jains are stricter vegetarians than brahmins, and that many Bengali brahmins are pescatarians. Until adulthood, I assumed vegetarianism to be unique to people of my caste. Later I learnt that vegetarianism is vastly more common in India, and learnt of other castes which are vegetarian, including few that are not considered upper.
I know people of previous generations who feel confident in guessing the caste of anyone. I had assumed that I too would gain this knowledge by adulthood. Instead I discovered that they were just incorrect many times and sloppy with keeping count. Similarly I have heard of people in small villages who claim to be experts in this, but I think they live in an environment with low variance, where even wild guesses can give decent results.
The more people you meet, the less accurate and less useful these heuristics become.
In the US, there are noticeable disparities by race in terms of objective indicators like wealth, income, health, and educational achievement. There are other factors that can complicate the picture, but in general white people have better opportunities and outcomes. Within minorities as well, there are disparities between races. A graph of hierarchy is relatively simple to intuit.
In India, the variety of castes make such hierarchies hard to intuit. The social hierarchy is considered to be General > OBC > SC > ST. I don't know to what extent this is reflected in macro indicators. They may be more reflective in rural areas. In urban areas, there is less of a rigidity, in that you will find people of all castes in all professions as well as in all economic levels. That said, it is still true that most SC and ST have fewer opportunities compared to the rest of the population.
In the US, white supremacy is a mainstream concept. There is a small minority of the population who wish to uphold it, a vast majority who find it repulsive, and a significant consciousness among influential people in all walks of life to eradicate it.
In India, I am not aware of anything similar. It may be because the hierarchy is more fragmented, and because academia is less influential. I started coming across the term "brahmin supremacy" on social media a couple of years ago. A few weeks ago I discovered that there is now a Wikipedia redirect for it. But according to Google trends there is no data for it yet. The worst aspects of casteism are most prevalent in rural areas, i.e. faced by people who don't have the luxury to be active on social media, and I think limiting the focus of criticism to one caste that makes up only 5% of the population is like missing the forest for one plant species.
When I moved to New York, I was surprised to learn that there are black neighborhoods, and that there are many ethnic enclaves predominantly populated by various immigrant groups. Due to social factors, there is implicitly a perceivable level of both residential segregation and school segregation even in large cities.
In my experience, Indian cities and schools have less segregation. There are a few neighborhoods that are an equivalent of ethnic enclaves, like Old City, but my understanding is that living conditions are not vastly different. There are rich and poor neighborhoods, and there are many slums everywhere, but I don't think any of them are predominantly composed of a single caste. Segregation may be more common in villages. e.g. Agraharas where certain upper castes live, and mallepaalelu where certain lower castes live, used to be common, are less common today, but they still probably exist.
There was racial segregation in the US, and akin to it untouchability in India. Since 1950 in India, and 1964 in the US, neither is legal. That isn't to say they are not practiced anywhere, but I have never come across either of them. I don't know how prevalent they are, but I learnt about the concept of sundown towns during the George Floyd protests. Similarly, I learnt that untouchability is still practiced socially in many parts of India.
These are big countries with large variations in population, so there are abundant examples of individual prejudice everyday, including occasionally extreme cases.
The US has less individual racism than I expected. I however feel less attuned to detecting subtle forms of it.
In India, casteism is more common in various daily interactions, but also less frowned upon. The milkman or newspaper boy may not be allowed into the house. The maid servant is usually not allowed into the kitchen, and is not allowed to use the toilet even though she cleans it. These are widely held norms that rarely involve an explicit request or denial; everyone knows the expectations and acts accordingly. I am however unsure to what extent this is explicitly about caste, vs about class. e.g. Guests who are of a different caste are treated hospitably, and are allowed into the house including the kitchen, and are allowed to use the toilet.
Americans have a fairly expansive view of systemic racism, and also a good historical understanding of it.
I have started noticing the term "systemic casteism" on social media, and on rare occasions in newspapers. The concept still feels very much like an import from the West, with the word "race" replaced with the word "caste". I don't think it is a mainstream concept. Due to the fragmented nature of caste, I wonder if it is even possible to have a coherent national narrative. I think there is value in greater understanding and popularization of this concept in indigenous terms.
One major indicator of institutional casteism is the high rate of endogamy. Even though one's classmates, friends, colleagues, and neighbors may be of other castes, when it comes to marriage Indians overwhelmingly choose someone from their own community (same caste, language, region, status, etc). In my extended family, I know of only one intercaste marriage, and even years later it was at times a topic for hushed tones. In my generation, the number of people who did not have an arranged marriage is a higher percentage than in previous generations, but still a small minority. The difference is more apparent in the bride and groom being from different regions, and having different native languages, but I don't know how often they are from different castes as well. Indian Americans also remain highly endogamous, indicating that increased levels of education, urbanization, wealth, social mobility, and even immigration may not be enough to change the trend.
Whereas Americans have gradually become universally supportive of interracial relationships, there is little evidence of change in Indian opinions on this topic. It is understandable that individuals have peculiar and largely risk-averse preferences in selecting partners, but social pressures discouraging such choices are also very common.
In the US, cultural representation of racial diversity is a big topic. In arts, sports, business, and politics alike, there is a keen and increasingly explicit awareness about milestones and percentages. We see this in the Academy Awards, quarterbacks and MVP winners, board rooms and billionaires, and elected representatives and the people they nominate for important positions in the Government.
In India, this is more low-key. I know the caste of a handful of cricketers, a handful of actors, and a handful of business executives. I think the vast majority of people don't know or don't care about the caste of their favorite cricketer or superstar – the reason these are famous is because they are able to have a very broad appeal that is larger than life and larger than a narrow social group.
Occasionally there are movies, including popular and acclaimed ones, that deal with caste. But in the vast majority, nobody knows the castes of the characters, nobody knows whether the hero and heroine are from different castes, and nobody cares. Perhaps because the purpose is to have a broad appeal, it makes business sense to downplay any differences.
Caste is more salient in regional politics, and I have seen several viral videos of politicians saying offensive and incendiary things during speeches. At the central government level, once again when it comes to Prime Ministers and cabinets, it is said that they try to have internal quotas in order to appeal to all sections of the population though this is never acknowledged. I learnt while writing this essay that the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi is from an OBC. I knew former PM PV Narasimha Rao was a Telugu Brahmin, and former President KR Narayanan was a Dalit (SC).
In the US, government organizations, think tanks like Pew Research Center, polling firms like Gallup, and news organizations all collect and share a lot of high quality data. Even the quality and accuracy of Wikipedia articles and Our World in Data graphs is very good. Apart from policy implications, it is feasible for people including outsiders like me to become better informed and gain a sense of the big picture.
This is generally more challenging for any topic about India.
e.g. When I looked for racial diversity in the US federal government, I could quickly find pages like this and this. Whereas when I looked for caste diversity in the Indian central government, after a long search I found something like this, which isn't that accessible (a screenshot of a table) and whose original source I couldn't find.
This gets even trickier for macro indicators. This has implications for both policy making, as well as a layperson's understanding that isn't simply extrapolated from their individual experience. This is especially true for something as complex and important as casteism. I am hopeful that efforts like the Development Data Lab can make a difference in the future.
Americans demonstrate a high level of awareness and consciousness about race and racism. This is apparent in both news and my social circles. People find blatant racism offensive, and are vocally critical of it. People are also sensitive to being accused of racism, and in my experience go out of their way to avoid being in such a position.
Casteism is less acknowledged in India, and rarely discussed in my Indian circles. In some ways, I feel more ignorant about caste than about race. If an Indian is accused of being casteist, something I have never heard of in my life, I wonder if we feel even a fraction of the sting that an American being called a racist feels. It doesn't seem to prick our conscience as much.
Casteism in the US
In the last decade there were a couple of caste-related events in the US that were widely covered, about which people I know have asked me questions.
First was the publication of Sujatha Gidla's memoir Ants Among Elephants. I haven't read the book. I listened to her conversation with Tyler Cowen, and recommend listening to it. She is a staunch critic of casteism. She directly suffered from casteism in India, including being tortured during her days of student activism. She thinks that casteism is highly prevalent in the US as well. I agree with her on the need to eradicate casteism. Referring to the afore-mentioned conversation, when it comes to specifics, I disagree with her on many things.
There is greater context to be aware of, which is apparently covered in her book as well. India has an ongoing civil conflict that is nearly six decades old, fought by left-wing extremists. Sujatha's uncle played a starring role in it as a founder of an underground party that was engaged in terrorist activities. Throughout that conflict, tens of thousands have died, and many innocent people including her have suffered as collateral damage. Though nobody I personally know was directly affected, I have heard of many second-hand accounts. I am from the same region as her, a region where this extremism was prevalent and always in the news, so I too have strong views against the conflict. The book was highly acclaimed in the US, making many best of 2017 lists. I read a few reviews by Indians which were more critical. One review by an Indian from the same region, who is apparently an expert on the subject, criticized the book as ahistorical and inaccurate. I don't know what to think. People affected by the Naxal movement are likely to have far more heat than light on this subject, and I am particularly skeptical of anyone who identifies as a Communist and Marxist. As a memoir, it is still her truth.
Second was the Cisco case. This is an ongoing caste discrimination lawsuit. As a regular listener of NPR's Planet Money, I listened to their episode about this. I was shocked by it. Some of the things they mention, like patting someone to feel whether one is wearing a yajñopavītam was something that I hadn't heard of even in India.
I have never seen casteism in the US. I now think it may be more common than what I thought, but I am also wary of coming to sweeping conclusions.
Thanks to MCK and Dad for comments and suggestions.