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Caste: Part 2 - The Arbitrary Construction of Human Divisions 
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 Caste: Part 2 - The Arbitrary Construction of Human Divisions
Caste: Part 2 - The Arbitrary Construction of Human Divisions

Please use this thread for discussing Caste: Part 2 - The Arbitrary Construction of Human Divisions.



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Post Re: Caste: Part 2 - The Arbitrary Construction of Human Divisions
CHAPTER FOUR
A Long-Running Play and the Emergence of Caste in America


Quote:
Day after day, the curtain rises on a stage of epic proportions, one that has been running for centuries. The actors wear the costumes of their predecessors and inhabit the roles assigned to them. The people in these roles are not the characters they play, but they have played the roles long enough to incorporate the roles into their very being, to merge the assignment with their inner selves and how they are seen in the world. The costumes were handed out at birth and can never be removed. The costumes cue everyone in the cast to the roles each character is to play and to each character’s place on the stage. Over the run of the show, the cast has grown accustomed to who plays which part. For generations, everyone has known who is center stage in the lead. Everyone knows who the hero is, who the supporting characters are, who is the sidekick good for laughs, and who is in shadow, the undifferentiated chorus with no lines to speak, no voice to sing, but necessary for the production to work.


Quote:
The social pyramid known as a caste system is not identical to the cast in a play, though the similarity in the two words hints at a tantalizing intersection. When we are cast into roles, we are not ourselves. We are not supposed to be ourselves. We are performing based on our place in the production, not necessarily on who we are inside. We are all players on a stage that was built long before our ancestors arrived in this land.

The previous chapter ended with a discussion of the movie The Matrix and invisible programming silently controlling actions. Part Two begins by comparing our actions to roles inherited in an ancient script.

Discuss:
  • Cultural norms or silent programming transmitted for many generations.
  • Tendencies to follow those instructions without much conscious thought or questioning.



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Post Re: Caste: Part 2 - The Arbitrary Construction of Human Divisions
This chapter continues by summarizing the evolution of the lowest caste, starting in 1619.
Quote:
Thus, before there was a United States of America, there was the caste system, born in colonial Virginia. At first, religion, not race as we now know it, defined the status of people in the colonies. Christianity, as a proxy for Europeans, generally exempted European workers from lifetime enslavement. This initial distinction is what condemned, first, indigenous people, and, then, Africans, most of whom were not Christian upon arrival, to the lowest rung of an emerging hierarchy before the concept of race had congealed to justify their eventual and total debasement.
p. 41

This started with religion, then had to evolve when Africans began converting to Christianity. What it quickly evolved into makes for very painful reading.
Quote:
What the colonists created was “an extreme form of slavery that had existed nowhere in the world,” wrote the legal historian Ariela J. Gross. “For the first time in history, one category of humanity was ruled out of the ‘human race’ and into a separate subgroup that was to remain enslaved for generations in perpetuity.”

The institution of slavery was, for a quarter millennium, the conversion of human beings into currency, into machines who existed solely for the profit of their owners, to be worked as long as the owners desired, who had no rights over their bodies or loved ones, who could be mortgaged, bred, won in a bet, given as wedding presents, bequeathed to heirs, sold away from spouses or children to cover an owner’s debt or to spite a rival or to settle an estate. They were regularly whipped, raped, and branded, subjected to any whim or distemper of the people who owned them. Some were castrated or endured other tortures too grisly for these pages, tortures that the Geneva Conventions would have banned as war crimes had the conventions applied to people of African descent on this soil.



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Post Re: Caste: Part 2 - The Arbitrary Construction of Human Divisions
Quote:
Somewhere in the journey, Europeans became something they had never been or needed to be before. They went from being Czech or Hungarian or Polish to white, a political designation that only has meaning when set against something not white. They would join a new creation, an umbrella category for anyone who entered the New World from Europe. Germans gained acceptance as part of the dominant caste in the 1840s, according to immigration and legal scholar Ian Haney López, the Irish in the 1850s to 1880s, and the eastern and southern Europeans in the early twentieth century. It was in becoming American that they became white.


Immigrants had to be integrated into this system. Some of them occupying, for a time, a middle caste status as stated below.

Quote:
Unable to attack the white elites who were sending them to war and who had prohibited black men from enlisting, Irish immigrants turned their frustration and rage against the scapegoats who they by now knew were beneath them in the American hierarchy. They hung black men from lamp poles and burned to the ground anything associated with black people—homes, businesses, churches, a black orphanage—in the Draft Riots of 1863, considered the largest race riot in American history. A century later and in living memory, some four thousand Italian and Polish immigrants went on a rampage when a black veteran tried to move his family into the all-white suburb of Cicero, Illinois, in 1951. Hostility toward the lowest caste became part of the initiation rite into citizenship in America.



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Post Re: Caste: Part 2 - The Arbitrary Construction of Human Divisions
Discuss / compare / contrast these two statements.

Quote:
“No one was white before he/she came to America,” James Baldwin once said.


Quote:
“You know that there are no black people in Africa,” she said.

Most Americans, weaned on the myth of drawable lines between human beings, have to sit with that statement. It sounds nonsensical to our ears. Of course there are black people in Africa. There is a whole continent of black people in Africa. How could anyone not see that?

“Africans are not black,” she said. “They are Igbo and Yoruba, Ewe, Akan, Ndebele. They are not black. They are just themselves. They are humans on the land. That is how they see themselves, and that is who they are.”



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Post Re: Caste: Part 2 - The Arbitrary Construction of Human Divisions
Chapter Five
"The Container We Have Built for You"


This chapter begins with a story of a girl born in the 1970's named Miss. Her name was a bit of a revolt against the establishment.
Quote:
Black men were never to be addressed as ”Mister,” and black women were never to be addressed as “Miss” or “Mrs.,” but rather by their first name or “auntie” or “gal,” regardless of their age or marital status.
...A young boy growing up ninety miles south, in Selma, watched white people, complete strangers, children even, call his mother and grandmother by their first names, have the nerve to call out “Pearlie!” to his mother instead of “Mrs. Hale,” despite their upright bearing and church gloves and finery.

Miss's name caused discomfort and exasperation among white people. The author interviews Miss Hale and relates this insight for the chapter title.
Quote:
A white porcelain sugar bowl sat between us on the table. She swept her hand over the top of the bowl. “I find that white people are fine with me,” she said, “as long as I stay in my place. As long as I stay in ‘the container we have built for you.’ ” She tapped the side of the sugar bowl, gentle, insistent taps. “As soon as I get out of the container,” she said, lifting the lid from its bowl, “it’s a problem.”

Miss Hale tells the story of spending a summer with a white family on Long Island. She became quite attached to the grandmother, who did not want her to leave.
Quote:
“There was a time,” the matriarch said, in warning and regret, “when I could have made you stay.” She adjusted herself, her voice trailing off at her impotence…

Quote:
Each of us is in a container of some kind. The label signals to the world what is presumed to be inside and what is to be done with it. The label tells you which shelf your container supposedly belongs on. In a caste system, the label is frequently out of sync with the contents, mistakenly put on the wrong shelf and this hurts people and institutions in ways we may not always know.

Chapter 5 ends with a bizarre personal story where a subject Isabel Wilkerson was about to interview refused to believe she was a reporter for the NY Times.



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Post Re: Caste: Part 2 - The Arbitrary Construction of Human Divisions
LanDroid wrote:
[*] Cultural norms or silent programming transmitted for many generations.
[*] Tendencies to follow those instructions without much conscious thought or questioning.[/list]

I still don't know if I can go along with her Matrix analogy. I think she's saying that without very explicit markers of caste separations, such as "whites only" signs, caste can be firmly entrenched on a subconscious level. That is plausible, so I suppose my discomfort is that the analogy seems to go a bit far. More apparent to me is how little active maintenance could be required for a caste system, how, once started, it could be almost self-maintaining. Part of what accounts for that is that what is not happening around you is unlikely to be noticed. If you live in a neighborhood where everyone is white, that's just your life; you're unlikely to see it as a feature of a caste system. The historical injustices also tend to become buried, but their influence is still real; we just can't see with that wide a lens.

Belief that "the way things are" is the way things should be comes easily to people.. The scene that opens Regina King's "One Night in Miami" is a startling example of this. In the scene, football plyer Jim Brown, having just set the NFL single-season rushing record, visits a rich white scion on his grand estate, which is in the same area in which Brown grew up. The man is cordial to Brown, offering him lemonade on the veranda and telling Brown that he'll always be a friend, unlike the others around there. Brown is puzzled and wary at this reception, so unlike what he grew up being used to, but he begins to relax. Then the man's daughter asks him to move a desk inside. He gets up to do that. Brown offers to help him, but the man says, "That's real nice of you, but we don't allow niggers in the house." The scene is fictional as far as I know, but it illustrates the benign face of racial caste. It was the best way for society to get along--no hard feelings. It was necessary to make the upper caste feel virtuous in order to keep such a system. That would not be possible if the basis was hate.



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Post Re: Caste: Part 2 - The Arbitrary Construction of Human Divisions
Well if you think the Matrix analogy is stretching it too far, it appears you agree with her argument in general. No one alive is responsible for the current system. Like legacy software programming or a screenplay, we inherit roles from the past. It can feel like the natural order of things that is automatically maintained. As the author stated twice in Chapter 4, "We are not ourselves."
DWill wrote:
The historical injustices also tend to become buried, but their influence is still real; we just can't see with that wide a lens.

How can we improve our ability to see through it?



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Post Re: Caste: Part 2 - The Arbitrary Construction of Human Divisions
CHAPTER SIX
The Measure of Humanity


This chapter begins by imagining an alternate universe where people are measured and divided based on height, not race.
Quote:
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.
...Tall people would be made to feel insecure and self-conscious, gangly and unappealing, having been born at the opposite end of the ideal.

Quote:
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.

OK so this exercise highlights the absurdity of such arbitrary divisions as race or height. But think a little deeper, doesn't it also question caste - the raw concept of having categories, division, and subordination of any sort?
Quote:
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.

With the above recent scientific confirmation, consider the genesis of dividing humans into arbitrary categories and our systems of subordination and power.
Why are these categories so superficial?



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Post Re: Caste: Part 2 - The Arbitrary Construction of Human Divisions
LanDroid wrote:
Well if you think the Matrix analogy is stretching it too far, it appears you agree with her argument in general. No one alive is responsible for the current system. Like legacy software programming or a screenplay, we inherit roles from the past. It can feel like the natural order of things that is automatically maintained. As the author stated twice in Chapter 4, "We are not ourselves."
DWill wrote:
The historical injustices also tend to become buried, but their influence is still real; we just can't see with that wide a lens.

How can we improve our ability to see through it?

On the "Earshot" podcast, an Australian immigrant from India told how she did not even know what her caste was while she lived in India. This might seem to indicate that the caste system isn't as pervasive as it's claimed to be, but after talking to other Indian immigrants she began to realize that not knowing about caste was a clear indication that one is in an upper caste. (I'm pretty sure Wilkerson makes a similar point in the book.) The way to see through the system, for upper-casters, has to involve this type of personal acquaintance with others who didn't automatically have the advantages of what we're more comfortable in calling the middle- or upper-class. But we seem to keep ourselves largely segregated by class or caste. So that, even if we're part of an affluent progressive social group, we don't have much beyond intellectual knowledge of how it might be for others who were sorted into lower castes at birth.



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Post Re: Caste: Part 2 - The Arbitrary Construction of Human Divisions
LanDroid wrote:
With the above recent scientific confirmation, consider the genesis of dividing humans into arbitrary categories and our systems of subordination and power.
Why are these categories so superficial?

As a matter of fact, of course, tallness does confer a social advantage, at least if it's not "freakish" tallness, and probably only for men in our society. So we can see the different ways in which superficial characteristics are seized upon by a largely visual species. With faces being the primary image we latch onto after birth, it makes sense that we make things of significance out of accidental and unimportant differences in facial features. Resisting such programing becomes an objective of education and enlightenment.



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Post Re: Caste: Part 2 - The Arbitrary Construction of Human Divisions
DWill wrote:
not knowing about caste was a clear indication that one is in an upper caste.
For the rich and successful, their lifestyle seems normal, sensible and obvious, something anyone could freely achieve who wants to and has the required talent. Anyone who deviates from these standards carries a taint of failure in the eyes of the successful, blamed for blaming the world instead of working hard and organising themself.

This 'failure to be normal' carries a moral opprobrium. The successful tend to associate only with other successful people, like the happy families in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. The unhappy stew in their particular problems.

For the upper caste, whether in India or western countries, the blindness to how external factors constrain people's success is almost a necessary part of their own self-confidence about living in a free country. Prejudice against the 'out-caste' is a natural product of this normalisation of success, blaming the victim, especially with how the traumatic legacy of slavery in the USA continues to inhibit the potential of black people.

Those whose families benefited from holding slaves stand upon the economic and social platform that slavery provided for ongoing intergenerational success. They prefer not to see how the past exists as a real ongoing constraint on the present.


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Post Re: Caste: Part 2 - The Arbitrary Construction of Human Divisions
DWill wrote:
As a matter of fact, of course, tallness does confer a social advantage, at least if it's not "freakish" tallness, and probably only for men in our society.

Yes, but in the author's thought experiment short people were given the advantage while tall people were considered "gangly," etc. She says if we inherited such a culture, it would be accepted as the natural state of affairs. I take this to mean superficial categories such as race, religion, or however India determines its categories are less important than the underlying power of the caste system, which demands a dominant class, subordinates, and protections against infection from the subordinate castes.

The caste system is like an immense concrete wall where artwork is displayed. We rotate exhibits of race, religion, etc. on that wall and "Ku-Kluck" at how horrible those people are. Americans hung caricatures of Irish, Italian, and Chinese people on that wall, then later took them down. Other ancient paintings likely will remain for much longer. We study the artwork in detail, yet we do not notice the separation caused by the wall itself. We have no curiosity or clue about the genesis of that wall. That's how I'm starting to understand differences between race and caste - not sure if it's correct, probably incomplete. Ay?



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Post Re: Caste: Part 2 - The Arbitrary Construction of Human Divisions
Quote:
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.
P. 70

Interesting. This seems to be saying caste is above the fray: Keep the power structure in place, but it's not important how that is accomplished.



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Post Re: Caste: Part 2 - The Arbitrary Construction of Human Divisions
LanDroid wrote:
Discuss / compare / contrast these two statements.

Quote:
“No one was white before he/she came to America,” James Baldwin once said.


Well, of course we know from Shakespeare's "Othello" that this is an exaggeration. Yet it is true that racial difference was more a curiosity than a fact of everyday life for most Europeans through most of history. Race played no role in caste, but it was a marker of insider and outsider. Those markers were mainly language and folkways, so that the differences people were preoccupied with were those of nationality, which in Europe up to the time of Louis XIV could be very much a matter of 100 mile differences. There was no "German" language until Luther translated the Bible, for example, even though at the boundaries people could easily have distinguished Germanic tongues from French or Slavic.

Were Wilkerson's work more of an academic enterprise I would hold her responsible for separating the business of marking "us" from "them" as distinct from the business of creating hierarchies of caste. Something like caste happened in Europe because of the blond barbarians dominating Spain and Italy for centuries, but the distinctions are not as marked or as reliable (even if blonds only marry blonds, the occasional dark haired genes will crop up).

I think this is critical to the issue of perpetuation in the present day. Most of today's barriers to people of color are not due to intentional creation of hierarchy, like the White Supremacists would like to see. Rather they are due to stereotypes, some of which correspond to statistical averages, combined with "us" and "them" perceptions. For example, if one believes that most Black people are poor, one might not want to be served in a bank by a Black person for any number of reasons, with varying degrees of rationality behind them. If there is no marker of someone as "other" then one might look for other clues to danger, but stereotyping stops the checking before it gets serious. A well-off Black person might prefer to be served by a White bank officer, not because of a sense of difference but because of stereotyping.

Quote:
“You know that there are no black people in Africa,” she said.

Most Americans, weaned on the myth of drawable lines between human beings, have to sit with that statement. It sounds nonsensical to our ears. Of course there are black people in Africa. There is a whole continent of black people in Africa. How could anyone not see that?

“Africans are not black,” she said. “They are Igbo and Yoruba, Ewe, Akan, Ndebele. They are not black. They are just themselves. They are humans on the land. That is how they see themselves, and that is who they are.”


This is also true and not true at the same time. Having lived in West Africa I can say for certain there is very strong White Privilege. There are plenty of White folks around in the city, and they are assumed to be well off and therefore worth treating with great respect. But it is also true that Africans are acutely attuned to language differences and ethnicities, and will form up sides if there is conflict on the street. The differences that people are mainly interested in, there, are the ethnic ones. I was pretty impressed at how well many people would reach across those boundaries, learning 4 to 6 languages just as easily as the Europeans do. But I also heard stories of the continuing exclusion of refugees from poorer countries and it was clear that there was little effort to provide opportunities for outsiders.



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