Racism and Casteism

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The following article is about racism and its equivalent casteism in India. Shirin, an American woman working in South Africa, invited to attend the seminar on the zoom.  

Mike Ghouse
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I didn’t even know

Our understanding of the world depends on what we are exposed to. I used to think December was cold weather and warm clothes until I went to study in Melbourne, Australia. I realized then that December is summer if you are in the southern hemisphere. What you need there is a t-shirt and not a coat. 

Fortunately, understanding hemisphere-based seasonal changes are not so difficult once you have been exposed to them. But what about the things that shape our worldview? While interviewing my friend Ruchi Sharma for the “D Word” series, she told me that even though she knew that the caste system existed, she didn’t know that there was any discrimination against people of the so-called lower castes and Dalits (previously called untouchables). This was largely due to her upbringing in which her parents did not mention caste and also it was not a reference point she had in her neighborhood and in her school. 

Similarly, for me when I was growing up, I thought of Diwali, Eid, and Christmas as festivals we celebrated, not as religious festivals per se. It didn’t occur to me that I should celebrate only one or another of these because my mom is Hindu, my dad Muslim and my school which had a big influence on me was run by Christians. We looked forward to all these festivals with exactly the same enthusiasm and I never thought of them as belonging to any specific religions. They all belonged to us.

But our little worlds, no matter how idyllic they may seem, are not the full picture. In the bigger world of university, jobs and marriages, we encounter realities, sometimes harsh realities. For example, Ruchi’s classmates in university were quite clearly in two groups. One group consisted of the so-called upper caste students. Most of them were confident, had stable financial support and many were planning to go to the USA for further studies.

The other group was of the so-called lower castes and many in that group were struggling when it came to confidence and financial resources. Was it just a coincidence or was there anything deeper in it? Ruchi didn’t think of it in caste terms at first because she did not know about casteism. It is only when she read more and was exposed to more ideas that she realized that discrimination over time had led to these differences. Social scientists talk about this as the depletion of social capital. 
In other cultures, this looks a little different. For instance, we know a family for many years where the mom is a white American, the dad is brown (from India) and the adopted daughter is Black. While in her home and in her circle of friends, as a small child she was not exposed to racist stereotypes, once she went to school, she was shocked to find that her family was considered weird. For this little girl, her family was the most natural thing in the world. But for many outsides, her family was an oddity – something they did not expect and were ready to call strange.

Realities can be different from what we know or feel. I may be “color blind” but racism is still a deadly reality. The murder of George Floyd and of Breonna Taylor are a sad testament to this reality. 

To say that I do not believe in caste, does not mean that casteism is not practiced. Many companies refuse to hire and promote people who do not come from “upper castes” and this discrimination against people from the “lower castes” and Dalit backgrounds is not limited to India alone. Many people reacted with disbelief that Cisco, a corporation in Silicon Valley has been accused of caste discrimination but this is not an isolated case. Similarly to say that various religions are just different ways to connect with God does not mean that communalism (religious sectarianism) is not promoted by political parties and governments. The attack on a Musim man in Gurgaon, India, recently is only the latest in a shamefully long list of religious-hate inspired beatings and lynchings committed by people who believe they have the right to attack someone because they come from another religious background.

It is certainly commendable if we can expunge bigotry and prejudice from our immediate lives. It is beautiful to raise a family where the divides of race, religion and caste are not taught. But that is not enough because our lives do not exist in vacuum and we have a social responsibility to promote humanism in our society. We must therefore go further and remove the ills of racism, casteism and communalism from the concentric circles that our lives are part of. One way to start is by knowing more about things that we ourselves don’t practice but which undoubtedly exist and impact our society negatively. Join us this Saturday, August 8 to understand casteism and how it certainly is not a thing of the past with our webinar featuring Subhash Gatade who is a writer and activist.

You can also hear two interviews Sameer did with brilliant political scientists: Bill Fletcher Junior on racism and Achin Vanaik on religious nationalism. In addition, noted Gandhian Vipin Tripathi’s English interview is also online. To sign off, here is an amusing quote by the comedy writer Robert Oben: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” –

For Peace Vigil

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