Why I like to ask about caste

Last week I was at a conference where a British academic asked an American academic “how much money do you make?” It was really strange to me because in American society you don’t ask this question. It’s not polite. And I immediately explained to the British academic that you just don’t ask this question.

But, it illustrates what really matters in America. “How much money do you make?” gets to the heart of the American ethos. We don’t talk about it in public, but on some level, it’s the ultimate thing that matters. Americans really really care about money.

What you can’t talk about, is what really matters. So when Zach invited a bunch of people to the Whatsapp group (which I don’t check that frequently), I decided to just ask someone’s caste. Of course, that is “not done.” But that’s because of the fact that most people on some level care. A lot. That’s how you could have a group where most people are on the same page about the problems and deficits of caste privilege, but everyone turns out to be not lower caste.

On Aziz Ansari’s new special there’s a thing about how white people are “woke” on Instagram. Similarly, you see the Chatterjee’s, Iyers, and Tripathis outdoing each other on how awful caste privilege is on Twitter.

37 thoughts on “Why I like to ask about caste”

  1. Yayy for Aziz. Awesome special. He is really trying something different. And being funny and poignant while doing it.

  2. I don’t know about the “caring” explanation. For my part, I’d be very reluctant to talk about caste (my own or others) simply because I’d be wary of what stereotypes the other person would assume about me.

    If I knew for sure that the questioner’s motive was anthropological, as yours would be, I wouldn’t have any problem being frank with them. Otherwise, I’d look askance at the questioner. If I said I come from a Brahmin family, would he/she bracket me with a white supremacist or Nazi? (People project their political views onto foreign cultures they know little about.) So one could get into uncomfortable social situations.

    This is in the West, of course. In India, people either know your caste (and know not to inquire) or genuinely don’t care. But people’s caste backgrounds can bear upon their behavior, making them behave obnoxiously or in subservient manners, both unwarranted.

    1. > “If I said I come from a Brahmin family, would he/she bracket me with a white supremacist or Nazi?”

      Even worse, they could bracket you as a Serb.

  3. num, one thing that annoys me is that american brown ppl talking about oppression is like upper-middle-class people talking about economic marginalization. quite often there are no low caste ppl in the room, just like the real working poor are invisible.

  4. Razib, what is wrong about American Brown People relating to oppression – caste based or racial, or whatever – if they (A) acknowledge that they are privileged, (B) are also trying to address some of the root causes of oppression or trying to provide redress in one form or another??

    What are you expecting American Brown People to do, simply stay mum?

    We all know many American Browns – especially the next generation – who despite the privilege of birth, will not enjoy some the same standard of living as their parents did, because of their educational attainments or the professions they have chosen, etc. Let’s take for example school teachers in the US. Is it wrong for American Brown People to say that school teachers – low pay and poor benefits for some of the most important jobs that needs to be done – deserve better? School teachers may not be “oppressed’ in the traditional sense of the word, but does society do right by them?

    If solidarity with the oppressed is an act, I do understand and condemn the hypocrisy.

    1. It is not wrong for anyone to express solidarity with anyone.

      It is undesirable to have a discourse dominated by people of one background salient to the discourse, however much they may disown that background.

    2. JT, Eastern philosophy rejects the concept of “privilege.”

      Eastern thinking is generally based on the assumption that everyone is divine (9 of 10 Darshanas). Most can unlock physical health (Bahu Balam), deep mental health (Chitta Shuddhi), deep intelligence (Buddhi) and power (Siddhi) inside themselves through effort (abhyaasa). This implies that most have extraordinary “privilege.”

      9 of the 10 Darshanas (aside from Chaarvaaka which may contain a multiplicity of views) also generally rejects the concept of “oppression” or the idea that people can systematically predictably benefit themselves by harming others. Almost always when we hurt others we harm ourselves. Those we are trying to harm might not be harmed by our attempt to harm them. Those we are trying to harm might benefit from our trying to harm them. But we are almost always harmed in the long run by attempting to harm others. {I believe this is true of Taoism too . . . but need further research to verify.}

      Why should we accept a frame and paradigm that we fundamentally and deeply disagree with?

      I agree with you that we can try to facilitate others achieving their own miracles through their own efforts. We can call it “help”. However I think we need the humility to understand the people we are trying to “help” have incredible divine potential inside themselves and don’t really need us.

      If you are implying that we can understand and empathize with others (connect our nervous system with those of others) if we perfect our own brain and nervous system (transforming and improving ourselves) . . . I would agree.

      Jesus, Mohammed pbuh, Zorathustra and others were experts at this.

      “We all know many American Browns – especially the next generation – who despite the privilege of birth, will not enjoy some the same standard of living as their parents did, because of their educational attainments or the professions they have chosen, etc. Let’s take for example school teachers in the US. Is it wrong for American Brown People to say that school teachers – low pay and poor benefits for some of the most important jobs that needs to be done – deserve better? School teachers may not be “oppressed’ in the traditional sense of the word, but does society do right by them?”

      Can you elaborate? Public schools that cater to poor and lower middle class kids spend far more per student that schools that cater to middle class and upper middle class kids.

      Education spending per student is strongly negatively correlated with educational outcomes. Smaller classroom sizes are strongly correlated with negative educational outcomes.

      Do you think we should sharply increase average class sizes and boost teacher pay? Should we introduce merit based compensation for teachers (where good teachers work investment bank hours and make over 200K per year)?

      Do you support charter schools and vouchers?

      1. Anan, what do you mean by eastern philosophy? What do you mean by “privilege”? What is “class”?

        1. Ikram:

          I am defining “privilege” as the combination of:
          —physical health (bahu balam)
          —mental health (chitta shuddhi)
          —deep intelligence (buddhi)
          —power (Siddhi)
          —other measures of merit, competence and capacity
          —satsang (one’s company)

          Socio-economic class = combination of satsang (one’s company), and the degree to which one’s company facilitates one’s acquisition of the above. Plus wealth broadly defined.

          Eastern apta and shastra shabda pramaana imply that bahu balam, chitta shuddhi, buddhi and siddhi are not sticky but can be changed through abhyaasa (effort). Or that humans can become superhuman if humans choose to do so. {Note that Abhyaasa is one of many ways a human can become super-human. And not necessarily the best or fastest way.}

          Based on this understanding everyone is divine and most people have vast amounts of privilege (with some exceptions for coma patients and the like).

          Would you define “privilege” and “class” differently?

          Eastern philosophy is being defined as 10 Darshanas plus related darshanas (BonPo, Sikhism, several branches of Sufism, several branches of Christianity that identify with eastern philosophy) plus Taoism. Eastern philosophy is difficult to tie down because of the concept of Sarva Dharma Sama Bhaava Sarva Sresht (or the assertion that all religions are true).

          One could say the philosophy of “love” or “consciousness” or “satori” or “samadhi” or “Tao”. Which ties eastern thought with other religions from around the world.

          I am defining religion as seeking the truth or transcending all theisms or atheism. Religion has two large components:
          —seeking truth with concepts and surface level thoughts or science
          —seeking truth without concepts or surface level thoughts or art

      2. you do know your long comments are often unread, right bro? 😉 twitter’s brevity is a bit much, but your tendencies to write blog-posts in the comment threads is too far in the other extreme i think to foster real discussion.

        ppl need a refractory period after the post….

  5. Why I like to ask again about caste?

    As one of few Dalits on this blog (referring to the latest BP survey) I would like to ask (again) about the origin of castes in India unless if this is still on the BP taboo list. Should I blame grassland people for this or not?

    1. Milan, until recently the word “Dalit” was not widely used. The word didn’t exist in the 1930s. The terms SCs, STs and OBCs were generally used.

      How can someone who is divine, good, great and beautiful be broken and scattered?

      Post modernists are trying to subtly colonize the minds of people with inferiority complex to damage their self confidence and keep them down.

      Similarly I disagree with the concept of “subaltern.”

      Milan you are smart, wise, mature (have mental health) and powerful. You have Satwa and Rajas guna. Why self identify as broken and scattered?

    2. Razib, Indians are extremely interested in socio-economic class, academic rank, income and wealth. Far, far more class conscious and class bigoted than Americans.

      Class-ism is more than 10 times as big an issue in India as Jati Vaad. Maybe the ratio is far larger than 10 times.

      Shouldn’t the vast majority of our efforts be focused on class-ism?

      A very socio-economically successful and physically attractive SC, ST or OBC will get thousands of high quality marriage proposals from very orthodox traditional religious vaishya, kshatriya and brahmin. {Physical attractiveness goes a long way for males too.}

      Boosting physical health, mental health, intelligence, merit, capacity and competence automatically solves Jati-vaad.

        1. +1008

          Completely agree. All brownz should lift weights (of course exceptions for coma patience and the like). Would do a world of good to improve physical health and all the rest.

          1. I said the same thing but with a different wording – abandon this bloody cricket!!!

      1. “A very socio-economically successful and physically attractive SC, ST or OBC will get thousands of high quality marriage proposals from very orthodox traditional religious vaishya, kshatriya and brahmin. ” —- Anand, i think i have told you this before and telling you again , classification of jaatis under these categories is not based on “varna” . We have “brahmins”, “kshatriyas” and “vaishyas” groups classified as OBC in various states.

        “Milan, until recently the word “Dalit” was not widely used. The word didn’t exist in the 1930s. The terms SCs, STs and OBCs were generally used.” —- OBC didn’t exist back then. We had terms like “depressed class” , “primitive tribes” etc. The depressed class later became scheduled caste (with some additions of jaatis which were earlier labeled as criminal tribes). Today , the “dalit” word is USED ONLY FOR Scheduled Castes .

  6. Caste is meaningless in America. Race is salient.

    I think South Asian-Americans are culturally marginalized, and belong to a relatively non-politically powerful marginalized group

    The representation of Indian people in American media is improving, but is pretty trash.

    Indian-Americans are rich due to selective immigration, despite facing many hurdles in the workplace.

    1. Sumit, I have told many caucasians that Deshis (SAARC folk) are heavily oppressed and discriminated against. This use to work slightly with some caucasians a long time ago. It does not work with caucasians any more.

      SAARCis (and Hindu Americans if you tabulate it that way) are by far the most socio-economically successful group in America. SAARCis are incredibly politically connected and influential. SAARCis are kicking serious butt academically by any and every measure. Dominating new hires of post docs, assistant professors, associate professors in the academy. Started breaking into Hollywood recently. I Banking, consulting, VCs, start ups, tech (CEOs of Google, Microsoft, Nokia, Adobe, Glo-Fo, Net App), real estate, you name it.

      Politicians from across the political spectrum show up at Deshi events upon demand.

      The only thing that Deshis consistently fail at are:
      —physical health and fitness

      Sumit, Americans knows this. If you were to say what you wrote to Americans, they would look at you funny (as if accusing you of lying or being a loon).

      There is a reason that Deshis in North America are often accused of nazism, white supremacy, racism, oppression, exploitation, imperialism, Islamophobia, and the rest.


      PS. Razib I think Sumit is cracking a joke and enjoying our reaction. 🙂 :LOL:

  7. I think South Asian-Americans are culturally marginalized, and belong to a relatively non-politically powerful marginalized group

    are you fucking kidding me? AOC’s brain is brown. bernie’s campaign is run by a brown. the president of CAP is a brown. we have a half-brown who is now #2 in the polls for the dems.

    are you a dumb bullshitter or do you just play one in the comment threads?

  8. I too like to talk about Caste but my intention is to challenge the prevailing narratives regarding caste & to find the proper solutions to the problems which are termed as ‘Casteist’.

    I don’t indulge in Caste talk on BP most of the time because to present my views here first i have to counter the positions prevalent on BP which makes my posts long & nobody tries to further discuss my posts. BP does not challenge the prevailing caste narratives even one bit & infact goes out of it’s way to appropriate the claims about caste prevalent in West.

    Some interesting Papers which i am not sure if i have shared on BP & which deals with Caste emergence without ever mentioning them as Caste –
    Jan E.M. Houben*
    Linguistic Paradox and Diglossia : the emergence of Sanskrit and Sanskritic language in Ancient India
    https://doi.org/10.1515/opli-2018-0001 – Open source
    Received December 1, 2017; accepted February 20, 2018


    Cambodia Inscription translation –

    1. I skimmed the paper “…the emergence of Sanskrit and Sanskritic language in Ancient India” to find out something about promised ‘emergence’ but I could not find (I may try to reread carefully). Despite hundreds references there is no indication about origins of Sanskrit. It remains an ‘alien’ language. The assertion …’even if the word mleccha has no Indo-European etymology..’ is wrong (whatever IE here means), I wrote about this.

      Re – caste: Recently was mentioned by UK Indian scholar that castes were introduced by English colonisers (and that Hinduism is a fantasy). I tried unsuccessfully couple times to provocate some response about origins of castes (Aryans import or local product). I was expecting that someone would explain this or at least logically speculate or to say – ok, do you know anything about this, what is your opinion, but it was unrealistic considering that, if people don’t know (and not interested) who Aryans were, how they can talk about their caste-like (or not) system. So far, they are just some no-name, mute, ‘steppe’ people.

      1. The paper about Sanskrit emergence proposes how earlier Indic languages like Pali in presence of foreign languages like Avesta or Mittani etc. during standardization of language for writing has led to formation of Sanskrit. Author is not claiming to say that this is exactly what happened but he is using the info that has been understood by learning linguistics like Diglossia & trying to use that understanding to solve the problem of ‘Sanskrit’ emergence in Ancient India.

        I am not sure if you have read other papers which show how emergence of agriculture & agriculture based relations between communities within a region changed which led to communities coming together to form states but retaining their ‘Community’ rights regarding claims of ownership of natural resources. This community based demands of rights continued even during Islamic period & worsened as time went on & colonizers used this differentiation to formulate stronger boundaries using the differences of communities to formulate the castes.

        Caste is imported word. Problem is communities remained became more & more tribalistic due to lack of emergence of big empire & due to constant conflict like situation hence communities stuck together which continued since then.

        1. Organic development of ‘castes’ sounds logical. It definitely was not introduced by some ancient decree. In Aryans homeland the class (rank, stalež) system existed for thousands of years and, what a coincidence, very similar (identical) to this in India. So, as mythology. Mittani language? There are still thousands of identical or very similar (differences in consonants) words between Sanskrit and modern Serbian including specific family relationships (‘husband’s brother’s wife’ or ‘husband’s mother’ or ‘wife’s sister’s husband’, etc). So many coincidences. Why no one tries to explain this?

          1. The similar organic ‘Caste’ development theories in the early period of sociological or anthropological studies in India were being rejected as a method of trying to save religion & culture from criticism. D. D. Kosambi, G. S. Ghurye etc. have proposed similar methods for formation of castes but only their groundworks have been accepted but these proposed ideas got rejected hence the focus on religion vis a vis caste in sociological studies since.

            I can’t say the exact reason why Indian & Serbian are similar but i think the reason lies in the earlier stage of development PIE languages.

        2. PS. Re: tribalisitic (remember Tribals – a Serbian tribe which was a source for this term?)

          The ‘stalež’ (i.e. rank) system was a meritory system (for e.g. not everyone could be a soldier). It existed, for example, in today’s Greece before Greeks migrated there. Greeks introduced a tribal system which is better known as – democracy.

  9. Most young browns do lift. We see our pot bellied skinny fat and/or obese fathers and know our fate, if we don’t. We tend to have small bone structures, even if we are average height. Lifting is a necessity.
    Also, don’t neglect cardio. I lift a lot, and I’m pretty aesthetic yet I have high blood pressure. Lifting is fine but diabetes prevention and heart health both also require cardio.
    Also, Gujarati Vanias (banias) tend to be split bigly. Men young men (I’m 25) from thos communities around my age do lean right of center.

    Lifting meanz squatz, deads, bench, ohp, pull ups, dips, and rows.

    Doing a few pwc flys, bro curls, and lat pull downs isn’t lifting. Get a good strength coach, lift a lot, eat a lot, and sleep a lot.

  10. Hello Razib!
    Caste in India is un secret de polichinelle, an open secret. Everybody knows. It’s like the Matrix – there but not there, opaque, an invisible wall, can contort but not die. It’s been banned by the State, but the ones doing the banning are most likely married into their own caste.

    It is an inter-generational network and cronyism of hundreds and possibly thousands of years to keep one’s privilege intact.

    In theory, everyone should have the right to associate, socialize, work, marry, break bread with whom they like. When does it go too far? When it dehumanizes whole swathes of society as untermensch, and denies them dignity, humanity and the ability to earn a decent livelihood. It is an abominable system that codifies a process of meting egregious cruelty and humiliation to those in a weaker position.

    As one of OBC peasant stock and a fairly tough disposition, I can tell you that it has a way of creeping in, like a cold mist, and effectively kills one’s chances in life. I have lost out on more professional opportunities than I can count, due to always, somehow, not being “quite right” as the English would say.
    Personally, I don’t give a damn about being OBC or non-elite. I’m educated, of clear mind and sound limbs, and in no debt. That alone counts for a lot for me. I don’t care about climbing social ladders or marrying someone of a higher caste, or being seen in the company of so-called elite people. I’d just rather have even a small job and be able to pay my (quite modest) bills without much hassle. But it is not to be. Daily life, for anyone, but most especially for a lower caste person in India is an exercise in constant humiliation. It’s sick, degrading, and sinister. I wish I could just buy a piece of land somewhere remote and just be a subsistence farmer like my ancestors were. I’m so disgusted by the inhumanity of people.

    I suppose other countries with tribal societies and even Western countries have their own versions of the caste system. They just call it something else.

    Most of the Indian-origin people in US are from already elite, wealthy and networked families. I suppose when a wealthy VC and a genetic neurobiologist marry in sunny California, they *may* be hazy (it’s possible) on the details of caste, but most likely not. It’s always amusing to hear how desis are facing discrimination and racism in good olé USA, and how they deny caste, when they grew up in and propagate a system that creates and HAS CREATED entire underclasses of people.

    I swear, it makes one want to take up arms.

    1. Power packed comment Anamika. If you don’t mind, can we know more about you, like what caste you belong to, where you grew up and what is your profession. This will help us put your comments in context and understand it better.

      1. * Everybody knows, therefore no one talks about it.

        @Scorpion eater
        Well, I can’t really tell you my specific caste beyond what I’ve already told you, because then I’d be announcing my identity on the interweb, which would not be wise. I am a private individual and I can’t remember how I originally even stumbled on this site, but I’ve been reading a lot. It’s fascinating that people are having such frank conversations about SA topics. The power of the ‘net!

        Imagine a life replete with micro- and macro- aggressions that shape your life before your eyes, and I’m not a SJW even. Of course, it’s a sliding scale and one places somewhere on the scale based on a bundle of factors but primarily your caste, because that’s what (supposedly) defines you. I’ve been called a goat-herder, a farmer, a cow-herder, a peasant, backward, uncouth, dumb, among other things, by highly educated people, in public and private gatherings, appropos of…nothing. It’s their way of identifying, you see, by placing me/anyone in a pre-defined slot. Now, you may say sticks and stones…ok, I’ll buy that. Words can be shrugged off (though they often pierce one’s conscience). But it really goes deeper when one can’t get a decent job or… not everybody wants to work in a quota-fied government job you know.

        My thoughts are still crystallizing because I’m not an academician and I’ve never written about this before, but what I’m trying to say (I think) is that it is a kind of system, it’s codified in some way, and there are many markers of that codification, that serve to keep one in one’s place. It’s hard to explain.

        1. @Anamika

          I don’t know how old you are and where you live but I had a few questions:
          1. Have you noticed this even in places where people don’t easily recognize your caste or in bigger cities?
          (Ex- say in Bangalore if you are a north Indian)
          2. Has there been any improvement over time?

        2. Thanks for your perspective, Anamika. Do you mind sharing which region/state in India you are from? Also, whether you faced discrimination working in the public or private sector (or both)?Just curious!

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