Reviewing Castes

I recently had the opportunity to work on a discussion guide for the young reader’s version of Isabel Wilkeron’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent (Penguin Random House). In the book, Wilkerson works to distinguish between racism and castecism, proposing that what exists in the United States is a type of caste system based on race, not racism. This concept is not new but, I don’t know that it’s been written about before in such detail. Wilkerson uses pillars to describe the invisible forces that uphold this institution, and she places Dalits (we knew them as ‘Untouchables’) in India and African Americans in the United States as the base or foundation. If there were no one to suppress, there’d be no reason for the caste.

For me, the most unbearable information in the book was that which explains how Nazi Germany study the racialized caste system in the United States for ideas on how to contain, control, and then eliminate Jewish people in Germany.

In preparing the guide, I wanted to include ancillary materials to extend learning. I searched for books and movies that would be age appropriate about Nazi Germany, India and its caste system, particular the Dalits, and anti-Blackness in the United States. Finding good material on most of these topics for high schoolers was a challenge, particularly that about India. I really wanted to find books! I was able to locate (and read) Bhimrao Ambedkar : The Boy Who Asked Why by Sowmya Rajendran and Bhimayana: Experiences Of Untouchability by Subhash Vyam Durgabai Vyam. Reading those wonderful books helped to inform me about Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, who is discussed in Wilkerson’s book as the MLK of India. I feel like I should have known about him sooner.

Both of those books were published in India and were the only ones I could find. However, In my searching for material about Dalits, I ran across numerous articles about how Dalits working in the tech industry in the United States still face discrimination  based in the caste system they thought they’d left behind.

This is from Wired earlier this year.

When they do find their way to the US, Dalits tend to keep their backgrounds private to avoid inviting trouble. “It is very, very dangerous, revealing the identity even to any person,” says Siddhant, who asked to use a pseudonym. In 2020, such fears may have seemed justified when a California state agency filed a lawsuit against the San Jose–based tech giant Cisco, alleging caste discrimination against a Dalit employee. In the weeks that followed, more Dalit tech workers came forward. A South Asian civil rights group called Equality Labs received more than 250 unsolicited complaints against colleagues at Google, Netflix, Amazon, and Facebook, among other places. The individuals claimed that other Indians had made casteist slurs, engaged in discriminatory hiring and firing, sexually harassed them, and aggressively hunted for evidence of a closeted Dalit’s caste.

So, I began to wonder: what about youth literature? Are there any Dalit stories being told in youth literature in the US? Could there even be Dalit authors? How are Dalits being represented, humanized, and dare I think even liberated in the stories we read, or in the work that supports these stories? I talked to a couple of South Asian friends, and they were quite skeptical about what young people are reading from that culture group, and about the access Dalit writers have to publishing.

“Caste Biases in School Textbooks: A Case Study from Odisha, India” is a recent article from India and it details a type of research that needs to be done in the U.S. concerning represenation in our own textbooks. The authors studied social science and literature texts in grades IV-VIII issued by the Odisha regional government. India’s National Curriculum Framework mandated that caste-based prejudice and practices be addressed in schools but, this study found that the current textbooks perpetuated this oppression through seven forms of bias. Recognizing these types of bias is important because we still have house cleaning to do in that regard here as well. As I list them, consider textbooks you’ve experienced, or that you could examine in your own district. Also, think about the YA books you’ve read, particularly those by South Asian authors.

Imbalance and selectivity bias; “when narratives do not tell a complete story”, like when we say, ‘this land is your land, this land is my land’.

Unreality bias: “when a narrative in a chapter doesn’t correspond to the social realities of society in general”. The article provides examples of each of these biases they found in textbooks. I was reminded of biographies of people from marginalized groups that never really present any of the oppression the book’s subject must have faced, as if the subject of the book is an exception to their surroundings.

Linguistic bias “the use of masculine words and generic pronouns”. Yes, we can do that in English.

Cosmetic bias: “narrative creates the illusion of equity”. This is the opposite of what we’ve known as ‘own voices’. In this type of narrative, we learn about members of a lower class from the perspective of someone in an upper class. Sound familiar? Might you have read books like this before?

Fragmentation bias “separating issues relating to people of colour and women (or other protected groups) from the main body of text.” This occurs typically in textbooks or nonfiction. Imagine a book about the 1960s and Shirley Chisolm’s candidacy for president of the United States is in a little gray box beside the main narrative—the very definition of marginalization!

The researchers also included invisibility and stereotypes as biases in the textbooks; things that happen when we devalue other people.

Which of these biases exist in South Asian youth literature?

“Just because someone is BIPOC, does not necessarily mean their storytelling/ perspectives/ approach is decolonial. Confusing representation for liberation gets us all tangled up recycling dominant cultural dynamics” explains @DesiBookAunty on her blog. When we’re the perpetrators, it’s so hard to see the harm we cause. It’s so easy to confuse Whiteness with white people. We’ve all been trained how to behave in these systems. Sometimes, the key to release us from the shackles or the caste is within us, too. The more work we do to provide for stories that are crafted in narratives free of imperialism, the more we’ll find we need to do because we increase our comprehension of how oppression is manifested. We really need to explore class in literature, particularly at its intersections. Let’s ask: who lives in abundance and who lives in need? Who defines my prosperity? What does it means to be from a lower class, and what does it feel like from the inside? We also need to explore the values and privileges held by 1%. Oh, why not throw in some nonfiction that explores matters of economics, finance, wealth, poverty, generational wealth, as well as the wealth of land ownership? These are all things we rarely get to read in YA books making it difficult to tease out biases when they’re right in front of us.

Is it my place to call this out? Is this about me? Listen, 3-4 years ago, my son took a suit I’d barely worn along with several of his outfits to a white owned retail shop here where we live and was told the clothes were too nice for their shop, to take them to this other own, who also refused them. Could be coincidence, could be a refusal to sell/touch clothes worn by Blacks. Think of Blacks who are routinely made to feel they don’t belong, couldn’t (or can’t) live in a given neighborhood, get ordained in their own church, run a company, join a ballet company, drive a race car, or who get interrogated at the voting polls.

There are so many ways we oppress each other in the stories we tell, and the real danger is when we pass that on to the next generation. Our stories can heal us or condemn us. I truly believe none of us is free until all of us is free. So, let’s watch for the Dalit voice in YA.

Nayak, Subhadarshee, and Aardra Surendran. “Caste biases in school textbooks: a case study from Odisha, India.” Journal of Curriculum Studies 54, no. 3 (2022): 317-335.