Can the Caste Ladder be Climbed?

I recently read the long awaited book Caste. Well, I say read but I actually listened to the audio version from the North Carolina public library. I was on the waiting list for months. It’s an impressive work, no doubt; the amount of research Wilkerson put into it is phenomenal. However, my problems with the book arose from the beginning. I didn’t get the anonymous introduction to current events. Don’t get me wrong, dystopia is among my favorite genres, but not when its immersed in a work of non-fiction.

My next (much bigger) problem was that, while I do understand the importance of being a witness to historical events, I was not expecting this book to be so largely dedicated to providing shocking accounts of how slaves, and their descendents, were treated in the American south. I feel somewhat awkward saying this as a white woman who grew up in North Carolina. I suppose I could be accused of being biased. However, what bothered me so much about this central aspect of the book is that I felt it was unexpected, unnecessary, and, frankly, gratuitous.

At least in my view, the excessive violence and collective trauma that characterized slavery in America is a symptom of the so -called caste system rather than its origin. It’s for this reason that I felt Wilkerson’s detailed descriptions of the gruesome treatment of slaves, their ancestors, and her drawing parallels with the Holocaust in this regard were misplaced. Certainly some still need to learn these shocking realities lest they are forgotten and repeated, but I believe these triggers detract from the task at hand; in fact I feel they mask the real goal that I had expected the book to address: what are the origins of Wilkerson’s so-called caste system in America, and, is she right in depicting it as such?

Although, admittedly, I felt forced to skip many sections of the book due to the above outlined concerns – I simply wasn’t prepared to read/listen to lengthy descriptions of torture – I still did not find answers to these questions for which I had awaited so long. Foremost, I did not understand why Wilkerson insisted on following the caste analogy when her destinctions are largely binary: Black = “subordinate caste” while w(W?)hite = “dominant caste”. A much more interesting ‘thought experiment’, in my opinion and that of others who have reviewed the book, is that of how do all the multitude of layers of not only race, but also perhaps more importantly, gender and economic status, co-existing in America interact with each other and the larger governing bodies? Could this system be called a ‘caste’? I think it depends on which caste system the analogy is based.

Here, I found it especially disappointing that, despite Wilkerson’s claim of researching anything and everything to do with caste, in a book mostly about the history of the descendents of West Africans, she didn’t look to the caste system of West Africa. For me at least, this is a huge missed opportunity to uncover a far less studied and perhaps more analogous caste system that persists today than the one she chose, the much more well-known but seemingly less connected, caste system of India. For instance, many would be shocked to learn that Africans sold other Africans into slavery during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. She largely ignores Africa, or worse, especially given the sheer breadth of her research, makes strikingly naïve statements concerning “tribes” and, albeit citing someone other than herself, that there exist no black people in Africa; race is something that only becomes apparent in America.

From my own experiences in West Africa, one of them as recent as yesterday, thus prompting me to pen this post, racism has nothing to do with race, in that race is equivalent to color at least. My husband Momo and I are vacationing at a sea-side resort in south-western Senegal. We’ve come here for years and have watched the owner build the place up from practically nothing to the point where we’re considered part of the family by our loyalty. Thus, when 30+ guests were expected for lunch, we were flexible with our plans and ammenable to changes. However, the guests, who not only arrived late, but also came in double their anticipated number, wanted to be attended to immediately. I should clarify at this point that the guests were primarily Senegalese from Dakar.

Our first reaction to them was surprise, as, in their haste to all be seated at the table that was set for the expected 30 people, not one person said hello to us; anyone who knows anything about West Africa knows this is usually a grievous error. Instead, those who couldn’t be seated right away glared at us as if it were our fault that they’d not informed the establishment of their actual number. And in fact, I was later to learn, they didn’t believe that the owner of the resort, also Senegalese, was who he said he was. They expected a “white” person, at least a foreigner, rather than a co-patriot to be running a successful resort. Despite Momo and I clearly also being guests, we felt there was resentment from the outset.

We decided to move, to allow our hosts to use our table, though our intention was not to accommodate the rude intruders but to help out our friends who were struggling to accommodate the unexpected arrivals. We already had a small table set up in the sand anyways, where Momo liked to make tea and I’d hung my yoga hammock from a tree. After we finished lunch, we got settled – Momo making tea and me reading just sitting under my hammock. One of the guests actually has the audacity to send over one of the staff to order Momo to make him a glass of tea! Naturally, Momo refused. The guest, the owner of a business that we support no less, ends up coming over, commanding Momo to give him a glass of tea. Yet, there’s still no greeting or any other form of politeness. Momo proceeds to explain to him, in a manner much more civilized than I would have managed at this point, that he didn’t appreciate not having been acknowledged yet asked for a service. The other man apologized, they exchanged pleasantries, and tea was provided.

Unfortunately, the other guests didn’t get the message, or they did and didn’t care, because many of them continued to harangue Momo for tea and made rude remarks when he said it wasn’t yet ready. Finally, they left and peace and tranquility were restored, but their mark was left on all of us. I remarked that I’d not experienced that type of disparity before in Casamance. Momo and the resort staff remarked that it often happens when dealing with “northeners”, those from Dakar especially. With caste so fresh in my mind, I hypothesized that this very same caste system, much more actively felt and practiced in the north of Senegal than in Casamance, was the cause of the strangers’ behavior. They perceive themselves as being much higher on the ladder than Momo; little do they know that he not only can be make great tea, he also cooks in a Michelin star restaurant in Paris. In any case, caste is surely more profound than skin deep, with subconscious clues causing its unknowing participants to often make poor choices which parpituate its existence. I hope these experiences will at least serve to promote some self-reflection as they have for me.

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