RACE AND CASTE
The five principles against Blackness
When we talk about ‘race’ we actually mean taught social rules and stereotypes linked to physical features. Not physical features only.
Race is a social construct. If you have been paying attention, you should know by now that genetic differences based on what part of the world your ancestry comes from exist. However, the social rules derived from the way you look and where you come from, which assign you a place in society, are something someone made up. It is made up by those in power who get to determine the rules of the game to make sure they win.
According to research, human life began in Africa, which is why it is called the cradle of humankind. Researchers found that a single migration from Africa populated the world. In 2016 three different research teams discovered that “all non-Africans descend from a single migration of early humans from Africa’’. Geneticists in these teams analysed data from over 700 people from hundreds of indigenous populations, including Basques, African pygmies, Mayans, Bedouins, Sherpas and Cree Indians, and more. They found that humankind is closely related to one another, and we all come from the same family tree rooted in Africa.
Racial inequalities do not have its roots in biology. A better place to find its roots is in the economy. The capitalistic system in which our world functions, especially in the west, is designed on the principle of competition: “let the best man win”. Like in sports, economic competition is designed to have a winner and a loser. If you are playing basketball you know that tall players will have an advantage over short players. This is due to the way the game is designed, scoring on a hoop up high. The same holds for gymnastics, only the other way around, where shorter bodies are more suitable for gymnastics. There is a pattern of how players of a certain sport look like. Yes, biology and genetics made them that way, but it is the way the game is designed that gave them more possibilities to excel at it.
Just like in sports, capitalistic society has its own rules about who gets to win, or at least who gets to do better at the game: those rules are called a “caste system”. Isabel Wilkerson wrote a book on the topic. According to Wilkerson, caste goes beyond excluding people because of the colour of their skin, it is about a system designed to oppress those who come from a certain group. The caste system delineates the boundaries that determine what your place in society is.
Wilkerson talks about eight principles of caste, which I like to summarise in the five ones that I have been more familiar with, which I see are applicable to Blackness, and which I see are most present in the Western hemisphere. These are the principles which keep Blackness from winning (and sometimes even participating in) the game:
It is God’s divine will
There are multiple passages in the bible which justify slavery. The old stories of Ham, the son of Noah, is a good example. Ham was cursed by his father after making fun of him because of his drunkenness. Noah said to Ham: “Cursed be Canaan [Ham’s son]; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren”. In the middle ages, some interpreters of the bible depicted Ham as black, or with dark skin. The interpreters went on to extend Ham’s curse to all those bearing black skin. The Europeans who were faithful and convenient believers, understood this passage as a way to justify their actions. They took this passage as a permit to enslave Africans.
During the time of slavery, and into modern days, the narrative of oppression as divine will is something Black people still believe. It is the belief that oppression is normal, and that God gives us the strength to bear the pain of injustice. It is about the promise that God will provide us what we fail to receive from the society we live in. The image of God in black communities is used as a way to exchange hope for oppression.
We inherit our condition
People have asked me whether I would have preferred to be born white instead of black. My life would be easier, they say. But my answer is always: I would prefer to have been born outside of a caste system in which I am oppressed.
The one drop rule states that any person with even one ancestor (“one drop”) of African descent is considered black. As racist as this principle can be, it has been used as a source for racial identity. Public figures of mixed race ancestry such as Halle Berry have referred to this rule to understand their identity.
Black people are given a (low) rank at birth. Unlike class, you cannot act your way out of race. You are born into a place and you hold on to that for the rest of your life. When Barack Obama was a senator in the US congress, he was mistaken by a waiter at an elite event in New York. He was also one of the few black people there.
When talking about Blackness and race with people, especially at work, I have noticed that people, and especially white people, need to have the exact coordinates of what qualifies as Black. Just like the coordinates drawn in the globe to determine the meridians, race coordinates do not physically exist, they were created by people, and yet they are so clear that they determine how we live in the world.
“We think we see race when we encounter certain physical differences among people such as skin colour, eye shape, and hair texture. What we actually see are learned social meanings, the stereotypes, that have been linked to those physical features by the ideology and the historical legacy it has left us” — Audrey and Brian Smedley
We are polluted and dirty
Working as the only black person in many professional spaces I am now used to having colleagues and friend’s children looking at me, fascinated about my looks. Not because I look special, but only because of the colour of my skin. When I was a child, another kid rubbed his finger on my skin and put it against the wall to see whether I was covered in dirt and that is why my skin was dark.
Being Black is associated with dirt and filth. Black people were not allowed to use the public pools because they were believed to pollute them. Throughout the twentieth century Black swimmers were bullied out of pools and beaches with racist signs at best, or by throwing acid into the water at worst. In fact, this bullying is the cause of the stereotype about black people not being able to swim. Even though “scientific” research attributes it to a “buoyancy problem related to biological differences”, the truth is that it was the system which excluded them to explore the sport. It was designed that way.
The one-drop rule is another example of how the Black blood is believed to be a contamination. Terms such as mulatto (one-half black), griffe (three-fourths black), or octoroon (one-eighth) are racial categories that evidence how concerned those in power are with assigning everyone a rank. Probably the most important and painful terms of all is the one used more lightly, Caucasian.
The term Caucasian is used to label people from white European descent. German professor Johann Friedrich Blumenbach researched human skulls as he attempted to classify the “varieties of humankind”. His favourite skull came from the Caucasus Mountains in Russia. He found this skull to be the most beautiful one. So he named the European group, to which he belonged, the name of the region from which his favourite skull came from. This is how a random and personal preference, for a fancy-scientific-sounding name, is still used to harm both people and science.
We are not human
Seeing Black people being portrayed as monkeys and gorillas is common. This is clearly linked to the transatlantic slave trade. Black people being enslaved was justified partially by God’s divine will and the bible, but that was not enough to justify the pain and suffering they were put through.
Dehumanising someone starts by dehumanising the group to which that person belongs. They are not seen as people, but as a number. Nazis used the same strategy in their concentration camps. They assigned a number to a person, and tattooed that number to their body. Stripping people from their humanity and their identity degrades them. Slave auctions are an example of dehumanisation. During these auctions Africans were sold like products or cattle. They were forced to undress and were inspected as merchandise. Their bodies were no longer theirs.
The dehumanisation of Black bodies still exists today. Stereotypes like the the Jezebel and the Mandingo buck which portrays Black bodies as hypersexual are used to connote primitivism and bestiality. They also serve to justify violence towards black men and the rape of black women. All of these principles are connected.
We are inherently inferior
The servil status of Black people comes from the belief that they are inherently inferior. That it is one of the traits acquired at birth. The fact that Barack Obama was mistaken by a waiter, even though he was a US congressman, shows how race assumptions in general and the servility of Black people in particular are embedded in society.
In a professional setting I come across this principle quite often. Michelle Obama has talked about her experience with people in power. She mentioned “I have been at probably every powerful table that you can think of, I have worked at nonprofits, I have been at foundations, I have worked in corporations, served on corporate boards, I have been at G-summits, I have sat in at the U.N.: They are not that smart.”
We live in a society that has told us that white people are better and smarter than Black people. Many times we fall into the mistake of believing that. Martin Luther King Jr. talked about the impact of segregation and how it distorts reality. He stated “[segregation] gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.” White people were able to write their names in the history books not because they are inherently special, but because they designed the game such that they can win it. They are the tall people in the basketball game. They are being chosen not because they are that good but because the game is designed to assume they are. It is time to change the game, not only its rules.
Blackness around the world is perceived from these principles. They are engraved in the core. Even Black African cultures today have their own caste system. It may not be skin colour, but it does have to do with race, origin, and ethnic background. I believe race and caste are intertwined. In previously colonised countries in Latin America, Black people are overrepresented at the bottom of the social pyramid. In the US, Blacks are overrepresented in the prison system. These correlations are not random. The system works as it was designed to work.
It is not enough to empower Black people to move outside these principles and stereotypes. We need to dismantle them. I believe that dismantling them will vindicate Blackness. But this vindication is not about finding a more comfortable and convenient side of oppression. Or being on top of a pyramid. Stopping racism means stopping the perpetuation of these principles. It means destroying the pyramid altogether. We have to stop playing this crooked game we are all part of. Racism exists because the game of capitalism exists.