Caste on the International Stage
By: Nivedita Menon
Vol XLVI No.3 January 15, 2011
The official Indian position against including caste as a specific
sub-set of racism is based on the assumption that race has a "physical
component" which caste lacks. However a look at the history of the
idea of race shows it to be a construct of a particular European
anthropology and is, like caste, embodied in the very Self of the
individual. While caste and race remain different forms of social
oppression, viewing them as related is a creative political strategy.
At the World Conference on Racism at Geneva (the Durban Review
Conference, April 2009), the Government of India won a diplomatic
victory by ensuring that caste-based discrimination was not included
in the resolution.
The question of the efficacy or otherwise of taking issues to the
United Nations (UN), and whether concrete gains can result from this,
is not what interests me here. I am concerned with the politics of
getting an issue recognised in a global context and the possibilities
of translation from a local to a global context. What does such
recognition achieve? In the case of caste, it does seem that the
translation of caste-based discrimination into the language of racism
makes the issue visible and comprehensible to a worldwide audience.
Otherwise, to a non-Indian public, caste remains a quaint, exotic
During a discussion in my class on this issue, a European student
Verena Milasta made an insightful remark. She said that given the
prevalent western hegemony over cultural values, a thinking and
concerned left-liberal opinion in Europe, uncomfortable with the
demonising of non-western values, would hesitate to criticise caste,
because it appears to be a unique institution specific to south Asia
and to India. Making the analogy with racism, she said, enables an
immediate recognition of caste-based discrimination as oppressive.
Precisely this recognition is what the Indian government fears, of
course. Over the years, since dalit groups managed to put this issue
on the agenda of anti-racism initiatives what are the arguments that
have been made by government representatives and academics to support
the claim that caste cannot be equated with race? There are two main
The Sociological Argument
Indrani Bagchi reported in the Times of India that, "Officials said
India was fighting the caste problem, particularly in the fight
against poverty and inclusion. But this could not be equated with
racism which has a physical component. By that token, every caste in
India would be a different race" (Bagchi 2009). According to
sociologist Dipankar Gupta, who testified before the UN Committee on
the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (UNCERD), there is no
phenotypical resemblance between members of the same castes. (A
phenotype is "any observable characteristic or trait of an organism".)
Moreover, descent and caste are not the same – descent means
genealogical demonstrable characteristics. In the caste order, people
can be of multiple descents. In fact, in the caste system, marriage is
only permissible outside their lineage within their caste (UNCERD
Press Release 2007). Goolam Vahanvati, Solicitor General of India,
testified before the UNCERD that caste is an institution unique to
India and therefore could not have been in the consideration of those
preparing the documents preparatory to the Convention on the
Elimination of Race Discrimination.
The Constitutional Argument
This stresses that the Indian Constitu-tion prohibits such
discrimination, and therefore caste-based discrimination does not
exist on a large scale in India, due largely to the government's
affirmative action policies.
All of those who make sociological arguments also make this claim. In
addition, Dipankar Gupta is reported to have stated to the UNCERD that
"any rich Indian could defy the tenets of caste hierarchy in India",
which establishes the absence of caste-based discrimination in India
(quoted in Atrocity News 2007). This second point may be dismissed
straight away, for if accepted, then racism too does not exist
anywhere in the world – Obama is president of the US, no constitution
in the world today formally defends racism, and most governments have
in place some sort of affirmative action policy to deal with the
marginal position of non-white citizens.
The first set of arguments, therefore, is what I will focus on here,
turning to critical race theory to consider whether race indeed
involves "a physical component", "genealogical demonstrable
characteristics" or "phenotypical resemblances". The very idea that it
does represents no simple biological fact, but constitutes part of a
particular intellectual formation that can be traced to the end of
17th century Europe. Robert Bernasconi points out that Europeans had
long been aware of the multiplicity of different peoples, especially
since by the end of the 15th century they had been exposed to travel
reports written by missionaries, traders and explorers. However, in
the 16th and 17th centuries this awareness of diversity of peoples was
framed within theological concerns, and focused on the question of
baptism. It was only at the end of the 17th century that European
scholars began to organise the mass of information available to them,
and to start classifying different peoples into a manageable set of
groupings. The first such effort is deemed to be that of Francois
Bernier, who acknowledged four or five different types (Europeans,
Africans, Orientals, Laplanders and possibly another two types: native
Americans and Hottentots). His was not a rigorous classification,
Thus, although there existed a huge slave trade that began in the 16th
century, in which the Spanish and English exploited Jews, Native
Americans and Africans, Bernasconi tells us that this exploitation
was not sustained by a scientific concept of race. The introduction of
such a scientific argument in the 17th century helped legitimise these
practices in a climate in which Europe itself was heading towards
ideas of individual liberty and democracy. The author of the
scientific concept of race is identified by Bernasconi as Immanuel
Kant, an argument now widely acknowledged by historians of race,
though philosophers have tended to ignore it (2001:15).
It took Nigerian philosopher Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze to draw attention
to Kant the anthropologist – Kant had developed courses in
anthropology and geography and taught them regularly for 40 years.
What were his sources of information on non-European peoples and
cultures? Travel books, both serious and light, fiction and accounts
of missionaries and explorers. Eze tells us that it is common
knowledge that one of the reasons Kant never left Konigsberg
throughout his professional life was because he wanted to stay in the
seaport town to meet and gather information from seafarers. At one
level then, as Eze says, Kant's "theory of race" as contained in his
anthropological and cultural-geographical writings can be seen as
merely a "provincialist's recycling of ethnic stereotypes and
prejudices". However, Eze insists that this would be a superficial
reading, for Kant's anthropology and geography offer "the strongest,
if not the only, sufficiently articulated theoretical philosophical
justification of the superior/inferior classification of 'races of
men'…" (Eze 1997: 129).
Kant explained that by presenting the large number of apparently
different types as races of the same genus, he was providing a
"physical system for the understanding", in order not to be
overwhelmed by the data. He called the science dedicated to this task,
"natural history" (cited in Bernasconi 2001: 22). Kant wanted to find
the natural causes for the deviations among human beings, and decided
that skin colour should be the basis for distinguishing between races.
While he conceded that such differences were also due to the effects
of sun and air, he argued that all human beings were equipped with
natural predispositions that were developed or held back depending on
the climate. Once these changes came about, they were irreversible.
Race cannot be undone by further differences in climate. He also
identified the original genus as white (cited in Bernasconi 2001:
Thus, throughout the 18th century, scientists were obsessed with the
question of why black peoples were black; the question of why white
people were white, of course did not arise, being the "stem genus", as
identified by Kant. All other colours were seen as merely degenerative
developments from the white original.
Bernasconi argues that what is significant is that Kant does not claim
that "race" occurs in nature, but rather, that the concept is
necessary from the viewpoint of natural history (2001:29).
This is why Cornel West argues that the very "initial structure of
modern discourse in the west 'secretes' the idea of white supremacy":
my argument is that the authority of science, undergirded by a modern
philosophical discourse guided by Greek ocular metaphors and Cartesian
notions, promotes and encourages the activities of observing,
comparing, measuring and ordering the physical characteristics of
human bodies (2002: 91).
In other words, the discourse of race was based, not on some simply
ascertainable physical, "phenotypical" characteristics, but on a
conceptual map that ordered the vast diversity of peoples on this
planet in particular way, mobilising the authority of modern science.
The forms of rationality, aesthetic standards and notions of
"objectivity" that evolved, says West, could not accommodate the
legitimacy of the idea of black equality in beauty, culture and
intellectual capacity – indeed, even to think such an idea was to be
deemed "irrational, barbaric or mad" (2002: 91).
Thus, the development of the idea that humanity could be classified on
the basis of skin colour and other supposedly biological
characteristics, was intertwined with the idea of white supremacy. The
initial basis, says West, for the idea of white supremacy "is to be
found in the classificatory categories and descriptive,
representational, order-imposing aims of natural history" (99). But
the second stage of the emergence of this idea came about with the
rise of sciences like phrenology (the discipline that claims human
character can be read through the shape of the human head) and
physiognomy, closely allied to anthropology. These new disciplines
openly acknowledged "European" physical characteristics to be
superior, because they were closer to the Greek classical ideal, which
European culture had by then established as the norm for beauty.
The idea of white supremacy "permeated the writings of the major
figures of the Enlightenment", but what is significant, points out
West, is that they did not have to put forward their own arguments to
justify it – they all believed that the authority for these views came
from science – from the domain of naturalists, anthropologists,
physiognomists and phrenologists (105).
The Imprecision of Race
The deconstruction of the biological or natural basis of race has
produced a vast body of scholarship around the construction of
whiteness, too. David Roediger, writing about the United States, has
drawn our attention to the "hopeless imprecision" of the term "white".
The first Congress convened under the Constitution of 1790 required
that a person be white in order to become a naturalised citizen, as a
result of which the courts were left with "impossible problems of
interpretation" that stretched well into the 20th century. As late as
1907 the United States Attorney said: "There is considerable
uncertainty as to just what nationalities come within the term white
person" (Roediger 2002:325)
Why could science not resolve this problem? Because ethnological
wisdom constantly changed; because the term "caucasian", which had
come to replace "white", included, according to ethnological experts,
Syrians and Asian Indians, a view that clashed with the common sense
view of government officials bent on excluding them as non-whites.
Moreover, colour differences were so varied within "races" that
whiteness could not be measured as simply the absence of pigmentation.
Finally, a Supreme Court judgment of 1923 set the test of whiteness
simply as being acceptableto "common understanding" – that is,
whiteness was pegged to socially set standards of whiteness
(Roediger 2002: 326).
Many groups now commonly termed part of the white population were
historically regarded as non-white or as of doubtful white heritage –
Irish, Italian, Hungarian, and Jewish immigrants, for instance
(Roediger 2002: 329). At times, a strong sense of ethnic identity
could cut against the development of a white identity. Thus, Poles in
the Chicago stockyards, when race riots broke out after the first
world war, saw themselves as separate from both blacks and whites, and
therefore uninvolved (331).
In short, says Roediger, "the 'white ethnic' developed historically
and he or she was certainly not white because of his or her ethnicity"
Living in a Racialised Body
Does the argument that "race" is a sociological category,
automatically dissolve race identity or reduce its oppressiveness? Of
course not. In his essay "The Fact of Blackness",1 Frantz Fanon writes
about the experience of living in a black body in a context of violent
racism. The black man, he says, becomes inferior, an object, when
fixed by the white man's gaze. The elements of his self-consciousness
were provided, not by his own understanding of his body but by the
white man "who had woven me out of a thousand details, anecdotes,
stories…I was responsible at the same time for my body, for my race,
for my ancestors…I discovered my blackness, my ethnic characteristics,
and I was battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual
deficiencies, fetishism, racial defects…and above all else, above all:
'sho good eatin'" (2003: 63).
That last joke, referring to all black people as cannibals, of course,
followed us right into the 21st century, when the foreign minister of
Poland, Radek Sikorski, was quoted as saying: "Have you heard that
Obama may have a Polish connection? His grandfather ate a Polish
missionary."2 (The heading of the story is misleading, as the rest of
the story demonstrates. The government denied only that Sikorsky meant
it as a joke himself – "He was only giving an example of the
unpalatable and racist 'jokes' that surround President Elect Obama".)
Fanon cannot escape his blackness: "When people like me, they tell me
it is in spite of my colour. When they dislike me, they point out that
it is not because of my colour. Either way, I am locked into the
infernal circle" (64).
But then, his blackness is turned into pride with his discovery of the
politics and poetry of negritude: "from the opposite end of the white
world, a magical Negro culture was hailing me" (66). He discovers
Leopold Senghor and Aime Cesaire, discovers the rhythms of his race.
The tom-toms become carriers of a "cosmic message" of community and
solidarity across the continents, that carries him on to the
"shoulders of the world". He murmurs the thrilling words of Senghor:
"Night of Africa, my black night, mystical and bright, black and
But even as he tried, says Fanon, at the level of ideas and
intellectual activity, to reclaim his negritude, it was snatched away
from him. By whom? By no ordinary racist white man, but by Jean-Paul
Sartre, flaunting the banner of universal class identity:
...it is no coincidence", writes Sartre, "that the most ardent poets
of negritude are at the same time, militant Marxists. But that does
not prevent the idea of race from mingling with that of class: the
first is concrete and particular, the second, universal and
abstract….the first is the result of a psychobiological syncretism and
the second is a methodical construction based on experience. In fact
negritude is the minor term of a dialectical progression" (70-71).
When I read that page", Fanon tells us poignantly, "I felt I had been
robbed of my last chance…While I was saying to him: 'My negritude is
neither a tower nor a cathedral, it thrusts into the red flesh of the
sun…' while I was shouting that, in the paroxysm of my being and my
fury, he was reminding me that my blackness was only a minor
term…Jean-Paul Sartre had forgotten that the Negro suffers in his body
quite differently from the white man" (71-72).
Nevertheless, with all his strength, Fanon refuses to accept "that
amputation". He is black, he lives in a black body, and he will
simultaneously resist the meaning world gives to his blackness, and
celebrate the solidarities it brings him.
Caste, Race, Gender
The painful dilemma faced by Fanon is precisely the way in which the
self comes to consciousness in other forms of embodied discrimination
– caste and gender. When I say "embodied", I do not mean that the body
simply exists in nature. The body in each of these instances is
produced through a network of cultural material practices. The body
that is deemed to be inferior is caught up in the need to recognise
its difference from – and simultaneously claim similarity to – the
oppressive identity that marks itself as Self, whether white,
upper-caste or male.
In feminism, this has come to be embodied in the sameness-difference
dilemma. Should we deny the difference (produced by our social and
cultural locations) that marks us as women, thus accepting the
masculine as the norm? Or should we assert the difference as valuable,
as Carol Gilligan did in her work countering Alexander Kohlberg's
study that established that women are at a lower level of moral
development than men. Rather than arguing that women too could reach
the highest levels of abstraction Kohlberg labelled as moral
development, Gilligan suggested that women approach moral problems
differently because of their location in the sexual division of
labour, which makes them solely responsible for nurturing functions.
As a result, they never evolve into the autonomous, disconnected
individual that the masculine self does, and do not judge moral
problems in the abstract, and this is an aspect of "femininity" that
Interestingly, later developments on Gilligan's work de-gendered this
argument, suggesting that men of subordinate communities too would
display such characteristics, and that only the white adult male would
ever "reach" the stage Kohlberg designated as the highest in moral
The intertwining of such subaltern identities – race and gender, caste
and gender – produce the greatest dilemmas for a radical political
practice. We need to avoid, of course, a merely additive approach, in
which race or caste simply adds on to gender, making a woman bear a
"double burden" (treble, if we add class).
The sameness/difference impasse and the dead-ends created by "identity
politics" can be subverted by the recognition that there is always an
outside to every Self/Other discourse. The Self is never unified and
homogeneous, just as the Other is not. Rather, each identity can
undercut the other – caste solidarity might produce a situation in
which gender identity is irrelevant, or a feminist perspective might
in some particular situation result in solidarity with women of
another caste than with men of the same caste. Particular kinds of
political mobilisation succeed (or not) in producing particular
identities. Neither does a pre-formed subject called "women" exist for
feminist mobilisation, nor do pre-formed caste identities for caste
mobilisation. Identities form around particular kinds of political
mobilisation, and are productively unstable. This instability is
precisely what makes possible alliances and solidarities.
In conclusion, the question: is "caste" to be collapsed with "race"?
Of course not. The specificity of each must be retained, and one
cannot be reduced to the other. Nevertheless, the translation of caste
enabling it to be read against race in the global context is a
creative political strategy.
1 This translation of the title of Chapter 5 of Black Skin, White
Masks has been criticised by David Macey for betraying the argument
Fanon makes in it. Macey points out that Fanon's purpose in this
chapter is to demonstrate that there is no "fact" of blackness (or
whiteness); that both are forms of lived experience. Macey suggests
that "The lived experience of the Black man" would have captured
Fanon's argument better (David Macey, "Fanon, Phenomenology, Race" in
Peter Osborne and Stella Sandford (ed.), Philosophies of Race and
Ethnicity, Continuum London and New York, 2002).
2 "Poland Denies Barack Obama Cannibal 'Joke'" Telegraph, London, 18
November 2008, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/
Atrocity News (2007): "Indian Government's Shameless Claim: India Is
Free from Caste Discrimination" 28 February,
(Downloaded on 26 September 2010).
Bagchi, Indrani (2009): "Caste Bias Can't Be Equated with Racism:
India", Times of India, 18 April.
Bernasconi, Robert (2001): "Who Invented the Concept of Race? Kant's
Role in the Enlightenment Construction of Race" in Robert Bernasconi
(ed.), Race (Oxford and Berlin: Blackwell Publishing).
Eze, Emmanuel Chukwudi (1997): "The Color of Reason: The Idea of
'Race' in Kant's Anthropology" in Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze (ed.),
Postcolonial African Philosophy. A Critical Reader (Oxford:
Fanon, Frantz (2003): "The Fact of Blackness" in Linda Martin Alcoff
and Eduardo Mendieta (ed.), Identities (Oxford and Berlin: Blackwell
Roediger, David (2002): "Whiteness and Ethnicity in the History of
'White Ethnics' in the United States" in Philomena Essed and David
Theo Goldberg (ed.), Race Critical Theories (Oxford and Berlin:
United Nations Press Release (2007): "Committee on Elimination of
Racial Discrimination Considers Report of India", 26 February. At
(Downloaded on 26 September 2010).
West, Cornel (2002): "A genealogy of Modern Racism" in ed Philomena
Essed and David Theo Goldberg (ed.), Race Critical Theories (Oxford
and Berlin: Blackwell Publishing).
This article is based on a lecture delivered in the Pandit Hridaynath
Kunzru Memorial Lecture series of the School of International Studies,
Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi (February 2010). An earlier
version was presented at the Department of Cultural Studies, English
and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad (April 2009). The author
would like to thank K Satyanarayana and Jayati Srivastava for the
opportunity to benefit from discussions at both places.
Nivedita Menon (email@example.com) teaches at the School
of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
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