In an acknowledgment of the "rigid hierarchy of human rankings" present throughout the world, Oprah's latest Book Club pick has sent shockwaves across the pond—to India.
At a time when the United States is reawakening to the deeply-seated injustices of race, Oprah Winfrey has chosen a controversial book for her monthly book club eponymously titled Oprah's Book Club. In August, as Black Lives Matter protests continued across the country, she unveiled her latest pick: Caste by Isabel Wilkerson. The book is a dissection of race issues in America, wherein the author argues that we need a new concept in order to discuss the vast crimes committed against people of color in "the greatest nation in the world" simply because of their race. The book, set to be read by thousands, has also caused quite the controversy in India, where the indigenous caste system is a major factor of discrimination.
On her website, Oprah announced that Caste may be the most vital Book Club selection yet. "It explains why we are where we are in terms of racial injustice and inequality," she stated. "And it shows us how to rebuild a world in which all are truly equal and free." The book, described as "a masterful portrait of an unseen phenomenon in America" by Penguin Random House, discusses how the United States has been "shaped by a hidden caste system, a rigid hierarchy of human rankings." Wilkerson said of being chosen for Oprah's Book Club, "I am honored and thrilled that Caste has been chosen for Oprah’s Book Club and that its humanitarian insights will now reach a wider audience."
"This work shows that the term racism may be insufficient in our current era," she continued. "We need new language, a new framework for understanding our divisions, and how we got to where we are. Caste gives us this language. Caste allows us to see ourselves through a different lens and the chance to work toward healing from the wounds of artificial hierarchy. We must first see it to begin to resolve it." The controversial selection has had quite the ripple just across the pond as well, in India, where an indigenous caste system plagues all of the country's social institutions and hierarchies. From the interpersonal relationships to education to careers, India's caste system has predicated who is allowed to work what jobs and even prescribes some people as "untouchable."
The choice went viral online after Kangana Ranaut, a "self-made" actress in Bollywood (the Hindi language equivalent of Hollywood), made in response to Oprah a statement regarding caste in India. She wrote, "[The] caste system has been rejected by modern Indians. In small towns, everyone knows it's not acceptable anymore by law and order. It's nothing more than a sadistic pleasure for few, only our constitution is holding on to it in terms of reservations." Reservations are India's form of affirmative action, wherein seats are allotted to members of "lower castes" that have been historically marginalized by their oppressors, those in so-called "upper castes."
Do Savarna Indians know that they are getting admissions in foreign university on affirmative actions and diversity hiring. It is the most obvious form of reservation. Yet they lap it up without complaining.— Raskolnikova (@raskolnikova_me) August 24, 2020
So much hypocrisy, I could die laughing. 🤣🤣🤣
Ranaut, who has made references to her caste privilege in the past, has been a critic of nepotism in Bollywood, an industry run by a handful of powerful families. However, she is devastatingly wrong about the impact of caste in India. Anti-caste activists were quick to call the actress out for her lack of understanding, explaining that caste networks in fact rule every facet of Indian society. For instance, according to Uppsala University professor Ashok Swain, Brahmins (a subgroup of upper-caste folks) comprise only four percent of India's population, but 40 percent of India's total number of Supreme Court judges. Additionally, despite upper castes constituting only 14 percent in India’s overall population share, they occupy over 94 percent of corporate positions in India, The Huffington Post reports.
Brahmins are 4% of India's population, but 40% of India's total number of Supreme Court judges.— Ashok Swain (@ashoswai) August 23, 2020
Muslims are 14% of India's population only 3% of SC judges, Dalits are 17% of India's population only 3% of SC judges & Scheduled Tribes are 9% of India's population & NO SC judges.
This month's pick for Oprah's Book Club is evidently making waves even across the ocean. Hopefully, this becomes a lesson in solidarity for everyone in our modern, globalized world. As Suraj Yengde, an author and Harvard Scholar, explains in his essay 'A Shared History of Struggle Should Unite India's Dalits and African Americans in the Fight for Equality,' "The African-American struggle is not solely local; it is also global, with links to other movements." There is, in a sense, a global lower caste that, even today, fights continuously for their empowerment in daily life. Reading Wilkerson's Caste is only a very small first step towards allying with their cause.
Caste is a global problem. pic.twitter.com/Dx2PCSnzZe— surajyengde (@surajyengde) July 6, 2020