Nayanika Mathur (Oxford) and Rosalind O'Hanlon (Oxford) give a talk for the Modern South Asian Studies seminars on the Black Lives Matter movement.
In this opening session of the Modern South Asian Studies seminars, we put the disciplines of history and anthropology into conversation with one another to consider how the academic study of race and caste has changed over time. We are interested in collectively thinking about future directions the study of race and caste might take and what happens if we centre the long-standing literature from India in our globalised discussions of hierarchy.
We take as our starting point the debates generated by Isobel Wilkerson in her recent and widely read book, Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents. Wilkerson has argued that many forms of discriminatory social hierarchy, such as race in the USA and anti-Semitism in Europe, are best understood as forms of ‘caste’.
She suggests that India’s deeply entrenched caste system offers a local example of what is actually a long-standing global phenomenon. Long-standing ideas about racial and bodily difference – some very ancient, as in the history of Indian caste or medieval traditions of anti-Semitism, others shaped during the era of the Atlantic slave trade and its long shadow in the history of the Americas, others again by European colonial experience – are all best understood as forms of ‘caste’.
In this era of heightened consciousness of histories of discrimination, and of global conversations between Black Lives Matter in the USA, renewed critiques of the material legacies of colonialism in Europe, and of Dalit politics in India, what fresh insights does generalising ‘caste’ in this way offer to us, and are there disadvantages in doing so?