Debunking Racism in America. What is it Actually? | Opinion

In light of the racial reckoning we as a nation have been facing after the murder of George Floyd, it may seem that racism has been around since the founding of our nation—and depending on whether you prescribe to evolution or creationism—since Biblical times, or since humans settled in agricultural societies. But how can something exist from the founding of our nation, Biblical times, or even time immemorial, when the word at hand, racism, wasn't first uttered in the English language until 1902?

If you look at the Google Books Ngram Viewer, you'll see that the word "racism" only begins to gain traction in the English language starting in the 1940s, with a big spike starting in the late 1950s. The fact that racism as a word was used in the English language after the enslavement of Africans, after Jim Crow/Apartheid laws, after Chinese Exclusion Acts and after the genocide and relocation of Indigenous peoples indicate that the violence, pain and horror of what this word describes predates the invention of the word itself. More importantly, racism as a term insufficiently describes and captures what is operating beneath it.

Most Americans would agree that racism is an evil that we as a nation need to eradicate. However, in order to transform something, we need to understand it for what it is. And until we understand it, we cannot earnestly and effectively transform it. I believe this is why we have been unable to make progress on the foundation of racism. We have failed to look at the roots of race and racism.

What we call race and racism in America—or actually any country around the world, whether it is Romania, Australia, or Brazil—is actually caste and casteism. Many scholars, including New York Times bestselling author Isabel Wilkerson, define caste as "an artificial, arbitrary, graded ranking of human value in a society." It determines one's standing, access or control of resources, the level of respect or benefit of the doubt they are afforded and whether or not they can or cannot do certain things in society. What we call race—the color of a person's skin, their eye shape, hair texture, their ethnic or cultural background—is actually caste.

The concept of race is a very recent human invention. It is a metric. Wilkerson described "caste as the bones and race as the skin." In America, just by looking at a person, we automatically give them a caste assignment: white, Black, Asian, Indigenous, Hispanic/Latinx, or something else. The metric of race is absolutely arbitrary and artificial. The fact that we use human skin color, eye shape, hair texture, nose size and other physical features to determine who is worthy of respect, who is competent, beautiful, respectable, et cetera, are standards that were designed by human beings in the last few centuries. These standards, which become beliefs and perceptions of people in positions of authority and influence, undergird the design of our organizations and systems and sustain what is America's caste system, which is what we have been trained to call race.

Every caste system has two required categories: the dominant caste and the subordinate caste. Historically in America, the term "white" was legally invented to group together the diversity of ethnic and cultural groups from Europe because they looked a certain way. In becoming white, people belonging to these groups had to forgo their cultures, languages, rituals and traditional practices so they could be worthy of American citizenship and thereby become the dominant caste. With rare exceptions, being white was a requirement to become an American citizen to enjoy the guarantees of our system, until 1965. Simultaneously, another phenotype-based classification was created for people with "one-drop" of African ancestry. These people are what we call today "Black" and just because of their phenotype, they have been and continue to be America's subordinate caste. These people, for no other reason than their skin color and geographic ancestry, were enslaved for three centuries and then relegated to a subordinate status for another 100 years.

In America's caste system, we have two additional castes: outcastes and middle castes. Outcastes are our Indigenous or Native American people who have been so dehumanized and invisible that they aren't even on the caste hierarchy. The closest analogs to the outcaste status of Indigenous people in America are the Romani people in Europe or the Adivasis in South Asia.

Middle castes, on the other hand, are people who straddle between the dominant and subordinate castes. Since 1965, when whiteness was lifted as the requirement to be an American, people belonging to this group have grown tremendously. One in four Americans belongs to this group. They include Hispanic/Latinx people, Asian American and Pacific Islanders, Middle Eastern Americans, mixed race Americans and anyone who does not consider themselves white, Black, or Indigenous.

What caste does to us mentally, emotionally and psychologically makes us feel separate from one another. It keeps us in a place of us versus them instead of actually working together to solve the myriad of challenges that our society faces as a whole. And for people who are classified as subordinate, middle caste, or outcastes, the American caste system has numerous consequences on their ability to live, work, play and rest.

An anti-hate sign and candles
An anti-hate sign and candles are placed during a candlelight vigil standing up against Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) hate and violence, at Almansor Park in Alhambra, Calif., on March 20, 2021. RINGO CHIU/AFP via Getty Images

As an immigrant from India, I know what it's like to be on both ends of this caste system. In India, I was a part of the dominant caste, oblivious to the suffering of those belonging to the subordinate caste. In America, my same humanity was flipped around and I was labeled as an outsider simply because of my skin color. As a young person, I was bullied, called racial slurs and even physically beaten. As a result, I wanted to change everything about myself to be as close to white as possible. Yet, while I could change the way I spoke, dressed, walked and even thought, I couldn't change the way I looked. In my early adult years, this impacted me when the accumulation of the racial trauma and self-hatred I experienced came to a head and I came close to taking my own life.

It doesn't have to be this way. The divisions in our society are rooted in each one of us feeling separate from and wanting to stay separate from each other because of our caste assignment. This is not conscious but rather rooted in how our neighborhoods and schools have been politically designed to keep our family and social systems separate from one another. This forces each of us to fear and be suspicious of anyone who we are trained to perceive as "the other."

Not only does this caste system separate us but it short changes our economy. The 2018 W.K. Kellogg Foundation study, Business Case for Racial Equity, found that closing the racial equity gap can not only increase economic output, but can translate into meaningful increases in consumer spending, as well as federal and state/local tax revenues and more. The report found "in consumer spending alone, closing the racial equity gap in the U.S. would generate an additional $191 billion spent on food and $500 billion on housing. ... Federal tax revenues would increase by $450 billion and state and local tax revenues would increase by $100 billion annually." These are significant social gains that should not be ignored. It would transform our economy and nation as a whole.

So how do we make change? Where do we go from here? We need to begin by calling race, caste. It is more precise and it helps us heal the divides. As we know, there is no biological or genetic basis for race. There is only one humanity and to continue to segment humanity prevents us from actually seeing one another and thereby addressing the ranking system—or caste—that is operating beneath it.

I believe understanding and breaking unconscious racial bias is the only way we can transform the American caste system. As we have seen since the civil rights era, despite having numerous egalitarian policies in place, we have not made tremendous progress on healing and alleviating the suffering experienced by people of color. While we may have amended the laws, we still need to transform hearts and minds. Instead of calling out, we need to call in, support and even require human beings who are making decisions across our systems and organizations—from health care and education to government, technology and finance—to transform the conscious and unconscious biases they have learned from living in this caste system.

There are many ways we can promote progress on transforming the American caste system. I'll mention three. Firstly, we must educate ourselves by taking courses like Breaking Racial Bias, turning to other reputable resources like Wilkerson's Caste or Stuart Ewen and Elizabeth Ewen's Typecasting, or watching documentaries like Race: The Power of an Illusion.

Secondly, for those assigned to the dominant caste, we need to listen to stories of people who have been subordinated so we can begin to see what has been made invisible for us and partner with them to repair past and continued harms. Conversely, for those of us who have been subordinated, we need to extend grace, patience and radical empathy to one another so we create space to heal from the harms of this arbitrary caste system.

Lastly, all of us must stay hopeful. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all." Now, more than ever, we all need to be courageous so we can together dismantle this caste system once and for all.

Anu Gupta is an activist, scientist, lawyer and the founder of BE MORE with Anu. BE MORE is an edtech company that has trained over 20,000 business professionals at organizations like Amazon and Kaiser Permanente to break bias and advance diversity and justice. His work has been featured on Oprah.com and TED Talks.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.