The American Caste System

In the days just after the grand jury’s failure in Ferguson, some of my friends were unpleasantly surprised to see racism popping up from unexpected people amongst their Facebook acquaintances. At first I thought I was spared, but then I noticed that I wasn’t. I got angry.

Hmm, so I am seeing some racism on my Facebook timeline, and it’s coming from … Indians. Really? REALLY? My Indian friends, many of whom are people I respect and grew up with in India, a country I love deeply: you should know better. You should know it in your bones. Does it take a white foreigner to remind you of your own millennia of history, and show you how something very similar applies in the US?

You know what a caste system is, you know what it means, you know that it’s wrong. Your revered Gandhi-ji taught you many decades ago, as have others before and since. It’s something that India is still struggling to overcome, and I trust that you are on the right side of history in that struggle. Would you dare to say out loud in India that “Dalits should stop with the victim mentality” ?

What America has is a caste system. Here, the Untouchables are dark-skinned, just as they are in India. Here, as in India, lighter-skinned people conquered darker-skinned people (the Aryans invaded the Dravidians; European/American whites captured, enslaved, and transported Africans), and then came up with “justifications” for this behavior.

In India, the religious justification for Untouchability is that they must have sinned in some previous life, sins for which they must pay in this life by being kept in near-slavery in “unclean” occupations. Generation after generation. In the US, the assumption is that black people are genetically or socially flawed – they somehow “deserve” what is done to them. Generation after generation.

Neither of these points of view is often stated out loud – most people realize that to say such things is too obviously racist. But these assumptions underlie much of what is said. In some of the statements I’ve seen on FB recently, there is a clear undercurrent of “They deserve it.” “They’re doing it to themselves.”

No, they do not and they are not, and if you think so, you need to do some homework. At least in India laws have been passed to try to rectify the historic oppression of the lower castes. The US isn’t doing so well in this regard (read The Case for Reparations).

So, my Facebook friends, on this American holiday which is about giving thanks, go and read and learn why you should be grateful that you were not born into the low end of the American caste system. Stop blaming people for being victims of a system that they did not create, and start thinking about what you can do to help make it better. Your first step is to start listening.


The Unsubtle Sexism of Advertising to Mothers

Advertising to mothers is a trend that goes back, I suspect, to the dawn of advertising. It’s first-class manipulation, tapping into our deepest biology: the parental urge to put our kids’ needs first, to always want what’s best for them. “Choosy mothers choose…” etc.

It’s also deeply sexist and dehumanizing. Constantly addressing women as “mothers” denies that they have any other identity or role than to bring up children (and buy things for them). In the world of ads, they’re not even women any more, let alone individuals. Their lives have meaning only in the context of their relationships to others: their children.

(What percentage of ads speak to “parents” or even “dads”? There’s probably a study out there somewhere that can tell us, but I’m sure that percentage is small.)

Advertising matters: it reflects and amplifies the culture that it comes from and is aimed at. It shows us what we “should” aspire to. And it is blasted at us constantly, in all media and locations, at almost every moment of our lives. Much as we would like to believe otherwise, advertising affects our thinking. That’s what it’s designed to do, and by now it’s a science that does it very, very well. The goal of advertisers is, of course, to sell products. But, as a very strong side-effect, ads shape culture.

So think about all those ads aimed at “moms”. Not women. Not people. Moms. Busy moms, happy moms, beautiful moms, perfect moms. Moms who might also have jobs, but who always put their families first.

Think about how that constant barrage affects you and your attitudes towards women, how it has affected you all your life.

Start saying no. Women, insist on being an individual first, and being addressed as such. Because that’s what you want to be, and what you want your children to grow up to be. But you have to fight for it, consciously resisting every insidious force that tries to make you define yourself first in relation to others.

As for advertisers: you can and should do better. What you put out into the world has effects. Bad ones. Rethink your role in modern society, and try to be a force for good. Not just for selling. You’re people, too, and you have obligations to your fellow human beings.