Reflections on Race and Caste
‘You do say mixed-race don’t you? I mean, you wouldn’t say half-caste anymore, would you?’
– The Hate Race, Maxine Beneba Clarke
In the current global zeitgeist, how is it possible to not think about race? The demonisation and racial profiling of Muslims, the institutional brutality that triggered the USA’s Black Lives Matter movement, the Trump ascendancy, the murder of pro-migration liberal Jo Cox, Brexit, the debate over Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act’s Section 18C: these are provocations that we cannot dismiss. Writing about the topic may be deeply traumatic, particularly for those who are historically and socially racialized. Personal rejoinders and accusations of ‘exceptionalism’ are customary responses. Race is a complex, contested concept, a deeply divisive subject. It elicits strong emotional opinions from the liberally educated and from those who cultivate rationality.
In his 1995 essay ‘The Colour of Reason’ the late Nigerian philosopher Emmanuel Eze puts forward a withering critique of Immanuel Kant’s racial anthropology and moral geography. A proponent of scientific racism, Kant’s doctrines on ‘human reason’ argue that biological inheritance for such attributes as intelligence and goodness is ethnically determined. He claims that ‘Negroes’ are ‘vain’ and ‘stupid’, capable of learning no more than the duties of slavery. In The Metaphysics of Morals (1797) Kant offers an explanation for why slavery was technically an inconsistent contract – yet he provided no substantive ethical argument against slavery’s economic and physical exploitation of black bodies. Kant’s conclusion that ‘Humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites,’ was an enduring obstacle to racial reform. While this is clearly ethnocentric in light of critical race theory in the twenty-first century, the nineteenth century was an era of profound moral mistrust of mixed race peoples, who were described in the colonies, such as Australia or British India, as ‘half-caste’.
I first experienced racism as a child growing up in London. We lived in Russell Square with its autumn leaves and spring tulips, on the edge of Birkbeck College and University Hospital. Often on the way to school in Holborn, walking through Coram’s Fields, I remember white-skinned boys teasing me, calling me names like ‘blackie’ and ‘darkie.’ The teasing provoked a striking feeling of humiliation and awkwardness.
I was also made to feel acutely aware of my class; my family were encumbered as educated migrants from Kenya, and being Anglo-Indian we did not enjoy the social benefits of belonging to the predominantly Hindu-Indian community, the aloof British cliques or the Afro-Caribbean community. Like thousands of economic migrants surging into England from the newly independent Commonwealth countries of Africa, we had hoped for a new beginning in the metropolis. How could we possibly anticipate that Home Office amendments, immigration reforms and new administrations in the former colonies would change the course of our lives several times? How does one frame the multifaceted narratives of race, and what are the risks in writing about race through the genres of fiction or memoir?
The philosopher and political theorist Cressida J. Heyes describes race and gender as taxonomies which are ‘internally hierarchical and constituted through relations of oppression, domination, and normalization.’ However, they are not analogous. History, colonial ideology, lineage and intergenerational continuity are essential to the way we think about race, limiting the possibilities for narrating or transforming its categories. For those who are peripheral to official history, for those whose ancestors and their communities have been assigned to the footnotes by colonialism, by slavery or caste oppressions, it is difficult to even begin to grasp the extent to which race inscribes us, through trauma, broken time, creolised language and diasporic interruptions. Yet, by necessity, this is the task of our writing.
What was it like growing up black in Kellyville in suburban Sydney in the 1980s? In her memoir, Maxine Beneba Clarke unflinchingly reveals the co-dependency of victims and perpetrators; the self-hatred resulting from the hatred of others that racism creates in the struggle to culturally dominate and to be supreme. The Hate Race presents both narrator and reader with a mirror in which the reflections are often disturbing and violent.
The Hate Race studies the racializing process that oppresses black and brown bodies – starting with population discriminations and childhood bullying, and on through the narrator’s school years. Beneba Clarke concedes to using fictional names in the book. She alters the chronological frame of real events to sustain a narrative which functions allegorically to link transnational aspects of her family’s history to her youth and to the shared narrative of post-war Caribbean immigration. The historical facts of multiple diasporas, beginning with Africa-descended slaves, are interpolated with collective history and personal specifics:
My Jamaican paternal grandparents and Guyanese maternal grandparents lined up for passage to build a new life for themselves and their young families in a place where – they were assured – the streets were paved with gold.
Her father, Bordeaux Mathias Nathanial Clarke, born in Kingston Jamaica, migrates to London with his parents at nursery school age, excels in mathematics and surprises his community with his outstanding ability and PhD qualifications. Beneba Clark cleverly dramatizes his achievement in the community and hybridises a contemporary Australian voice with ventriloquised North London Creole:
See dis man? The boy’s father, a respected neighbourhood elder asked.
Bordy had paper… A PhD in not just any old subject, but mathematics. Tsssk. Any old Montego Bay layabout knew that was a damn hard gig.
Following established black models of writing where voice is polyglossal, the language variance destabilises English grammar even at the risk of creating its own stereotypes. Beneba Clarke uses repeating refrains at the beginning or end of chapters to soften the dialectical and ideological structure: ‘This is how I’d have it sing’; ‘There are myriad ways of telling it. That West Indian way of unfolding a tale. This is how it sang.’ Framing the action, these incantations provide relief from the trauma being described; they are redolent of the ways Caribbean slaves and African Americans have used chorales through the experience of suffering. The device closes authorial gaps between the Australian-born narrator, her Jamaican-born father and her Guyanese, English-born mother, investing the narrative with credibility. In its self-reflexive emphasis on structure, The Hate Race attests to the way that violent collective truths are in themselves representations susceptible to distortion.
Some distortion is also evident in what The Hate Race sacrifices for its singular thematic purpose. The memoir tends to essentialise the individual’s social construction, attributing marginalisation and discrimination almost exclusively to racism. The narrator’s gendered identity at the margins of a patriarchal and a colonial world lacks the detailed or subtle exposition found in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions or in Gaiutra Bahadur’s harrowing memoir, Coolie Woman: The Odyssesy of Indenture. The parental characters and the gendered aspects of their relationship are partially developed, though some autofictional gaps are crossed in virtuosic style. The narrator’s father, Bordeaux, marries the young actress Cleopatra and they immigrate to Sydney where he is offered employment. The contingency inherent to the migrant experience is humorously evoked when he meets with a Chinese-Australian academic, carrying a Qantas bag to discuss employment prospects at Victoria train station.
Such cultural icons combine with global events to stage the world scene of race barriers and race struggle. The 1958 arrival of the Empire Windrush from the Caribbean, the 1963 Notting Hill riots, the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, Billy Hughes’ comments on the White Australia Policy in 1919 and many other historical moments are invoked. Beneba Clarke skilfully links these tabloid histories as she constructs a sweeping master narrative – but this approach leaves gaps in the story, even as it threads transgenerational ethnoscapes. The focalisation is at times contrived; we are left distanced from the interior lives of Bordy and Cleo and there is a sense that they are being spoken for through an inflexible narrative politics. The Hate Race cumulatively accrues minor evidence, as if for a case study of the white settler imaginary. When the couple arrive in Australia they are horrified to be accommodated at Man Friday Hotel, but the incident seems mediated through one lens as though the non-racial meanings, or the comic relief her migrant parents may have experienced, have been omitted from the story. When they are grocery shopping, even the packaging and labelling of food reminds them of black and white categories – but the point is driven hard:
Ugly black block writing screamed the names of smallgoods across white, plastic packages. Cleopatra reached instinctively for one of the few coloured packets in the cheese section of the refrigerator. Bordeaux caught his young wife’s hand mid-air, recoiling in shock. In giant blue lettering the word COON leered at them.
What is incisively observed, however, is the teasing and bullying Beneba Clarke experiences from nasty classmates such as the popular girl, Carlita Allen; her patronising treatment by teachers such as Mrs Kingsley, who scathingly doubts her reliability; the insensitivity of counsellors when the discriminations escalate into hate mail. Coming from a double diaspora, from a complex mixed-ancestry, the young Maxine falters time after time in trying to explain her origins and identity, a dilemma which is brilliantly conveyed. In one incident after another, the reader shares the young narrator’s torment of being trapped in a morphology that is socially ridiculed simply because of its difference.
When she develops vitiligo, a loss of skin pigmentation, Maxine initially believes God is answering her prayers to remove her pigment and stop the harassment, but she ends up scratching and scraping her skin from anxiety. Beneba Clarke takes the reader deeply, harrowingly into this embodied trauma. Her scratching turns areas of skin into thick keloid scarring. When her mother takes her to see a dermatologist he attempts to psychoanalyse her while assigning the condition to an anthropological cause. His explanation, a tellingly racist one, is that keloid is more common in black African tribes seen ‘in television documentaries, or in the National Geographic’. Even in the clinician’s treatment room, the narrator’s body and her behaviours are unsafe; she is being medically screened, pathologised through the lens of race. Disturbance, anger, public shame and lowered self-esteem are continuously embodied as stigmata. Beneba Clarke depicts a callous education system which fails to empathise with those who deviate from what is deemed ‘normal’; she quickly learns that she is more desirable as a culturally exotic ‘exhibit’ whether in academic projects, in concerts, or socially, with her boyfriend’s family.
Current scientific consensus is that race is a social construct because of the overlapping genetic traits between people of different populations yet the clustering of physical characteristics has led to the widespread acceptance of race as biological. Beneba Clarke’s memoir is a profoundly disturbing account of structural and institutional racism and she builds her indictment chapter by chapter, case by case. One chapter tackles how the narrator, usually a victim of racist teasing, becomes a perpetrator. Sikh classmate Bhagita Singh has ‘beautiful long jet-black hair in a thick rope like plait…’ Hair expresses the insecurity that physical traits can produce when a person is racialized by majoritarian concepts. Bhagita upholds her indifference to racial taunts and is not impressed by the adolescent narrator’s hair extensions. She makes a neutral comment that in India poor women sell their hair to make wigs, triggering the narrator’s fury. It’s a powerful episode but also deeply distressing because of its violent truthfulness. Rivalries and hierarchies among differing racial groups are all too familiar to minorities, though seldom acknowledged perhaps as a consequence of the fierce competition for acceptance into the mainstream which undoubtedly drives them. Growing up in London, I had witnessed the antagonism between West Indians and South Asians; at times a possessive exclusivism can prevail among racial groups being victimised or dominated by white culture. This kind of dynamic can restrict the interdependence and multiple correlations which are desirable among culturally diverse narratives and representations in multiculturalism. A strength of The Hate Race is its candour in exposing how racism takes many forms, targeting physical traits, while treating humans as a means to dominate rather than as an end in themselves.
Beneba Clarke shows how bullying of all kinds adversely shapes us. After my family immigrated to Australia, I was spared from overt racist affronts at an all-girls high school. However, in the eighties during an ‘Asians Out’ student campaign, I was accosted unnervingly one day whilst crossing the Wentworth Bridge. It was the kind of generic racist incident I had grown up accustomed to. It was distressing, and it took me off guard, but it was less harrowing than an incident which overwhelmed me as an adolescent travelling in Mumbai. Although India is the country of my origin, it was foreign to me. Nevertheless, I was unprepared for the fierce encounter awaiting me at the Bandra telephone exchange when I tried to make an overseas call. Understanding my request, the man behind the counter stared at me intensely and then shouted several times at me to ‘Speak Hindi!’
Had I been a European tourist, he would have addressed me in English. Had I been a domiciled Anglo-Indian, like my cousins, I would have spoken to him in Hindi or Marathi. I left the telephone exchange in tears, humiliated, failing to make the call. I dismissed this seemingly insignificant though traumatic episode, but it was symptomatic of the sources of caste exile and the racial resentment provoked by an Anglo-Indian presence in post-Independence India. At the time of India’s independence there were 300,000 Anglo-Indians, two thirds of whom migrated to Commonwealth countries in search of a better life. The story of Anglo-Indians in many ways is a refugee crisis. To be Anglo-Indian is, invariably, to be without caste; to inhabit the vestigial zone between nations, histories and languages. Such a deeply perplexing identity requires nuanced understandings. In Australia, according to the 2006 census, Anglo-Indians constitute 4.3 per cent of Indian migrants with 14 per cent having British Indian heritage. While a few may be Brahmin Christians, those who are not, stand unequivocally outside the official history, politics and literary traditions of the subcontinent.
If historically, caste Hinduism has exiled the métis population, it discriminates harshly against those formerly known as ‘untouchables,’ particularly if they convert. Christian Dalits and Muslim Dalits are still not entitled to the government benefits available to Hindu Dalits, the Scheduled Castes or Adivasi under the Reservation Policy (1950): namely free education, allocation of civil service jobs and seats in state parliament. Colonial conﬁgurations of power disturbed the feudal complacency of the Hindu elite. Their prototype, Mahatma Gandhi, was an apologist for the system of caste, but his anti-colonial hunger strikes captured the world’s imagination. He was B.R Ambedkar’s celebrated rival. Arundhati Roy thoroughly demystifies Gandhi’s credibility in her lengthy introduction to Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste (1936), recently republished by UWAP. (This volume is notable also, for its pleasingly tangential annotations by S. Annand.) Roy’s opinions on Gandhi have been controversial but should be contextualised by the Indian government’s propagandist and ideological framing of education.
Roy reveals how the 3.5 per cent of Indians who are Hindu Brahmins dominate the wealth, public service, legal, academic, media and publishing industry in the subcontinent. Brahminism is often fetishized and romanticised by the West. Caste is a social practice that treats individuals hierarchically, oppressing and demeaning those ranked lowest, assigning them to the scatological, dictating their appearance, their civil rights and conduct. B.R Ambedkar’s goal was to democratise Indian society, making him one of the most radical thinkers of his time. His work has inspired the contemporary Dalit movement, Dalit studies and its revolutionary politics. He was born into the Maha or sweeper caste in Madhya Pradesh. Under a system of patronage and scholarships, he attended Elphinstone College in Mumbai, Columbia University and the London School of Economics. Roy is correct to note that he was not without colonising prejudices of his own, since he described Adivasis as ‘savages’ neglected by high caste Hindus: ‘Why has no attempt been made to civilise these aborigines and to lead them to take a more honourable way of living,’ he asked.
Annihilation of Caste is addressed not to the far right, not to fundamentalists, but to mainstream Hindus who consider themselves to be moderates. It was written as a commissioned speech for the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal, a Hindu reform group, who on reading the proposed address infamously cancelled the invitation. However Ambedkar published it as a pamphlet in 1936. Annihilation of Caste is written within a framework of modernity in its appeal for equality as a basic assumption of human rights that must be upheld. Using a legal format and demonstrating formidable knowledge and a penetrating intellect, Ambedkar argues that religious reform is as necessary as political or social reform: ‘What the Hindus call religion is really law, or at best legalised class-ethics… it tends to deprive moral life of freedom and spontaneity’. Though often tedious, Ambedkar presents compelling evidence, dossier by dossier, to repudiate the Hindu scriptures for ordering social groups into hierarchies, citing the Plebians in ancient Rome and the northern and southern Irish conflicts, among others.
Primarily, however, Annihilation of Caste it an indictment of Hinduism’s binary logic of purity and contamination. Hindu nationalism has been robustly contested by Dalit-governed dominant politics and by Dalit Studies; this reflects a need to translate rhetoric into substantive reform – but ultimately this emphasis may be complicit with the Brahmin elite by eliding other differences. As Arjun Appadurai notes, a network of financial and religious interests within and outside India serve to align its cultural reproductions abroad with the politics of fundamentalism at home. But this domiciled and diasporic Indian narrative fails to account for significant communities. A frequently overlooked complexity, for example, is the one million Indians who were ferried across the seas to the Caribbean and other parts of the globe, stripped of their caste as indentured labourers following the British Empire’s abolition of slavery in 1834. In the West, Dalits and Adivasi are invariably represented as the only minorities worthy of critical or theoretical inquiry. Yet for the ‘half-caste,’ to self-represent means to cross cavities in historical time, to feel the absence of narrative agency as acutely as the burden of deeply-inscribed discriminations; to turn in infinite historical circles, reading in the legislations, official documents, colonial literature; in the articles and archives, an extended legacy of reductions, stereotypes and omissions. Such a discouraging task may even risk becoming antithetical though I believe that the spaces for compelling discourses on race and caste are critical as modes of empowerment.
Like the writing of history, social acts of division constitute profoundly as acts of exclusion. Perhaps then, it is not ‘race’ that matters so much as the race to rewrite intersections, to repair disjunctions and to restore concatenations into postcolonial histories, whether they be Indigenous, white Australian or Indian. My narrative preference has been to write these intersections through fiction. Fiction is a world which is ontologically supple when it comes to identity. It can transcend the fixed category of my skin, my gender, my mixed ancestry or the historical annihilation of my ‘caste’ as an Anglo-Indian Australian, through its heterogeneous tropes and imaginative possibilities.
Appadurai, Arjun. “Disjuncture and difference in the global cultural economy 1990.” Cultural theory: An anthology, 2011.
Bahadur, Gaiutra. Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture. University of Chicago Press, 2013.
Dangarembga, Tsitsi: Nervous Conditions. London: Women’s Press (1988).
Eze, Emmanuel Chukwudi. “The color of reason: The idea of’race’ in Kant’s anthropology.” (1997).
Heyes, Cressida J. “Changing Race, Changing Sex: The Ethics of Self‐Transformation.” Journal of Social Philosophy 37.2 (2006): 266-282.
Kant, Immanuel. “Physical geography.” Race and the Enlightenment, Oxford: Blackwell (1997): 58-64. Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime trans. Goldthwait, 111, 113