Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents” was one of the most successful book releases of 2020. A New York Times review labeled it an “Instant American Classic,” and it was passionately praised by prominent celebrities like Amy Schumer and Oprah. Released during a summer of Black Lives Matter protests, Wilkerson’s text made waves with its unique central thesis: that the prominence of systemic racism within the U.S. can be viewed as a manifestation of caste, a set of predetermined, rigid hierarchies that one is born into.
Now, five Northwestern professors, led by Laura Brueck and Ivy Wilson, are taking advantage of current conversations surrounding race and caste through the launch of the Race, Caste and Colorism Project. With a generous two-year grant from the Buffet Institute, they hope to create an interdisciplinary, transnational branch of scholarship that goes beyond the act of comparison.
“There is sort of a lot of activity going on around creating awareness with caste and caste oppression in the U.S. and Europe right now, but that kind of energy hasn’t trickled over into the academy,” says Kalyan Nadiminti, Northwestern English professor and one of the project’s group members.
Brueck says both “Caste” and last year’s Black Lives Matter protests helped inspire the project. But while she commends Wilkerson for getting American audiences to think about race and caste within a new transnational framework, she says the book lacked recognition of the historical discourses between race and caste. Dalits, the name for those in India who hold the lowest caste rank, have faced systematic oppression, exclusion and violence that various scholars, artists and activists have compared to the experience of Black Americans.
“It stops short at doing the work of actually thinking about the kind of intersections that have taken place among and between artists and intellectuals and politicians over the course of a much longer history than then she suggests,” Brueck says.
Brueck is teaching a class this spring called Politics of Exclusion, in which students take a deep dive into these histories through close readings of memoirs by both Black and Dalit authors as well as academic research related to shared struggles of liberation that occurred between Black and Indian political actors such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., B.R. Ambedkar, and W.E.B Du Bois. A key example of the connections made between their shared struggles is the formation of the Dalit Panthers, an anti-caste activist group in India that was directly inspired by the Black Panthers.
The formation of the Race, Caste and Colorism Project took hold after Brueck reached out to Ivy Wilson, a professor in Northwestern’s English Department, after hearing about a humanities grant from the Mellon Foundation called Futures. Although they didn’t receive the Mellon grant, it laid the groundwork for their accepted proposal to the Buffet Institute. Northwestern professors Kalyan Nadiminti, Emily Maguire and Lakshmi Padmanabha joined the project in March.
While the project is centered on research and scholarship, accessibility and representation are at its heart, Brueck says. To that end, they also hope to use the grant to feature the voices and work of prominent artists and activists.
“Some of the most interesting and productive encounters have been those that weren’t just confined to the ivory tower,” Maguire says. “We’re really interested in thinking about how we can take these conversations beyond the space of the university.”
While they are just at the beginning stages of figuring out how to best use their grant, all of the leaders in the project are already looking ahead to what the long-term impact of this work could be — something that they all hope extends beyond the next two years.
“I think our vision is to kind of incubate in the next two years, a way of almost stabilizing the discourse around race and caste so that it allows for other institutions to point to this particular moment,” Nadiminti says.
Brueck hopes that in 100 years, people look back at their project and say: “Look at these extraordinary exchanges and intersections, and the ways in which those conversations and those connections changed the course of social history in each of these places.”