World in Monochrome
Abstract: Using the powerful narration of the lives of Black women given in Kathryn Stockett’s book, The Help, the author showcases the similarity between the United States’ racial bias against the Black community in general and India’s caste inequality discriminating against the Dalit community. While both communities do have legal rights on paper, they continue to be subjected to discrimination, cruelty, and apathy. The counterpart of the treatment of Blacks as “untouchables” in the United States can be found in India, where Dalits constitute the bottom rung of Indian society and have been shunned based on their caste. Consequently, such social division has created a division of labourers. Such systemic racism and casteism in the two countries have only resulted in the isolation of these oppressed communities, causing resentment and widespread violence against their oppressors.
Keywords- racism, caste bias, social segregation.
Published in 2009, The Help is Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel revolves around the lives of African American domestic workers, employed in white households during the early 1960s. This story is set in Jackson, Mississippi, a place that had institutionalized racism, bigotry, and injustice set at its core. While Blacks were finally free in theory, white people continued to treat them unequally. The novel reflects upon the racial segregation and white supremacy that had reached its peak. It narrates the story of a young, compassionate writer named Skeeter, who uses her relatively more privileged position as a white woman to help amplify the voices of the suppressed community. She collaborates with a dozen Black maids by compiling their anonymous testimonies into a book. It accounted for the harsh treatment and prejudices that they used to face on an everyday basis. It is unfortunate to note that the United States continues to be plagued by the issues of racial discrimination. However, discrimination, apathy, and cruelty, in the name of religion and class, are not just limited to the USA; it rings through our nation as well.
India’s caste inequality and racial bias in the United States are broadly similar to each other. The communities continue to endure the deplorable consequences of being different from their ‘superior’ counterparts. The formation of a united nation remains to be a pipe dream due to the existence of such prejudice. The discriminatory system doesn’t allow much common activity, which consequently stops the society from coming together and forming a sense of belongingness.
Although the African Americans were declared as citizens way back in 1868, they continued to face societal as well as legal discrimination. The reality of racial segregation has been presented well in the novel. Blacks are seen to have separate schools and hospitals, and being forced to sit separately at the back of public transportation. Moreover, the maids who were hired to do household chores and raise the children of upper-class white families were ironically always required to maintain a physical distance. They were made to use separate toilets as they carried ‘different diseases’ and could potentially ‘pollute’ white people.
Such treatment of Blacks as “untouchables,” in the United States, can similarly be found in India in the context of caste discrimination. Dalits are at the bottom rung of Indian society, shunned and isolated because of their caste. Dr. BR Ambedkar in his undelivered speech, Annihilation of Caste, spoke of the offensive side of caste and religion, which is responsible for the segregation and oppression of people. He advocated in favour of the untouchables, who were alienated by the upper caste community and subjected to various social abuses. The caste system is responsible for destroying the public spirit. In order to maintain an upper hand for selfish interests, upper caste crush and suppress the lower castes’ voices. He further argued that compassion is exclusive to their own, and apathy for others resonates through them. An individual’s morality and loyalty only belong to his community, which thereby hinders public harmony.
Further, the book shows the Black community employed in low-paying, socially shunned jobs such as domestic help, construction workers, and waiters, etc. African Americans still struggle to get ‘respectable’ jobs. Due to such occupational segregation based on racial discrimination, they’re the last ones to get hired and the first to get fired. Therefore, fewer job opportunities with poorer benefits and greater job instability are available. On the other hand, although the practice of untouchability stands abolished by the law, caste remains a dominant factor in defining the social as well as economic status of Dalits. A report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) states, “Limited access to education, training and resources, such as land or credit, further impair their equal opportunities for access to non-caste-based occupations and decent work.” Therefore, they are forced to take up society’s least respected, “polluting” jobs, such as sanitisation work, manual scavenging, disposing of dead animals, etc. Hence, such systemic hurdles widen the economic and social gap between the respective communities, resulting in stagnant upward mobility.
Police brutality is another well-illustrated form of systemic prejudice and oppression provided in the book. The police are seen using unwarranted and excessive force against the Black community, for there are multiple instances of harassment, verbal abuse, and arbitrary arrests followed by custodial violence. George Floyd’s death and the following worldwide demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism in 2020 is testament to the fact that the United States continues to grapple with police violence. The Black Lives Movement, a social movement founded in 2013 against anti-Black violence, gained traction as Floyd’s heinous murder triggered massive public outrage across the globe. The movement calls for greater accountability for police misconduct that is perpetuated by the inherently discriminate policies and institutions in place. Meanwhile in India, millions were enraged by the death of a 19-year-old Dalit woman who was gang-raped by 4 upper-caste men in 2020 in Hathras. Indian society has unfortunately become desensitised to the horrors of gender, religion and caste violence reported on an everyday basis. What truly piqued the interest of the country was the new low marked by the forceful cremation of the deceased done by the police without the presence or prior permission of her family. They were not only denied a dignified funeral, but had their phones snatched away and kept captive. Protestors across the world stood in favour of abolishment of caste system and fought for justice under the social movement named Dalit Lives Matter.
This unforgettable novel has flawlessly presented the alarming consequences of being subjected to a rigid and unjust division of society. Race and caste are socially constructed notional barriers that wrongfully determine social status by birth, compel intra-community marriages and restrict job opportunity. Marginalization and exclusion of people based on petty differences only lead to an improper categorization of who’s “better” and “worse.” Indian and American societies continue to be exclusionary and resistant to change. However, there is a dire need to dismantle Brahmanical patriarchy and white supremacy for good. A society cannot have such hierarchical systems as its foundation, for it will eventually collapse.
This piece has been authored by Tanisha Gupta.
Tanisha Gupta is a 2nd-year law student pursuing BA LLB (Hons.) at Jindal Global Law School.