In my anthropology class, we used the caste system in India as an example of social stratification. The caste system divided Hindus into a hierarchy consisting of four main categories. It was a closed system, meaning a system with a minimal level of social mobility. Castes were inherited and not interchangeable; the lower castes tended to be segregated from the higher since they were considered a source of pollution.
Later, the professor asked us to think of a similar system “closer to home.”
The class was bewildered. Someone said it might be in Brazil, Central America or Canada, but the professor was looking for a different answer. He had to unveil it himself—how about the United States?
For an extended length of time in history, a system just like the caste prevailed in the U.S.—racial segregation. African-Americans were assigned special zones in buses, at school and at restaurants; they were socially and economically isolated. They were judged solely by color, as if it made them somehow lesser. They were considered a source of pollution and even had “black drinking fountains” and “black toilets” to contain their “uncleanliness”.
After hearing the professor’s explanation, I was shocked at how such a system once thrived in the U.S. The land of democracy and freedom was once very similar in nature to the widely criticized caste system. “How come we all don’t notice problems of our own country?” the professor asked us.
However, this is not the only case where we tend to gloss over our problems at home. It is universal for people to neglect their own problems. The U.S. publishes a human rights report targeted at China, condemning its dictatorship, corruption, poverty and so on. China writes one targeted at the United States, with discussions of gun prevalence, security issues and police abuse. Somehow, it seems like others are always better at identifying our problems than we are. When some unfair incident or system is presented, our immediate reaction is often to think we are “better than that.” But we have to honestly ask ourselves if that’s true, and accept that it might not be. As hard as it is, it’s always better to face that fact.
If we look deeper, we can easily find that features similar to a closed system still exist in our modern society. For example, think about differences between neighborhoods in a city. The city is somewhat to divided into parts where people of same social class or race live together in similar households and make up a community. Even today, there is not adequate mobility in these areas. The promise of the American Dream does not always cash out: Sometimes you don’t necessarily get what you want even if you work hard. People born in the “unfavorable area” may work their entire lives and still be unable to afford a house in the “favorable area.” This is the problem right at home, and not so far away from the problems that used to be in the American South and in India.
Fixing modern castes is a nebulous task, but what we can do first is start acknowledging them. We shouldn’t automatically exclude ourselves from the list when we talk about problems. We can’t assume we are better off. The most important lesson anthropology teaches me is that there is no such thing as more civilized people or more advanced ones. All cultures just make sense within their own context, and no one culture is better than another.
Although it is human nature to assume that our own system is superior, we have to consider that social stratification problems might be as prevalent in our society as they were in the societies we read about in history books.
Yingying Cai is a first-year anthropology major.