A CONVERSATION WITH SHOBANA SHANKAR
We end this issue with a crucial conversation on the caste and race nexus. Author of the book An Uneasy Embrace: Africa, India and the Spectre of Race (2021), Shobana Shankar helps us understand the forms of resistance against it, from “South Indians”’ possible identification with Blackness to the transnational solidarity between Senegal and Dravidians of the Subcontinent.
LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: Beyond the specific geographies of the African Continent and the Subcontinent, your book allows for a complex comprehension of the regimes of race and caste. Could you please tell us how these two operate in association with one another, but not necessarily overlapping—a crucial distinction to make?
SHOBANA SHANKAR: Many Africans in different parts of the Continent, curious about Indians’ lives, have asked me what caste is like, what it means to experience caste. In some contexts, for example, in Kenya, the question came from observation. In Nigeria, on the other hand, this question was driven by curiosity based on what people had heard and read. In other places, as in Senegal, this question has had local significance, as castes exist there as well. The Senegalese scientist Cheikh Anta Diop, in 1967, wrote that “the study of the caste system in India holds a wealth of lessons: it allows one to judge the relative importance of racial, economic, and ideological factors.” Known for his Afrocentric scholarship, Diop’s proposed African study of India—in a history of precolonial African civilizations—shows that the Afrocentric study of race and difference he was developing was complex, sophisticated, and profoundly global—hardly the simplistic reactionary work that many critics tried to make Afrocentricity out to be. The burdens Africans writing precolonial African history faced differed somewhat from the ones Indian historians faced, but, after independence from European colonization, this was a common priority and one that found Africans and Indians deeply interested in each others’ pasts. This necessarily meant grappling with caste and race as forms of difference in comparative, coexistent, and contrasting relationships.
One of the subjects that has interested me is the idea of purity, and how this perception of purity and pollution—in systems of caste as well as racialization—is a very powerful social inhibitor, which shapes how people actually interact on a day-to-day level. Purity and its absence (through pollution or some kind of forbidden mixture) is underscored in some discourses—religious (including but not limited to Hinduism), biology (as in blood or stock), language (mother tongues, borrowings, etc.), and so on. Of course, racial purity and its absence through “miscegenation,” as it were, is an entire field for the creation of hierarchies, boundaries, exclusions, and feelings of belonging. I do not believe that the idea of pollution is a thing of the past, even if liberal democratic norms discourage people from segregation. We must look at sociocultural practices and attitudes.