My wife watches a lot of English soap opera and mysteries. Most of them have a character, principal or marginal, who is Black. Over time, I’ve noticed and then checked with my wife that the Black characters take up no special notice, their Blackness plays absolutely no part in the story.
That struck me as unusual and got me to thinking about Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste. No one doubts there is lot of race prejudice in England, but it takes its place along with prejudice and discrimination against Jews, Indians, Muslims, Poles, Yugoslavs, and so on, ugly but not something that demands attention in a story line.
Such is impossible in U.S. Every Black character must have some sort of “Black role.” In some way the fact that the character is Black has to be acknowledge and worked into the script. Attention must be paid!
Why? Because here in the US, it’s a caste, a creature of a totally different character from race. We can talk about race and racial differences but to talk about caste difference is oxymoronic: caste embodies difference; it’s like saying the ocean is wet. It reminds me of a conversation I had with a White colleague who had encountered a Black woman at church who he dated briefly. He complained about it not working out and when I replied that regardless of cultural background, she was responding as a female, not as a Black female. He retorted, “Well, they are different!” with some vehemence.
And this caste consciousness applies only to Blacks of Southern slave origin, not to Caribbean or African Blacks. All kinds of prejudice and discrimination may be directed against those Blacks, but the distinction is visceral: it is around Blacks of Southern slave origin that a cult is formed, that indelible lines of distinction remain, often invisible to outsiders and therefore offering clever masking of what Blacks from James Baldwin to Eddie Glaude have written about.
The origins of this caste system have been discussed at length on this blog.