A Reflection of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
Reflections by Diana Carleton
I grew up in a middle class white privileged family in the 60’s. That context is important to my reading and reflections of Wilkerson’s amazing book. Reading it was equally disturbing and enlightening. I did not think of myself as growing up with white privilege until fairly recently. My family struggled with not being able to buy the latest, newest clothes, no car for the teenagers, frugal grocery shopping, father being laid off temporarily, and challenges to pay for college. As I write these words, I realize in reflection that I have always been in the upper caste because of my whiteness.
I thought this was a “should read” book to be read slowly like a literary documentary to be carefully digested over time. Surprisingly, I could not put it down. My mind was racing as I tried to process the information and stories from my biased viewpoint. It was painful to read as I realized my unknowing complicity in the system
My first thought in finishing it was that I had a shift in my thinking about the meaning of “race”. The author substantiates that caste is a socially constructed term that is used to keep us aware of differences, in the sense of “the other” and hierarchy. The caste construct has changed over time as to who is included to the advantage of the ruling class. One thing that struck me is that Africans do not describe themselves as Black, but with tribal language. Europeans did not describe themselves as White, but as their country of origin. It was only when they immigrated to the U.S., that they saw themselves as white in order to be part of the upper caste, to ensure their place in the hierarchy, and to justify the slave trade.
The concept of caste explains a lot. It helps me understand how those at the bottom of the higher cast are considered above even the most educated, professional, and accomplished person in the lower caste. Caste is based on religion, color, or some other arbitrary term defined by those in power. The concept of caste is important for those in power who are highly motivated to keep their place in the upper caste at all costs.
I am now more mindful in my personal and professional life of noticing nuances of attitude, bearing, demeanor, and behavior in others and myself as markers of the caste system. There is often an expectation of entitlement and privilege which are manifestations of position in the upper caste. A posture of authority can be second nature including the expectation for others to defer to us. These attitudes are often not necessarily intentional, but nevertheless harmful, degrading to others, and keep the other in their place.
Regrettably, regarding who is included in maintaining the advantages of the ruling caste, there continues to be recent public events that make a strong case for the concept and consequences of a caste system. The events of the January 6th electoral
college vote, Capital insurrection, make such a case. Seeing so many examples of entitled and privileged white people demanding their voices be heard at the expense of other legitimate voices was something that cannot be ignored. I shudder to think of the different outcome if people of color had led this insurrection that day. The caste system helped me understand how such a thing could actually happen in America. It has been here the whole time, but is now out there for me and the world to see in such a way that it cannot be denied.
I am rarely moved to change my thinking and behavior from reading one book. Caste jarred me to recognize my complicity in the caste system and how I must change my behavior to push against such a system rather than passively promoting it. I am not sure of all the ways I can do this, but I am a firm believer that a change in thinking leads to a change in behavior. I will be more outspoken of wrongs that I see and more intentional in promoting equality.
I have noticed changes in my training, supervision, clinical work, family and social network. I was more hesitant to ask uncomfortable questions, not wanting to rock the boat or risk the relationship. I am now more mindful in my responsibility to engage and be curious about comments I may find difficult to hear. This, of course, depends on the relationship and mutual engagement. I usually find a curious question as to the meaning or origin of the idea/comment can create openings to hear another’s viewpoint. Some clients respond with their own curiosity and others indicate little interest for openings for further exploration. As much as I might feel justified, I do not believe a confrontation will yield a change in the position of another. I approach these conversations as an opportunity for both parties to make sense of the other if both are willing.
I realize that although I have friendships and professional relationships with people of color, I have not mindfully initiated more contact to get to know them and understand their world view outside of our present context. I am now more intentionally inclusive in my relationships and willing to risk perceived judgement. I find that most of my colleagues and clients are glad I asked about a political or social justice event and happy to share. I have been enlightened to my “white fragility”, meaning defending myself as not being a racist.
I find myself listening more to my colleagues of color to fully understand their experiences and focusing less on my own. For example, I have a Black colleague I shared an office with in Galveston, Texas. She told me of comments other white people in our office building made to her questioning her credentials, her role as my employee (she is not), and avoiding her calls or texts. I initially wrote this off to her misunderstanding their intentions because my experience with these people was much different. I now see that is her point. After several heartfelt talks with her, I have more of an understanding of her experience. My lack of full support of her experience of these comments and actions was being complicit in the humiliation and damage to my colleague. An example of a new awareness of my white privilege was a recent walk in the office neighborhood one afternoon. A pickup truck with several young white males drove by. I had no fears or concerns for myself but had a new understanding that my Black colleague could have actually feared for her life given the political climate at that time. I realize I do not live afraid as I go about my day as my Black colleague frequently does. Since reading Caste and having more open and honest conversations with my clients and colleagues of color, I am noticing many such instances that I had been unaware of.
I continue to donate to just causes, call politicians to support equality, hold them accountable when they don’t, vote and support others’ voting, and generally find ways to be more active politically. I have a renewed energy to take action in these areas. I have recently branched off with a local therapist group about anti-racism motivated by the reading of Caste by several members of our group. I strive to live what I have learned in Caste. My sincerest gratitude goes to Wilkerson for writing this book and the impact it can have on the world. We need it; I know I did.