(1) Isabel Wilkerson’s book “Caste” is a recent read that I’ve thought about a lot. It is fascinating to dig into the history of a place. I’ve had some insight into the institution of slavery in the United States. But, there’s nothing like the kind of insight a seasoned reporter brings.
It was particularly powerful for me as she draws parallels to the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany and the treatment of Dalits in India. She makes the case that calling this “racism” is a simplification. Caste systems go deeper than that.
Stories about caste in India always sadden me. That’s not just because of the heartbreaking stories. They remind me of our collective stupidity and our unwillingness to learn from experience.
Most Indians – regardless of caste – were treated horribly by the British during the years of the British occupation. And, yet, despite all the shared humanity that helped us get through that experience, we didn’t take those lessons forward.
(2) While Isabel Wilkerson focuses on these 3 caste systems, the truth is that caste exists everywhere. Just like other popular western exports, a caste-like hierarchy based on skin color has become the most popular kind around the world. But, there are other systems too. When I lived in Saudi Arabia for 10 months, the dominant caste was Muslim for example. And, if you’ve traveled around the world without a western passport, the global immigration system will never fail to remind you about the importance of the color of your passport, your accent, and the color of your skin.
(3) At its heart, caste systems are about pecking order. We attempt to establish pecking orders wherever we go. Then, we go to crazy extents to maintain them.
This isn’t just true about nations. It is true about any human group. It is likely such pecking orders exist where we work – some function is the equivalent of the “dominant caste” and does all it can to preserve its status.
(4) It is hard to empathize with groups below the pecking order if you haven’t been there. That’s part of the human condition too. Reading stories in Isabel Wilkerson’s book is one thing. Experiencing it every day is another.
We live in the San Francisco Bay Area. This place likely has more immigrants per square foot than most places on the planet. And, yet, even in a place where we are not the lone outsiders, we experience situations that remind us of our status in the hierarchy.
This week, it was getting honked and told to “get out of the way” in a parking lot as we were unloading our bikes and kids. Last week, it was being told what to do in a car wash. We have a long catalog of these experiences. It is nearly always an older white/caucasian man who assumes he has the authority to tell us what we should do and how we should behave.
If this is our experience in the Bay Area, I can only begin to imagine the daily slights many others who are lower in the hierarchy experience. It is enough to drive you crazy.
And, yes, the frequency and intensity of these daily slights have likely gone down – on average – in the past decades. But, they’re still around.
(5) It takes a lot to see through false narratives of those who seek to use it for their gain. As Seth beautifully described, identity is often used against us.
We can hope for mature responses from time to time (this one warmed my heart).
But, I don’t see any way out of pecking orders and caste system. I think it is a side effect of our fallibility.
(6) While I don’t believe we’ll ever live in a world without arbitrary hierarchies, I do hope for progress toward that ideal. In a few years, the US will have as much of its history without slavery being legal as it spent with that institution.
I hope we’ll cross many more such milestones and move closer to a world where we spend more time thinking about what we have in common vs. what is different. Over time, maybe we’ll extend that to the plants and animals we’re blessed to share this space with. Before it is too late – at any rate.
The only way that will happen though is if we construct the kind of society that doesn’t gloss over our past. Our history is full of bloody wars and cruelty toward each other for arbitrary reasons. We have much to learn from all that bloodshed and suffering.
The more time we spend understanding our past, the more we will be able to understand the imperfections in our culture/community/country in the present.
No culture or country is perfect.
The problem is when we think we are.