I recently listened to Isabel Wilkerson’s latest book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” and I find her thesis extremely compelling- perhaps because it is aligned with my own worldview but I’d like to think the extensive research and cogency of her arguments are the main reason I’m finding it so interesting and important.
There are other scholars, writers, and speakers who have identified hierarchy, itself, as problematic- several of whom I’ve referenced in my own writing. This document, however, is receiving mainstream attention in ways that I haven’t seen before and that gives me tremendous hope that we may find a collective understanding of the foundational and structural origins of oppression and exploitation. Without such understanding, we will continue to treat the symptoms of our social dis-ease, without addressing the root cause.
Wilkerson’s work connects America’s racial caste system, India’s religious caste system, and Nazi Germany’s ethnic caste system in an incredibly effective way and identifies the key characteristics of castes, which she calls the 8 Pillars of Caste:
- Divine Will & The Laws of Nature
- Heritability (identity determined by parentage, paternally or maternally)
- Endogomy and the Control of Marriage & Mating (requiring that marriage and mating only occur within same caste)
- Purity Versus Pollution
- Occupational Hierarchy
- Dehumanization and Stigma
- Terror as Enforcement, Cruelty as a Means of Control
- Inherent Superiority Versus Inherent Inferiority
I can’t stress enough how very important it is that Ms. Wilkerson has clearly identified these characteristics and explored in her book how they’ve played out in our societies. America’s foundational ethos of individual responsibility has effectively obscured the impact of structures and reinforced the opinion of many that racism and other forms of oppression are a result of individual choices and behaviors. Clarifying the actual foundations and the structures that have been built to maintain the social hierarchy in the United States (and elsewhere) allows us to dismantle these structures and build alternatives.
As I’m writing this, I’m remembering the film, “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” This may seem like a weird divergence, I know, but bear with me…
Isabel Wilkerson uses the metaphor of an old house to help folks understand how we may see our own responsibility for resolving the conflicts and consequences of caste, even though we didn’t build the structures she outlines. In “Gilbert Grape,” the home of the family at the center of the story was built in a structurally unsound way and the current occupants, while relatives of the builder but not part of the choices made at the time of the construction, are now responsible for considering how to deal with the resulting instability. No spoilers for those who haven’t seen the movie, which is worth a watch, in my opinion. I’ll just say that the decision Johnny Depp’s character ultimately makes may be instructive for us as we collectively face the consequences of humanity’s social hierarchies.
It may not be fair that we are individually and collectively responsible for addressing the impacts of structures we had no part in building but, here we are. We’re all suffering to some extent within this caste system and, if we’re thoughtful about it, we may actually find ourselves empowered by taking responsibility for dealing with it. Maybe we’ll be inspired to engage our imaginations and consider building other structures that are rooted in love…? Maybe we’ll release blame and shame and division and recognize our shared humanity…? The possibilities are literally endless once we let go of the notion that these structures aren’t there or that they are inevitable and ‘natural.’ Like all cultural myths, these ideas can and should be debunked, dismantled, and replaced.
I welcome your comments. Peace.