On May 20, 2021, ELGL members will discuss “Caste” by Isabel Wilkerson for the ELGL Book Club. We gave away six signed copies of the book to our members and asked them to write reflections on the book. Here’s the reflection post by Cathy A. Oloffson, director of Communications & Community Relations, Town of Normal. Connect with Cathy on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.
In my early 40s, I belonged to a cross-fit group, rising early in the morning to deadlift, throw tires and carry sandbags. A decade later, I’m doing heavy lifting of a different sort – I’m re-learning history. Why? Because my education of American history is through the lens of the white perspective. Recent events, America’s tragedy and trauma helped me realize a need to re-learn and educate myself. Reading is part of those efforts.
Isabel Wilkerson’s book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” has been on my to-be-read (TBR) list for months. The Engaging Local Government Leaders book club prompted me to move it from my TBR and do the work. The book is dense. At 496 pages (14 hours, 26 minutes on Audible), the content is also weighty. In truth, this heavy lifting is good for all.
This book defines and details the caste system on which America is built. Wilkerson uses this analogy: “Caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance.”
As we unthinkingly follow theater ushers, we follow the caste system subconsciously, without question. The caste system is alive and well, an unassailable fact shared throughout the book via a myriad of anecdotes and teachings, many of them from Wilkerson’s own personal experiences.
- Caste is different than race. Caste is about power and a social order ranking. Through caste, Wilkerson notes, the world assigns a place for us based on how we look.
- America is an example, though not the great one we would like it to be. Throughout the book, comparisons between Hitler’s Germany and America’s South are discomforting. Nazis in Germany studied America’s Jim Crow South system as they created laws against Jewish people.
- Today’s society didn’t create caste; we inherited it. Wilkerson writes, “The caste system in America is 400 years old and will not be dismantled by a single law or any one person, no matter how powerful.”
- Acknowledging current realities is key. “Caste does not explain everything in American life, but no aspect of American life can be fully understood without considering caste and embedded hierarchy.” Wilkerson adds, “A single election will not solve the problems that we face if we haven’t dealt with the structure that created the imbalance to begin with.”
The realities of caste are daunting, vast and all-encompassing. Understanding this is the first rep in a course of heavy lifting. Wilkerson writes, “You cannot solve anything you do not admit exists.”
The book explains in vivid detail exactly how the caste system and systemic racism have shaped society. Current generations didn’t create this reality, but it is our responsibility to understand what is broken. Wilkerson writes, “We are responsible for our own ignorance or, with time and openhearted enlightenment, our own wisdom.”
Admitting ignorance, seeking wisdom and enlightenment … this is heavy lifting. It’s not easy. It’s uncomfortable. It’s humbling. But, as Wilkerson writes, “Few problems have ever been solved by ignoring them.”
Maya Angelou once said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Colleagues, I urge you to do the work. Cross-fit enthusiasts don’t begin immediately deadlifting serious weight or throwing tires very far. They start small and gradually increase their goals over time. The same is true with educating ourselves. Start small. Be open. Make connections. Be willing to re-learn.
In addition to reading books like this, I’ve added the voices of people of color to my podcast library and social media feeds. I’m intentionally seeking out different perspectives and people outside my circle. Mostly, I’m listening and re-learning.
We all have a role to play in dismantling the caste system. And we will all gain in doing so, for as Wilkerson notes, “A world without caste would set everyone free.”
Disclaimer: The views, thoughts and opinions expressed in the article belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer or any organization, committee, or other group to which the author belongs.