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Some insights from Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

Kevin Gordon, Director of Camp Kupugani in Leaf River, IL–located two hours west of Chicago–recently read Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. According to Wilkerson, “caste is the granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy.” Racism and casteism overlap; “what some people call racism could be seen as merely one manifestation of the degree to which we have internalized the larger American caste system.” In shedding much-needed light on current and historical development and sustaining of an underclass, this book is invaluable. See below for some excerpts. 

Why do caste systems persist?

A caste system persists in part because we, each and every one of us, allow it to exist–in large and small ways, in our everyday actions, in how we elevate or demean, embrace or exclude, on the basis of meaning attached to people’s physical traits. If enough people buy into the lie of natural hierarchy, then it becomes the truth or is assumed to be. – p.380

We can choose to not be limited by caste restrictions.
 
Once awakened, we then have a choice. We can be born to the dominant caste but choose not to dominate. We can be born to a subordinated caste but resist the box others force upon us. And all of us can sharpen our powers of discernment to see past the external and to value the character of a person rather than demean those who are already marginalized or worship those born to false pedestals. We need not bristle when those deemed subordinate break free, but rejoice that here may be one more human being who can add their true strengths to humanity. – p. 380
 
Addressing the problems of caste needs everyone’s cooperation.
 
The fact is that the bottom caste, though it bears much of the burden of the hierarchy, did not create the caste system, and the bottom caste alone cannot fix it. The challenge has long been that many in the dominant caste, who are in a better position to fix caste inequity, have often been least likely to want to. – p. 380
 
Just having “empathy” isn’t enough.
 
Empathy is commonly viewed as putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagining how you would feel. That could be seen as a start, but that is little more than role-playing, and it is not enough in the ruptured world we live in. – p. 386
 
We need to humble ourselves, open up, and allow others to tell their stories.
 
Radical empathy, on the other hand, means putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another’s experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel. Radical empathy is not about you and what you think you would do in a situation you have never been in and perhaps never will. It is the kindred connection from a place of deep knowing that opens your spirit to the pain of another as they perceive it. – p. 386
 
Empathy is no substitute for experience itself. We don’t get to tell a person with a broken leg or a bullet wound that they are not in pain. And people who have hit the caste lottery are not in a position to tell a person who has suffered under the tyranny of caste what is offensive or hurtful or demeaning to those at the bottom. The price of privilege is the moral duty to act when one sees another person treated unfairly. And the least that a person in the dominant caste can do is not make the pain any worse. – p.386 
 
We should focus on connections and commonalities as humans.
 
If each of us could truly see and connect with the humanity of the person in front of us, search for that key that opens the door to whatever we may have in common, whether cosplay or Star Trek or the loss of a parent, it could begin to affect how we see the world and others in it, perhaps change the way we hire or even vote. Each time a person reaches across caste and makes a connection, it helps to break the back of caste. – p. 386
 
Being “not racist,” “not sexist,” or “tolerant” isn’t enough.
 
With our current ruptures, it is not enough to not be racist or sexist. Our times call for being pro-African-American, pro-woman, pro-Latino, pro-Asian, pro-indigenous, pro-humanity in all its manifestations. In our era, it is not enough to be tolerant. You tolerate mosquitoes in the summer, a rattle in an engine, the gray sluh that collects at the crosswalk in the winter. You tolerate what you would rather not have to deal with and wish would go away. It is no honor to be tolerated. Every spiritual tradition says love your neighbor as yourself, not tolerate them. – p. 386-387
 
We are responsible for our actions and their consequences today.
 
We are not personally responsible for what people who look like us did centuries ago. But we are responsible for what good or ill we do to people alive with us today. We are, each of us, responsible for every decision we make that hurts or harms another human being. We are responsible for recognizing that what happened in previous generations at the hands of or to people who look like us set the stage for the world we now live in and that what has gone before us grants us advantages or burdens through no effort or fault of our own, gains or deficits that others who do not look like us often do not share. – p. 388
 
We are responsible for our own ignorance or, with time and openhearted enlightenment, our own wisdom. – p.388
 
If we can free ourselves of a caste outlook, our potential is limitless.
 
In a world without caste, instead of a false swagger over our own tribe or family or ascribed community, we would look upon all of humanity with wonderment. – p. 388
 
In a world without caste, being male or female, light or dark, immigrant or native-born, would have no bearing on what anyone was perceived as being capable of. – p.388
 
A world without caste would set everyone free. – p.388

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