Maybe it’s irritating; maybe it’s righteously indignant; maybe it’s newly awakened evangelism. Whatever it is, I can’t stop talking to all my friends about the Caste book I just read. I keep retelling the parts about the lynching postcards, Hitler’s use of the US as a model in how to de-humanize Jews, and the clear explanation of why poor whites identify more with powerful elites than to other poor people. Apparently, I have been deeply affected by Isabel Wilkerson’s scholarship, and I simply MUST share.
Have you ever read something that you can’t shut up about? I was recently that way about Nature’s Best Hope, which I begged everyone I knew to read (and at least I know all my Master Naturalist friends will read after hearing Doug Tallamy speak in person. I can remember being that excited over The Color Purple, too, as well as the first book on feminist spirituality I ever read. But, it doesn’t happen often, so forgive me, if you know me in person, if I keep going on and on about things the US has institutionalized to maintain an artificial difference between two groups of people.
You will be either pleased or annoyed to know I just got Wilkerson’s first book, The Warmth of Other Suns, which is about the immigration history of the US. I can’t wait to learn which group of misfits gets scapegoated decade by decade. I’ll try to keep my enthusiasm to a dull roar, hee hee.
I’ve been thinking, though, about what gets me all riled up into a pile of agitated activism. It always seems to center around people or other living beings not being treated fairly. That’s what sparked my religious outrage in the past, nearly all of my strong political feelings, and my advocacy of child and animal welfare. None of us is ACTUALLY any better than anyone else, people, animals, plants, rocks, whatever. At least that’s what I’ve been socialized to believe.
Thanks to all the reading I’ve done lately, though, I can see how other people come to view things differently. I may not think it’s right all the time, but it’s odd how learning about the treatment of minorities, indigenous people, and disfavored groups has led me to a better understanding of how desperately people cling to anything that lets them believe they are members of favored groups.
I’m still thinking. In the meantime, what book (or movie or television program) has led you to get all riled up and ready to take action about injustice?
Oh my. Here’s a book you probably should read. I guarantee you won’t “enjoy” it, but you may well be a better person for having read it. You know how they say there are things you can’t “un-see?” Well, this book hammers you with things that you won’t be able to “un-read” even if you want to.
I had to stop reading Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, by Isabel Wilkerson, for a couple of weeks, because I was having nightmares about lynchings and beatings. I was ignorant of how many there were in the 20th century, as well as how people came to see the lynched people, took photos with them, and even sent postcards of it, until the Post Office banned them. Nightmare stuff. This was in my parents’ lifetime.
That’s just one example of what Wilkerson shares as she lays out the history and consequences of what she defines as the two-caste system in the US, which is unique to this country. Oh boy, makes me so not proud. Makes me sick.
She also makes it frighteningly clear how similar the US caste system parallels the way Nazi Germany was set up. What horrified me most was learning that they based their system for de-humanizing the Jews and others on how the high-caste people in the US made people from Africa into non-humans, to justify how they were treated in the slave economy. I got sick to my stomach just typing this.
Yeah, it’s a hard book to read. But it’s so important to look at the way Black people have been treated here in the US and (most important) how they continue to be treated up until the present. Especially for those of us who just happened to be born in the high caste, if you don’t have this information presented to you, right in your face, it’s easy to assume everything’s just fine, because, heck WE like our black colleagues and friends and treat them well. Oops. Not true.
No, things are NOT better, and no, people have not stopped treating lower-caste people as less than human. Yes, progress has been made, but all you have to do is look at how panicked a large portion of the white people in the US got when a Black man became President. Preserving the status quo turns out to be more important for this group than many things that might help them as a group (and that’s all I’ll say about this; read the book).
In good news, not all the book makes you sick to your stomach if you have any empathy at all for fellow humans. Wilkerson does talk about interesting historical parallels in India and talks about ways to make things better. Like I’ve always thought, she concludes that actually getting to know people and seeing their common humanity, one at a time, is how ANY of us can work to break the caste system down.
People who show a greater sense of joint responsibility to one another when they see their fellow citizens as like themselves.
It’s just that we still have a lot of work ahead of us, and it will go way slower if we don’t actually LISTEN to our fellow citizens, even when it hurts.
The chapter of Caste that gobsmacked me was the one at the end, where she shares the consequences of the caste system and the fear and distrust it engenders in the US. When put in the context of the rest of the world, this is one weird place. Examples from the book:
Americans own nearly half the guns in the world owned by civilians.
If the U.S. prison population were a city, it would be the fifth largest in America.
I know this is not a popular thing to say right now, but I can see why so many of my friends are moving to other countries. I’ve just been conveniently ignoring a lot of things that are right in front of my face, passively watching fellow Americans support and encourage the caste system, and failed to do the work needed to make this a good place for all of us. I’m so afraid of the dominant caste and the masses it’s indoctrinated that I’m not much better than them.
Well, that is changing, thanks to what I’ve been learning this year, and I’m just going to have to deal with the nasty consequences from fearful fellow citizens. It’s not like I have to be on the defensive every second of every day like so many Black people, the ones I know and care about included, must deal with. Because, as Wilkerson notes:
There are thriving, prosperous nations where people do not have to sell their Nobel Prizes to get medical care, where families don’t go broke taking care of elderly loved ones, where children exceed the educational achievements of American children, where drug addicts are in treatment rather than in prison, where perhaps the greatest measure of human success – happiness and a long life – exists in greater measure because they value their shared commonality.
I don’t know for sure how I came out this way, having grown up in the American South. But I don’t want to see people’s potential wasted just because of what they look like or where their parents were born. We need all the contributions of all the brilliant humans out there…so maybe we can live in peace. I’m still gonna try, no matter how cynical books like this make me.
Riding along through the Texas countryside, I saw lots and lots of political flags, signs, and such. It reminded me of how divided this country is today. I began to reflect on the books I’ve been reading lately, most of which touch on the history of this country, and how there’s always been a lot of cruelty to those who are not in power and a lot of fighting to keep those people “in their places.” I’m referring to pretty much anyone who isn’t a white dude, and preferably a white dude with mostly English background.
Reading about lynchings, realizing that people came to watch them for amusement and sent out postcards of themselves posing with the victims, learning how each new wave of immigrant to the US was treated, and learning how hard men fought to keep women from having the right to own land, sign their own contracts, or vote all have been turning my stomach lately.
Yesterday it came to life on our own property. The friend who likes to do metal detecting around town came over to investigate the fields behind the Ross property. He found two old pennies, some buckles, some keys and two tokens. These were tokens used as currency at a local dance hall, Germania Hall. It was a big deal at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. How cool, right?
But, it abruptly shut down. Why? Because of the huge wave of intolerance towards German immigrants around World War 1. This is also why Lee’s dad didn’t speak German, though his parents did. My friend Steve, who’s from Indiana, had the same thing happen in his family. Everyone just stopped speaking German.
By the way, parts of Germania Hall were used to construct Weid Hardware in the Dutchtown area of Cameron (Dutch secretly being Deutsch). I would love to know where the hall was, but these newspaper articles never gave addresses. Everyone knew where everything was in the early 1900s!
The US has always been this way. There is always someone who is the enemy or the class viewed as less than human. I just didn’t know this when I was younger! I honestly thought there were very few ignorant and intolerant people, and that society was moving at a brisk pace toward modernism and equality for all. Women could vote! Blacks could drink out of any damn water fountain they wanted to, and went to the same schools as me.
I was way too insulated, and remained so through grad school, when I was in this happy haven of love and equality that I thought applied almost everywhere. I sure was naïve. Plus, I thought that racists, misogynists, etc., were just ignorant, and that if they realized how they were treating other human beings much like themselves, they’d have some big epiphany and stop. Really, Suna? Really?
And get this, I actually thought that surely everyone would want others to have access to health care, a living wage, and a stable, safe place to live. Nope. I totally missed the fact that there is another completely legitimate point of view where everyone is in it for themselves, and only you, your family, and people just like you deserve good things. Everyone else isn’t quite human. Oops. I was a doofus. I may think folks of this midset are worthy of respect and kindness by virtue of being fellow humans, but they don’t think that of me and all us hippies.
Well, I will just wait and see what happens. I’m ready, because I know who I am and like myself. I just wish I had paid a little more attention to actual history, not what I read in watered-down books that universally praised the winners and villified the losers in any conflict. The good news is that with the world being just as it always has been and apparently always will be, people have managed to forge loving relationships, live peaceful lives, and grow spiritually. There are just more ways to do it than I thought in my youth.
One of the guiding principles of my life is to assume that people have good intentions in what they do and say. That means that people are doing the best the can with what they know, and given their life experiences/culture. I’ve found that doing this allows me to easily straighten out misunderstandings, to listen with an open mind, and to learn from others. I find that almost every time I think someone is going something to be mean, unkind, or ignorant, they didn’t mean it the way it came across, or were missing some information that would straighten things out. It’s a good principle.
Is this hard to do? Why, yes, it certainly is. It’s very easy to mess this up in more than one way.
First, you can slip into the mindset that everything revolves around you, so anything anyone does or says that upsets you must be on purpose. I had a graduate school friend who did this. Once I had to talk him down from leaving school just because a professor didn’t say hello to him when she passed him in the hallway. To him, it HAD to be because she disapproved of him, his dissertation topic, or something. To me, she could have been thinking about the class she was about to teach, an issue with her children, or many other things…she could have been just daydreaming. The discussion was painful.
Second, you can fall into the trap of making assumptions about motives. That’s the one that gets to me. I have been known to assume that people have some agenda that I don’t fit in, so they ignore me, or say things that appear to me to reject my input. That’s often not the case, as I find out when I snap out of it and have a reasonable discussion (or say something unhelpful, which also happens a lot, just ask my family).
Third, you can put labels on people that over-generalize them and lump them together into some group you don’t have a high opinion of. That’s where we get racist, sexist, classist, and ethnic stereotypes that don’t give people a chance to be individuals with their own motives. I’ve lived around enough different groups of people that this one doesn’t trap me as much as the assumption one. However, it has taken me over 60 years to overcome some of the labels I put on members of certain religious groups. I’m very grateful to have met people who gently point out the fact that all religions have different factions and that I could probably find people very much like myself in all of them, if I’d just look. So, not all members of certain traditions don’t want to take my rights away or hate me because of my beliefs. I must remind myself of this!
What Makes It Harder
As you know (because you do not live under a rock) these are hard times to be reasonable people. All sorts of forces are conspiring to pit us against our neighbors in our towns, states, countries, and the world. We take our assigned label and cling hard to it, assuming that people we assign another label all have horrible intentions, are stupid, want to harm us, and are the reason everything’s so bad. Right? It’s not just here in the US. Check out the UK, for example, and yes, even Canada has its factions (read the news, you’ll see!).
I happen to know, live with, and interact frequently with people who are assigned different labels from me. I have to talk to them, work with them, and read their social media postings. Sometimes, since most of us don’t wear our labels on our lapels, the back of our trucks, or our speedboats, we get surprised to find out someone we like is one of “them.” Ooooh, noooo.
Well, they are still the same person you have something in common with, or you wouldn’t like them. Maybe they were brought up in a different community from you. Maybe they have had pivotal experiences that affect their thinking. And yeah, maybe they just follow along with their crowd, because it’s easier to do than pushing boundaries or sticking out. Hey, people on your side do it, too.
The challenge is to assume that they hold their beliefs, not because they personally hate you or your friends, but because the vast majority* of people you disagree with honestly think they are doing the right thing. They may be wrong, but for their internal value systems, it’s right for them. You (I) may be wrong, too. Confirmation bias and all that.
So, my plan is to work even harder on assuming good intentions for the next few months. This doesn’t mean I won’t work hard for causes I believe in, won’t vote as hard as I can for my preferred candidates, or won’t practice my own spiritual beliefs that work for me. It just means I’m going to try as hard as I can to remember the “other” side are people, too.
I will note that sometimes it will mean I can’t answer a question, because I can’t come up with a way to say things that won’t come across as insulting. And I’ll screw up. Some things really push my buttons. I bet you have buttons, too. And when I’m tired, overwhelmed with my work, or worried about things, I may be less than a sterling example of someone living their beliefs. But I’m going to TRY.
In the end, we all have to share our world. It’s the one we have.
*Yes, some people are mean. Some people are full of hate. Some people really fit stereotypes; that’s how they become stereotypes. It’s just that I firmly believe that MOST people I disagree with are not this way.
Lately, a lot of my friends and other contacts have been publicly inviting people who disagree with their choice of candidates, platforms, or political parties to “unfriend me now!” I can empathize with what prompts such declarations. You get tired of being called ignorant, or sheep, or whatever, by people you thought cared for you, and who you care(d) about. Or you get tired of those one or two people who sniff out any tiny whiff of partisanship on your part and then blast your friends with the tenacity of a dog with a bone.
Now, I have some pretty strong beliefs on political, social, and religious grounds, and I am not ashamed of them, so I’m not going to succumb to fear and never be who I am in social media. If they come and round me up later for expressing my beliefs, well, I will have led a good and consistent life, and I’ll deal with the consequences.
I don’t think it’s helping one bit to egg people on and act like the stereotype you’re trying to deny you’re a part of, though. So, here’s what I plan to do between now and the beginning of November, which is a big election time in the US (some of you may not know; the US isn’t the most important place for everyone on earth, I’m told).
I’m not going to remove from my social media accounts all my friends, coworkers, business contacts, and family members who express their affiliation with a different candidate than the one I favor. Believe it or not, I find that I do have other things in common with them, or like them for other reasons. It’s possible if your mindset isn’t that, “Every Party X member is a doofus.” (I will point out that yes, some Party X members are doofuses; some party Y and Z members are ALSO doofuses.)
I will “snooze” some folks on Facebook if something they say upsets me, but I won’t un-follow, unfriend, or whatever, unless someone comes across as genuinely dangerous or unhinged. So, yeah, if you threaten to kill me or people I love, I might put some distance between us. That’s just common sense.
I’m not going to waste my breath and time trying to “educate” or chastise people who say things I disagree with or find mildly offensive in response to comments on other people’s Facebook posts, tweets, or Instagrams. I have learned that’s how you (along wity people like yourself) earn bad reputations with other groups. I see it enough in comments on my own posts, and know how damned hard it can be not to respond (I do fail at times). Just go vote, folks, and realize most others have already made up their minds.
If I share memes, I’m going to try to make it the constructive and encouraging kind, not the kind that puts down others. I have friends who share some real doozies that I enjoy, because I’m human, but every time I’ve even slightly hinted that some other bunch of folks might not have the right idea about something, I end up feeling bad about doing it. I guess I’m pretty firm that passive-aggressive memes serve more to make the person sharing them look bad than to shame the intended audience.
Slightly off topic, but hey, it’s my blog:
Honestly, I don’t need any help to know I’ve been a bad friend or done some things I shouldn’t have that won’t be forgiven or forgotten. I’m trying to forgive my own dang self and learn from the mistakes, so rubbing my nose in it just makes me resentful, not a better person. I wonder if all the nameless people so many accusatory memes are aimed at feel that way, too, if they see themselves in the words, of course. Targeted memes (personal or political) probably mostly miss the intended audience.
Back on track
Anyway, another thing I’m going to do in social media and in person between now and November is be friendly to everybody I run across. I can find something neutral or positive to talk to just about anyone about, and that is what helps us all remember there’s good in everyone. Engaging with the people around me is one concrete thing I can do to help heal the divisiveness and partisan negativity we seem so mired in these days.
I know I’m not alone in seeing people as fellow humans first, and labels second. It’s easy to disparage a faceless group, but one on one, it’s a lot harder. I am glad to have people around me who are great role models in this way of interacting, and yes, some of the best ones do not agree with all of my political and social views. When I’m feeling frustrated, I think of all the hard-working and thoughtful people I know who are trying to make the world better by working with each other. Thanks to everyone who helps with that!
How about you, are you up for trying any of the things I’m going to try to do for the next couple of months? If you’re not, what is your plan for dealing with the challenges of the pre-election period? What’s working for you?
Have you ever read a book and wanted to start over immediately after finishing it? Have you ever wanted to make everyone you care about read a book? Have you ever wanted to give a book a big hug and thank it? I have. And this is the book: How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi (2019). I am so grateful that I saw an interview with Kendi by Stephen Colbert that convinced me to stop procrastinating and get this book!
You see, a lot of books, films, journal articles, etc., on racism have annoyed me, but I never could quite put my finger on why. Thus, I was reluctant to read this book, even with all the great reviews and recommendations from people I respect. But, ha! Now I know why I was so annoyed! My internal definition of racism, though not very well thought out and rather ineffable, was more like Kendi’s definition. And I didn’t have his term for antiracism in my vocabulary, but the ideas were back there, churning away, making me feel like I was missing something.
I was missing the ideas in this book. As I read through each chapter, I learned more and more about how the times I lived in shaped my views, and WHY some of the things I kept hearing bothered me (things like Black people can’t be racist). Now it’s clear that anyone can express racist ideas or do racist things. People aren’t racist, ideas are. And people who have done racist things in the past can do antiracist things, even before they know what those are in Kendi’s definition.
My favorite assertion he makes, though, is that we all will have both racist and antiracist thoughts. We can’t help it, living in this society. Kendi brings this home with a vengeance as he talks about his own journey and attitudes toward race in the US. Some of the most powerful parts of the book are where he breaks down his own mistakes and shows that he learned from them and moved forward with new knowledge. We ALL can do that.
Kendi thanks his editor for his help with the way the book is organized. I thank Chris Jackson, too. The structure of the book is complex, as it interweaves stories of Kendi’s life with research and analysis. Here’s how Kendi put it:
“This book was quite difficult to wrap my head around and write–the chronological personal narrative interspersed with a series of connected chapter themes that build on each other like a stepladder to antiracism.”
How to Be an Antiracist, p. 239
This writer and technical editor was very impressed with every bit of the structure of the book, and how well the content flows. Dang. Life goals.
But, if the book was written like a textbook, I’d still have lapped it up like someone thirsty for a concoction they didn’t know existed. I just kept repeating, “yes, yes,” to myself with every page. I saw my own mistakes, I saw where my instincts were good but my actions weren’t, I saw areas for growth, and I saw things I could be proud of in my past.
Like Kendi, I got most of my ideas about racism and antiracism in graduate school, where I was surrounded by a mini United Nations of people from all over the world (I studied linguistics at the University of Illinois, which had a large program and did a lot of research on languages from Africa and India). When you work closely with people from different cultures, religions, and backgrounds, you quickly learn that there are people you like and people you don’t like in every group, but MOST IMPORTANT you end up losing the idea that YOUR culture is better than anyone else’s. I got an early start on realizing that no culture is without flaws and sad histories, but that no culture is without beauty, joy, and precious traits that should be treasured.
However, Kendi put these ideas into words way better than I ever could, so I’m grateful to him for giving me words and concepts to express my beliefs and goals.
I’m putting this book right next to The Color Purple and Where the Crawdads Sing among my favorites, ever.
Stuff I Learned
I want you to read this book. Still, I want to share a couple of the things I learned, having read way too much history from the perspective of the dominant culture, and being totally unaware of a few important ideas (to me, at least).
Race as a concept didn’t exist until 400 years ago! How did I now know THAT? It was invented to support the slave trade from Africa to Europe and later the US. Before that, people identified themselves by their cultural groups (tribes, kingdoms, etc.) not skin color.
The combinations of racist ideas with sexist, homophobic, and other ways of dividing people can lead to an entire system of X is “better” than Y (meaning they have more opportunities for education, jobs, and safe places to live).
All that stuff we tried to do in the 70s and 80s, with integrating schools by busing Black kids for hours to give them “equal” education was misguided. What we really need is for everyone to have the same opportunities right where they live. Black neighborhoods, Hispanic neighborhoods, Asian neighborhoods, and others are no better or worse than each other. Given equal access to power and influence, we could all thrive equally.
And this: racism is not about ignorance and hatred; it’s about power and influence. Power is what needs to be equally distributed among all of us. And that, my friends, is why I identify so strongly with social democrats, as does Kendi. If we all share, we can all thrive. And we can still have free markets and all that, just without one group having all the power.
See the quotes in the images for other gleanings.
I wax political. And I note, as Kendi does, that getting to the place in our society that I outline here (from him, sorta), is not likely. He likens racism to a Stage 4 cancer in our society. It’s one that is growing and growing. But some of those cancers can be eradicated by hard work and a multi-factored approach (chemo, radiation, diet, attitude). Maybe racism can be eliminated if we work from an antiracist perspective to deal with the actual causes of the problem, rather than applying bandages.
Since summarizing books is not my best skill, I wanted to share this nice summary from the publisher. I hope it will encourage you to take a chance on being made uncomfortable sometimes, but go ahead and read How to Be an Antiracist so you can help build a just and equitable world where we can respect each other as we are.
Antiracism is a transformative concept that reorients and reenergizes the conversation about racism—and, even more fundamentally, points us toward liberating new ways of thinking about ourselves and each other. At its core, racism is a powerful system that creates false hierarchies of human value; its warped logic extends beyond race, from the way we regard people of different ethnicities or skin colors to the way we treat people of different sexes, gender identities, and body types. Racism intersects with class and culture and geography and even changes the way we see and value ourselves. In How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi takes readers through a widening circle of antiracist ideas—from the most basic concepts to visionary possibilities—that will help readers see all forms of racism clearly, understand their poisonous consequences, and work to oppose them in our systems and in ourselves.
Book reports are not the most popular of my blog posts. The one from yesterday got 9 whole hits. But, if I ever need to know what books I was reading starting in 2018, I know where to look!
I had a feeling I’d read Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, by Mary L. Trump all in one sitting. I came close. Was it some sort of morbid curiosity? I guess so. But I have always wondered how the bellicose and supremely self-confident persona of the person currently serving as US President came about. I figured he must have had a really weird family.
Yes. He had a really weird family. The fact that his father was a gen-u-ine psychopath and narcissist and his mother was emotionally (and physically) not there during his formative years explains a lot. Also, you know, genetics probably played a role; he seems to have gotten more of his dad’s stuff than some of his other siblings, who each didn’t fare well in their household of origin to varying extents.
You can read Mary Trump’s assessment for yourself, so that’s enough about him for me. I was more interested in Mary (forgive me, but I’m not good at typing her last name). When a family member writes a tell-all, you tend to think, hmm, what is their agenda here? What’s their beef? And Mary, to her credit, completely admits she has a beef or two, like how her father was treated by the family patriarch, how no one did jack shit to help the current President deal with any of his issues and learn that anything whatsoever counted other than himself and looking good, how any disagreement with the family’s current lies about itself was punished incredibly harshly (like not mentioned in obituaries, written out of wills, etc.).
She’s NOT an impartial observer, but only someone who has been IN the family could write about it, thus, we get her viewpoint. I think she does a pretty good job at being fair, and you can see she loves many of her family members.
While acknowledging her part in the family drama, Mary kept me riveted while laying out the series of events that got us to where we are today, and like one of my friends who has also already finished the book, you almost feel sorry for young DJT. He didn’t stand a chance. I just wanted to know what horror that family would perpetuate next as I sped from chapter to chapter.
Two of my favorite bits in the book come toward the end, so let me share:
“Nobody has failed upward as consistently and spectacularly as the ostensible leader of the shrinking free world…Donald today is as much as he was at three years old: incapable of growing, learning, or evolving, unable to regulate his emotions, moderate his responses, or take in and synthesize information.”
Happy days. I read this just before reading about Federal troops continuing to detain peaceful protesters around the country, just before reading that some random angry dude in Austin shot and killed a protester who was trying to stop him from driving into a crowd that included his paraplegic wife, just before reading about yet another party full of mask-less people hugging and celebrating in my town. Yow.
It’s frequently suggested that we just look for the good in life right now, and not worry about things beyond our control. And I’m all for remembering that it’s not all bad, I have amazing friends and family, and the universe is amazing. However, not to acknowledge what is going on, to hope it will all go away (like so many people are doing with respect to the Narcissist in Chief) seems to me like fiddling while Rome burns.
If everyone sticks their heads in the sand, we’ll suffocate. Mary Trump’s book begs the people of this country and the world to actually DO something to help us get leadership with a focus on making life good for all, not just looking good for one’s long-dead father.
PS: These are my opinions and interpretations. I have no intentions of trying to change anyone’s minds on any political topic. Everyone makes their own decisions based on their upbringing and values. It’s okay.