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?
After the emotional turmoil of reading Caste, I wanted something less intense and not about race. Well, the next book I read, Fifty Words for Rain, by Asha Lemmie turned out to be intense and about race, but it also had fun elements, so it was a bit of a break. Here’s how the Amazon description starts out:
Kyoto, Japan, 1948. “Do not question. Do not fight. Do not resist.”
Such is eight-year-old Noriko “Nori” Kamiza’s first lesson. She will not question why her mother abandoned her with only these final words. She will not fight her confinement to the attic of her grandparents’ imperial estate. And she will not resist the scalding chemical baths she receives daily to lighten her skin.
Turns out little Nori is half Black, and that was quite a problem back then, especially for a member of the Imperial Family. The poor girl certainly has a hard time, but she’s one of those resilient types, thankfully. I found it interesting how she made the best of whatever situation she was in, and was able to learn and grow into an amazing person. She is amazingly good at being alone, that’s for sure.
Other than a few annoying repetitions (how many times must Nori bite her lips so hard that she tastes blood?), I enjoyed the writing and the fascinating (if sometimes scary) characters Nori encounters. Her family puts the D in dysfunctional, to put it mildly.
The other part that was fun for me, in particular, is the Japanese language and culture from the times I’m most familiar with that is spread through the novel. I’m way better with formal Japanese than colloquial, so I understood most of it (I was trained by a fairly formal Japanese speaker, or actually, I’m glad Swann-sensei didn’t teach us what he did know; that would be fifty words for alcoholic beverages). At least some of the horrors of that culture didn’t shock me, since I knew about them. Other readers might find some of the book a little disturbing, but that’s what you need in a novel, right? Something to get you to turn the pages!
I predict Lemmie’s writing will only get better, so I look forward to future work by her. Even if the race theme keeps popping up to remind me not to become complacent, it’s worth it. Go ahead, get it! It will give you a nice break from reality. It certainly improved my Saturday afternoon and evening!
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.
Been wondering where those book reports went? I had to take some time off while reading The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennet, because at some point, my dislike of almost every character in the book made me not look forward to picking it up again. I was also disappointed that I’d scheduled a trip to Austin just to attend book club there, and they moved it to next week, when I have to stay in Cameron to attend all-day meetings that would drive Anita nuts.
In the end, I came to appreciate how everyone in the book constantly lied to themselves and each other, because it became clear that the theme to the Bennet’s story was that we are both tied to the labels we are assigned at birth, but we are also free to move away from them, when we are seeking our true selves. More on that in a bit.
The Vanishing Half was chosen by the book club members, and I wasn’t there for the discussion, so I knew nothing about it until I opened it up. I was hoping for something less intense than How to Be an Antiracist. Imagine my surprise when I found out the symbolism-laden Louisiana “town” the book centers around is populated exclusively by light-skinned Black people. It was a chance to explore race in a fictional context. Serendipity!
This skin color thing was a source of great pride in the community, which consisted of people with freckles, red hair, hazel eyes, and other combinations of superficial markings of White people. But, the surrounding area deemed them Black, and they worked at jobs that Black people in the South used to be stuck with. They were proud of being culturally Black, but also looked down at darker-skinned people. As you can imagine, that can complicate things.
Eventually, the very light twins who are the pivotal characters end up exploiting all the possibilities you can imagine for people like themselves. One stays home, and one vanishes. They each have daughters, one very light, one very dark. The daughters meet, and all sorts of racial stereotypes get twisted, turned, and explored.
Every single character you run across is very human, capable of truth, lies, devotion, desertion, prejudice, and acceptance (which explains why, at some point, I really didn’t like some of them). The only character I didn’t feel like I got to know well was the husband of one of the twins, but maybe it’s good that the stereotypical White business dude is the one who’s not worth fleshing out. At least it’s a nice change.
I liked how the daughter of the twin who lives an entirely new life after disappearing becomes an actor, herself, and feels most comfortable when playing a role. It’s all acting, for them. They fluidly go from identity to identity.
And I liked how Jude,the daughter of the twin who stays and plays the role tradition assigned her, knows who she is and what she wants to do, despite hardship and prejudice. She never doubts herself, just her confusing family. She never doubts the love of her life, Reese, sticking with him as he transitions his external appearance to match who he is inside.
I hope the world comes to accept everyone like the characters in The Vanishing Half. Be who you want to be. Love who you want to love. Cherish your roots, however tangled they may be.
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.
In any case, things I was reading today about other people’s biases gave me pause to think about my own. As hard as I’ve worked to overcome different kinds of prejudice, some seem almost hard wired. I have no scientific basis to go on, but my gut feeling is that these are the ones I learned when I was very young, before my ability to make judgments like that on my own kicked in.
Yep, I’m a white person. I was raised in a Southern US white culture. Some of the prejudices of that group rub off. I’ve spent many years dwelling on this, and it doesn’t make me happy. I know that having slave ancestors as well as slave owning ancestors is something to think about. I know I have biases in other areas that skew my opinions. I know I can’t fix past things. But I know I can work hard to treat people fairly today.
Where Prejudice Comes From (for me)
I sure know where a lot of my prejudices come from, and that’s my mom, whom I loved dearly, but I could tell from an early age had some extra doozies of flaws. One was her wide range of racial and ethnic stereotypes. She had a bad World War II experience (lost a fiance) and was pissed off at Japanese people and Germans (they spit when they talk) her whole life. She was also quite opposed to “white trash,” and kept telling us not to be like them. And she both loved black people personally and said awful things about them them as a group (probably from her own upbringing). All this stuff confused the heck out of me, and even though I was uncomfortable with the things she said and did, I know some of it sunk in.
Thanks to my upbringing, I was scared of black people and looked down from my barely middle-class perch at poor white people. I have a feeling many of my black and poor white future friends came about from me wanting to distance myself from my mom and not wanting to be like that. At least I stuck around to like my friends as people. But to this day, I get this tiny bit of negativity that my higher thought processes immediately slap down. Whew, no wonder racial stereotypes and prejudices are so hard to eradicate, when even someone who knows better and wants to judge people on who they are, not how they look, still deals with childhood crap.
I’m really having a harder than usual time listening to people lumping me in with some group of tantrum-prone babies because I have differing opinions from them. I’m not using my best words, either, which doesn’t help. I can work on me, though, after listening to my friends’ criticisms of me.
It is so hard to not stereotype groups of people when people say stuff like this to and about me:
Attack when the opinion differs. Humiliate when you don’t get your own way. Scream in people’s faces like a spoiled child when you can’t make someone succumb to your way of thinking. They are a bunch of spoiled brats who don’t know how to communicate, they never had to. They were led to believe no one loses, that someone calling you a name will destroy who you are instead of defending yourself, they were taught any college degree is worth an above average wage, even though it might have been in fashion, or liberal arts! We used to sit, have discussions, not arguments. We never disowned our friends and families because we disagreed with their policies. We never had to convince our friends, we only gave our viewpoints and that was ok. This new political party is a rude, childish, a true embarrassment to us all.
a guy on Facebook who I don’t know
Wow, I’d said that some people find it really important to own objects designed for killing, while other people want to have more peaceful, secure lives. I do realize that when people expect a certain type of words to come out of people they don’t like as a group, they will interpret the words in the worst way possible. And I am NOT at my word-smithing best today. I am sorry for that, honest!
Anyway, gun-loving friends, I do not think you all want to kill people. Pacifist friends, I am against killing people, so would use the shotgun I own only to scare away animals. That’s just me. You feel how you want to feel.
I really DO want to sit and have discussion. And folks, name-calling may well make you feel better, but I don’t like it. Why? Not because it hurts my feelings. No, because it stops any rational dialog in its tracks and just leads to escalating labeling and ranting, not listening. Or, as in my case, I just leave the “conversation” and concentrate on places where I actually can engage in dialogue and learn from others.
When you feel attacked, you defend, even if you don’t want to. So, this is my public apology to anyone I’ve been unfair to on social media. Now you know why I’be been trying to keep quiet. I will work on figuring out a way to share my thoughts without inadvertently making others feel attacked.
My next post will be about tea, or ants, or something neutral. Please encourage me to keep growing and making myself less easily provoked.