Book Report: Caste – The Origins of Our Discontent

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 set it on a pretty backdrop.

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.

Taking a break to breathe.

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.

Breathing some more. What a lovely morning sky. Sure looks like our electric pole is slanted.

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.

page 353

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.

I did not exactly “enjoy” the journey through this book, but I’m glad I embarked on it. And I am glad I finished.

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.

page 355

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.

pp. 353-54

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.

Not gonna give up. Image from peaceoneday.org – Peace Day is September 21!

Book Report: How to Be an Antiracist

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!

How to Be an Antiracist
My beloved copy of 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 glad the publisher shared these images.

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.

A Summary

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.

DOWNLOAD AND SHARE QUOTE CARDS FROM HOW TO BE AN ANTIRACIST BY IBRAM X. KENDI

Brave Suna, Part 2B: Public Bravery

Since we’ve added a very appropriate new focus of concern for the people of the country where I live, I’ve found it harder and harder to concentrate and more and more difficult to see the positive in things. This is the other area where I need to be brave. Let’s hope the horse stuff helps me.

It’s been bad enough watching people turn dealing with a pandemic into a partisan thing, but now I see the exact same thing going on with protests about the death of a black man at the hands of a police officer (and more). People seem WAY more interested in deflecting from the actual issue (systematic racism) to other issues, in the most polarizing way possible. I am just sick about it.

First I Want to Say This

NOT ALL POLICE OFFICERS ARE SOCIOPATHIC KILLERS.
NOT ALL PROTESTERS ARE LOOTERS.
THIRD PARTIES, LIKE ANARCHISTS, WHITE SUPREMACISTS, RUSSIAN AGENTS, AND THE LIKE WANT TO DISTRACT US FROM THIS:
OUR SOCIETY MUST TAKE CONCRETE ACTION TO DEAL WITH RACISM OR WE ARE NOT A JUST AND FREE SOCIETY LIKE WE CLAIM TO BE.

Well, Suna, what qualifies you to say this?

Does personal experience count? I KNOW more than one ethical and principled police officer. In person. I’ve hugged them. I KNOW more than one passionate and peaceful protester who is willing to take action to improve the lives of black and brown people in this country. In person. I’ve hugged them. I’ve given birth to them.

That said, I am totally aware that telling people how to think and feel is not a useful tactic, because people will believe what they are already primed to believe. I’m primed to believe good things about liberals, socialists, actual communists (the very few real ones, not the “all media members are commies ones”), non-sensationalist news outlets, and intelligent people with backgrounds in the subjects they are talking about. I also think there are capitalists who try to do good in the world, and businesses that aren’t out to smash poor people.

So, news that fits in with my world view is more likely to be believed by me. I totally get it that if you are primed to believe liberals hate Good Americans, and all the associated beliefs, you will believe other angles. We’re just stuck with that. Can’t fix it all by myself.

What Can Brave Suna Do?

Or brave you, or anyone, for that matter. I get conflicting advice. One school of thought is to not let myself get all worked up about things not in my sphere of control. I can’t change people’s minds. I can’t cure diseases. I can’t make people learn to be less racist (other than me). So, I should just let go and stare at nature some more. Bravery, in this case, is being brave enough to live the Serenity Prayer, darn it.

I’m trying.

But, I need the wisdom to know what I can and can’t control, right? Another set of advice I get tells me I need to speak up. I need to let the world know that the stereotypes of people like me are not all true. I need to not only say I’m an ally but BE an ally to people struggling. I need to listen to them and to learn where I can do better and maybe even make a difference.

And sometimes when I listen, I hear that, dear old white liberal lady, it’s not your time or place to protest. You have lived a life of privilege and have no clue what it’s like to be marginalized. Shut up and let the people who know the issues first hand figure out what to do. It’s not your job. I get that.

It’s hard to be a person with empath traits when there is a lot of hurting going on. You take on the pain and suffering of others around you, even if you don’t experience it yourself, but of COURSE you aren’t directly experiencing it. You want so badly to help, to make the world a better place for all of us, but you may not even have the right tools.

A sure-fire way to get eggs thrown at your house? Or worse?

So, what can you or I do to be brave about our convictions in public?

It feels really inauthentic, and to be honest, chickenshit, to do nothing when you see your friends’ neighborhoods being destroyed, your children putting their lives in danger to support others, other people’s children being killed just because they look a certain way, your friends’ husbands feeling uncomfortable in their own neighborhoods. All that. It won’t do. It sure won’t make our society any better.

One thing I can do is model the behavior I’d like to see in others and hope someone notices, I guess. I sure can’t order people to notice their biases (I DO try to notice mine). We can all give that one a try.

Plus, I guess I must speak up publicly. As much as I really dislike being labeled and insulted, I will calmly state what I believe, and when I hear false information, present another viewpoint. That may not be much, but it is one way to make it clear that the vast majority of us, no matter what label we put on ourselves, just want ourselves and our neighbors to live in peace and safety, even if they look different from us, worship differently from us, or love differently from how we do.

Why is that so hard? Humans, you disappoint me, deeply. And I’m human. I’m not proud of it right now.

I’m physically sick. I’d flee, but there’s no place to go. Must be brave and stick it out with the rest of the humans, many of whom are in much worse shape than me. George Floyd doesn’t have that option anymore.