Dismantling our Discontents – Isabel Wilkerson, Caste, and How We Must Become Undone  

“With an old house, the work is never done and you don’t expect it to be. America is an old house; we can never declare the work over and are already…when you live in an old house you may not want to go into the basement after a storm to see what the rain has wrought, choose not to look at your own peril. The owner of an old house knows that whatever you are ignoring will never go away, and what you are choosing to ignore will fester. Ignorance is no protection from the consequences of inaction.”  – Isabel Wilkerson

It is imperative that we acknowledge our roots if a sense of belonging to America and participating in Democracy is deeply ingrained in our sense of national identity. Herein lies the issue: there has been a consistent lack of full acknowledgment in terms of who we are, where we came from, how we got here, and where we are going. Existing institutions centered around cisgendered, white men have neglected many groups of people and their experiences. More pointedly, Black women. Facing the discrimination of being both Black and woman, the narrative of their collective history has been deliberately left out of pages from the book, left to their own devices to piece their story together. When the world wishes to erase your struggle or define it for you, the fight for your voice to be heard is much more profound. Black women have always been writers, poets, historians, and revolutionaries, and it is a matter of self-preservation and a sense of duty to uplift previously quieted voices.   

Author Isabel Wilkerson was born and raised in Washington D.C as a daughter of the Great Migration, the movement of approximately six million Black folks from the Jim Crow South to other areas of the United States. Throughout her career as a New York Times correspondent and accredited journalist, she has collected many accolades. One of these accomplishments being that she was the first African American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism. Her work focuses on the lived experiences of marginalized groups across the world and cries for humanity and compassion that have become lost in the noise. She is the author of best-selling books, The Warmth of Other Suns and Caste, the Origins of our Discontents, which exemplifies these shared struggles. In her analysis of America’s social structures, she explains how they uphold ideas of eras past, ones that still largely dictate how we live life today. She examines how race is a social construct stemming from the Transatlantic slave trade and presents a convincing case that American society is divided by what is more accurately classified as caste. Caste is defined as “a division in society based on differences of wealth, inherited rank or privilege, profession, occupation, or race; the chief architecture of division.”  These divisions seek to uplift Whites as the privileged, ruling class. 

In essence, we live at the mercy of a caste system, much like that of India, and even comparably so, the Third Reich in Germany. American society, and its treatment of Black folks has even served as an example for Nazi’s persecution and systemic erasure of the Jewish people. Our places are defined for us, and pay little mind to our efforts to escape these classifications, which are based on race, class, and gender, but are not chiefly these descriptors. One can change their clothing to appear wealthier, or alter their diction to appear more educated, much like someone could buy a new rug to match the new paint. However, if the basement is still ridden with water stains, or the steps are still molding, the foundation remains just as broken despite attempts to make it appear otherwise.  

“To dehumanize another human being is not merely to declare that someone is not human, and it does not happen by accident. It is a process, a programming. It takes energy and reinforcement to deny what is self-evident in another member of one’s own species,” Wilkerson observes. Caste divisions are contingent on power, or lack thereof, in order to continue existing. If the power of a higher caste is threatened, they will only fight harder to protect it. Historically, this has come in the form of banning interracial marriage, dividing labor, purifying education, separate spaces and places, divine intervention, violence, and terrorism. It has looked like separate curriculums for Black and White students, their respective books placed on different shelves to maintain purity. It has looked like the wearing of bells around one’s neck, to alert higher castes that someone in the lower order is approaching so they can act accordingly. It has looked like sexualizing Black women and girls, the forced bearing of children, and incorrectly placed blame to absolve the white man of his role in sexual violence. It is the invisible string threading our nation’s history together. 

“Any action of institution that mocks, harms, assumes, or attaches inferiority or stereotype on the basis of the social construct of race can be considered racism. Any action or structure that seeks to limit, hold back, or put someone in a defined ranking to keep them in their place by denigrating that person on the basis of their perceived category, is casteism,” the author writes. Framing the historical pattern this way puts name and classification to the socio-economic violence inflicted upon marginalized groups in the United States. Understanding our history from a Caste perspective allows us to uncover the nuances behind the intersectionality of class, race, and gender. Ultimately, framing the existing inequality as the manipulation of our differences to maintain power allows us to collectively question the power structures we participate in and how we continue to uphold them. There is a personal, moral responsibility we have to undo the familiarity we have with the way things are, and instead change the way we think for the sake of things that should be.  

Understanding our country and other societies through this lens allows us to begin to imagine how we can redistribute power to empower others. How can we lessen the emphasis we place on status? This reckoning could begin a discussion on a case for reparations, or some sort of economic stimulus uplifting those who have been forced to live in poverty. It can look like changing curriculums, and teaching future generations about how society functions because we make deliberate choices to weaponize our differences. We put far too much emphasis on preserving the individual and not the nature of the collective. We must partake in inner reflection and outward advocacy to decenter privileged groups and uplift those who have not been afforded that luxury. 

“As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance” writes Wilkerson. It is imperative that we remember that we all play a role in this performance, and that no one person is able to fully hide behind the curtains. We are all leading roles, guilty of upholding these caste classifications, for our willingness to participate in this hierarchy without recognition or change enables us to continue to reap our assigned benefits, if we are so lucky as to enjoy them. The human condition is not something that was meant to fit in a box, nor was it ever meant to be measured, yet we have collectively agreed upon using arbitrary classifications to measure worth, commodify humanity, and consign ourselves to an existence that has been predetermined for us. We must alter the way we understand race in order to begin to repair a termite-infested structure. Race exists as a social construct, a fabricated boundary; something that was decided on to maintain power for some and subordination for others. If it is something that we have played a hand in creating, we also possess the power to dismantle it. This is not a simple task, for the idea of a completely different configuration of society is uncomfortable for us, and difficult to imagine. Dismantling structures that we are so accustomed to require a radical, collective reimagination of everything that we have ever known. We must take on the responsibility of changing the way we act in the world and the way we think about it. We must not completely disregard idealism, our ability to dream of a better tomorrow, for the sake of our own comfort in the present reality. 

Jessica Taddeo, PAC Intern  

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