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  • Rich Haglund

Disrupting caste is a spiritual endeavor

Isabel Wilkerson, in her book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, states, "That any of us manages to create abiding connections across these manufactured divisions [of a centuries old caste system] is a testament to the beauty of the human spirit."


"Caste is the boundaries that reinforce the fixed assignments based on what people look like."

"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." Wilkerson adds, "Race does the heavy lifting for a caste system that demands a means of human division. . . . Caste is the bones, race the skin." Thus, the "thievery of caste [is] stealing the time and psychic resources of the marginalized, draining energy in an already uphill competition.'


Race and caste are words applied by Europeans in the New World (the Americas) and the Old World (India). “It was in the making of the New World that Europeans became white, Africans black, and everyone else yellow, red, or brown.“


Wilkerson describes the development and impact of caste in India, America, and Germany (which admired America's expertise in this damning enterprise), and shares many of her own experiences of being robbed of "respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness." The examples she shares, awful and jarring yet sadly unsurprising, are but a fraction of what has been robbed from individuals by the "powerful Sith Lord of caste."


So, how do we disrupt this caste system that has cost so much?


Wilkerson concludes by sharing her interaction with a plumber who had come to her home to help find and repair the source of a water leak in her basement. 18 months previously, Wilkerson had been widowed. And she had lost her mother just the week before.


The plumber, "wearing a cap like the men at the rallies who wanted to make America great again," waited while Wilkerson did the work of moving things around to get to the different potential sources of the leak - boxes, books, a bucket, etc. The plumber seemed to be letting Wilkerson do the troubleshooting one would have expected the plumber to do. And he seemed to give up without finding a solution.


"I was steaming now," Wilkerson sighed. "All he was doing was standing there watching me sweep (as women who look like me have done for centuries) and not fixing anything. He had come up with no answers, shown no interest, and now it appeared I was going to have to pay him for doing nothing."


With nothing to lose, Wilkerson "threw a Hail Mary at his humanity." She told him her mother had died the previous week and asked if his mother was still alive. He reflected on how young his mother had died. Wilkerson tried comforting him by saying he must be lucky to still have his father. To which the plumber replied, "Well, he's as mean as they come." The conversation continued with each sharing honest reflections.


Then the plumber got serious about fixing things and finding solutions. "How different things had been just minutes before," Wilkerson said. She said to the plumber, "'My mother must've been talking to your mother,' I said, 'and telling her to get her boy to help her girl down there.'" The plumber "smiled at that thought."


So, what can each of us do when awakened to the reality of the caste system?


Wilkerson describes the choice we have. "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."

"Radical empathy [is a] kindred connection from a place of deep knowing that opens your spirit to the pain of another as they perceive it."

Wilkerson's clear, personal writing offers each of us some of this deep knowing. And we can grow in that knowing through the choices we make as we look for and find the beauty of every human's spirit.

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