Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

I just finished a six-week study group with people from my church about this powerful book. Wilkerson has brilliantly articulated the powerful history of the layers of our culture and how they continue to pervade our politics and our society. This book is a lot more than just another look at racism. She pulls the curtain back from the real source of white supremacy and gives us all a good look at everything it is.

By using the concept – the reality – of “caste” to define the racial and class divides in the United States, Wilkerson helps us understand the variety of human disparity and dismissive behavior. She spends time comparing with the more familiar caste system of India, and the astonishing parallels illuminate our own situation. “Illuminate” is a good word for this book, for she is indeed shining light where there has been none. Along with India, her comparisons with Nazi Germany are horrifyingly real, and her comments about how Germany has gone about healing from that are important for us.

Although it is an easy book to read as to the actual mechanism of reading, it is not an “easy” book to read at all. Each of the seven sections led me to pause and reflect on where she had directed me. It has made me want to do everything I can to readjust my own thinking and acting and to talk with others about doing the same. I think I have learned more about myself and others in the United States from this book than from anything else. She intersperses her reporting of the history, all deeply researched, with her own experience as a black woman in our society. She is a clear and persuasive writer, and I am grateful for having read this book.

There is so much rich material here it’s hard to pick one selection to share, but I think these paragraphs towards the end of the book will do: [What is called for is] a radical kind of empathy. Empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy is looking across at someone and feeling sorrow, often in times of loss. Empathy is not pity. Pity is looking down from above and feeling a distant sadness for another in their misfortune. Empathy is commonly viewed as putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagining how you would feel. That could be seen as a start, but that is little more than role-playing, and it is not enough in the ruptured world we live in. Radical empathy, on the other hand, means putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another’s experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel. Radical empathy is not about you and what you think you would do in a situation you have never been in and perhaps never will. It is the kindred connection from a place of deep knowing that opens your spirit to the pain of another as they perceive it. [p. 386]

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