The book White Fragility was suggested by a friend, and the book Caste was in the news when Oprah gifted it to 500 CEOs and leaders around the world. Reading them was educational and enlightening. The books make you feel very uncomfortable with status quo, if not unsafe (the book White Fragility explains the difference between discomfort and lack of safety), and make you reflect and become intentional about approaching these “assigned” inequalities between human beings.
This post is merely a curtain-raiser for these two books – they have a lot to unpack and not all the messages will land on you the first time you read them because each of us has filters in our hearts and minds for these messages and we don’t even know that we have these filters. The books describe how well we are all socialized into the system of racism and the construct of caste, i.e., the rankings among us that were assigned to us before we were even born. So much that this construct operates at the foundation of our daily lives and unless we consciously examine it, we are lulled into thinking that it doesn’t exist around us, at least in our social and professional bubbles. The reader is reminded that this system of human rankings based on skin color or caste you are born into is a matter of life and death for many people, and never to forget that one’s feelings of discomfort or guilt on the topic are never to be placed above the lived reality of people who are abused, passed over, tortured or even killed. Isabel Wilkerson rightly notes that in a hypercompetitive world where every bit of performance counts towards advancement, micro and macro aggressions derail and slow down those negatively affected by the construct of race and caste.
Robin Diangelo’s description of white fragility was illuminating and I thought that the operating principles can be applied to a dominant group of any kind (e.g., male, Brahmin, wealthy). Basically, a person in the dominant group acts offended or indignant at the suggestion of inequality, and those in the non-dominant group feel obliged to comfort the more powerful person. The dominant group member’s feelings become more important than the reality (of suppression, hurt, abuse, loss of opportunities, loss of life) of the nondominant group member(s) during the interaction. These interactions repeat themselves over and over, resulting in perpetuation of status quo. Isabel Wilkerson describes how the underlying principles of racism in America were borrowed from the age-old caste system in India and more recently from Germany during the third Reich. She describes the eight pillars of caste – that caste is divine will and the law of nature (“God wanted you to be born a Dalit”), heritability, i.e., you pass it on to the generation after you (a novel by Rohinton Mistry, “A Fine Balance” does a wonderful job of describing how this affects children’s lives even if the parents desire a better future for their children), endogamy and control of marriage and mating (many people of my generation will remember being told by parents, “if you want to find your own partner, make sure they are from this..this…and this caste, and not from these other castes such as this…this…or this”, purity vs pollution (anyone who is friends with someone who has an interracial or an intercaste marriage has heard stories about purity and pollution of race or caste), dehumanization and stigma (e.g., people of certain castes are not allowed to do certain things – for example, performing rituals in a temple; racial segregation is well known in the Jim Crow South), terror as enforcement and cruelty as means of control (e.g., lynchings of Black people, hate crimes, raping of lower caste women in India, the horrors perpetrated on Jews in Nazi Germany), and inherent superiority vs inherent inferiority.
The book Caste offers insights into how the whole society according to rules of caste and race needs the bottom rung in society, how hate is euphoric (e.g., Hitler’s victory parade celebrated by millions of Germans in those days, which tell you that Hitler wasn’t the only evil person in Germany at that time), and how a narcissistic leader attracts a group of narcissistic followers and how group narcissism leads to fascism. Isabel Wilkerson argues that the heart is the last frontier for change and how friendships across these human rankings can lead to change. Robin Diangelo offers some guidance on how both white people and persons of color can navigate white fragility so that the interactions lead to real change and not serve to perpetuate status quo. These human rankings, whether by race or caste or by any other parameter, hurt those in the lower rungs 24/7, and any of us working to reduce that hurt has to focus on this reality over and above the attention to the discomfort that these conversations invariably cause. The chapter I liked the most is “The Container We Have Built for You” in Caste – I could relate to a lot of the illustrations and examples the author gave on what happens if a person doesn’t display behaviors expected based on the what rank or group you belong to based on your gender, country of origin, skin color, etc. The result of these “containers” is an enormous amount of untapped human potential.