I have considered myself to be quite broadminded, aware person who would not tolerate discrimination based on color, religion, gender or any other proclivity that people may hold dear. However when I look at my-“mindful”-self before reading the book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, my the then take on the color-based discrimination appears to be merely lukewarm! The book made me feel so ignorant about how I had handled the critical issue of Blacks and Whites in the modern US. Here is a brief history of my advantaged and secondhand experience with the colors, religions, races, and other disagreements that make each of us unique:
I read Roots by Alex Haley sometime in late 1980’s and was introduced to the skin color bias specific to the regions of US. A decade later when I came to the US, I had not fully attributed this fact to the country which will be my home forever – because things looked pretty good on surface. Coming from an almost monocultural country like Pakistan to Michigan State University, I found US to be very colorful and full of different races and nations, with a diverse student body I had never met before- it seemed like everyone here fitted right in; was accepted, employed, settled. The memory of Haley’s account was occasionally revived when I read books like A Time to Kill, The Chamber but when 9/11 happened, my sympathies transferred to my own kin and kind – Muslims and Pakistanis. The prejudice of religion and country naturally took more importance than the conflict on skin color. Things moved on, life became busy with motherhood, education and career, and personal events eclipsed those in periphery (since they never impacted me directly – luckily). The discrimination, immigration laws, airport protocols all became a routine background hum. Of course, the US History books my kids were taught in schools, Black History Month, Obama’s win, Michelle’s “Becoming”, unfair profiling, shootings of Black teenagers, Black Lives Matter, #icantbreathe all took room in my mind and heart but nothing shook me up till I read Elizabeth Wilkerson’s Caste; a book that is for sure about the origins of discontent for anyone in the world.
The main idea that Wilkerson carries in the book is history and duplication of dehumanization in American and other different parts of the world. She finds “caste” system of India synonymous to color-based discrimination, comparing the Blacks of America to Dalits of India and the Jews of Third Reich. But her message subsumes much more depth than just this analogy. Wilkerson is not defending one person, one race, one gender or any “one” tangible or intangible here…she speaks for any and almost every injustice done to human race. Her voice comes from deepest of the most empathetic of a heart. The book, written with all the facts, records, and historical references, is probably to serve the purpose of providing information and a strong reminder about the dark history but it actually is an experience of personal transformation; a soul cleansing, soul detoxing encounter if you will. She gives examples from history, provides data verified by the researchers, personal anecdotes, extracts from interviews with African Americans and people from other religions and countries. She traveled the world to research this aspect of humans. What she documents should be read by everyone in any part of the world. Mostly will relate to it – those who are suppressed and those who suppress. Former will relate to the misery and latter for sure to the discontent that arises when the sole purpose of life becomes dominating the other – be it another color, race, religion or gender. As long as the humans carry the ideas of one being “dominant” and assigning other a “subordinate” status, the fortune of happiness that one can enjoy will never be gained.
Wilkerson is blessed with outstanding writing skills, articulate manner of expression and brings to her readers wealth of information. She impresses me on every page, but her appeals really deepened my thinking skills and impacted me very positively. She requests not to treat the 400 plus years of slavery as a mere chapter of history. She doesn’t want the brutality just acknowledged. She doesn’t want it just mentioned but she wants it to hold a place in today’s world that is beyond just celebrating the make-believe victory of a battle that is still not won! And she is so right! Races, especially Blacks continue to be discriminated even today and those who played part in the history did not get reprimanded as deserved. She backs this up by giving example of how Germans bulldozed Hitler’s grave, admonished those involved in massacre severely whereas those in the US who were proponents of this discriminated movement were awarded respectable posts in government. She rightfully says there had been no exemplary punishment for people ridiculing races in America. The suffering of the subordinate cast has been way more than the cruelty lent to them. She appeals people to exercise what she calls, “radical empathy” – not pity, not empathy, not sympathy. A full-on radical empathy which means to sit down with yourself and compel yourself to think deep and hard about it till you feel the pain of those who can’t take a break from this pain. And her appeal is not limited to the skin color only – she wants us to get in shoes of everyone who appears to have lesser privilege or luck than another.
The book is not an easy read for couple of reasons. From writing point of view – she goes back and forth in eras and nations, so if you are a reader who loves a linear writing style, you may find that piece a bit bothersome, though it rested well with me and many others. But mainly it’s a difficult book because of the content. It forces you to think and that thinking makes you sad. It brings the truth that we may want buried and do not want to dig out. It’s like re-opening a wound that continues to give off pain, a wound that can be opened and fixed but because the recurring pain in background is easier to handle than re-opening it, we’d rather leave it as is. She urges the readers to acknowledge fact that it can be cured if we want to.
What a great book to read in February, the Black History Month! Hope you will pick it up! I read it with my favorite book club by Dr. Shahnaz Ahmad. It was a great discussion, and you can listen to the podcast here.
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What am I reading/listening right now?
“Anxious People” by Fredrik Backman on Audible for a local book club.
“Les Misérables” by Victor Hugo on Kindle for at least once a year dose of my classic re-read.
Re-reading Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine: A Novel by Gail Honeyman for another local book club
What’s on my #tbr list? Looking forward to “The Beekeeper of Aleppo: A Novel” by Chrity Lefteri for an April book club.