Mind Matters — Race or Caste?

When I was a little girl, I watched a lot of old movies—this was a long time ago and the movies were even older than I was (given that I am now 75). What I remember most vividly are where what people considered true and the status quo were brought into question. One movie featured Louis Pasteur and germ theory—people surrounding him could not fathom his concern about “invisible” germs. Of course, Pasteur was right and his contemporaries were wrong—infectious diseases were transmitted by “invisible” germs and hand washing was of utmost importance in stopping the transmission of disease as were vaccines. I thought then, “what is the forward thinking now (in the 1950’s) that is being pooh-poohed as preposterous?” my reflections started early on wondering about “acceptable reality.” If people were clueless in the “1400’s” that the earth revolved around the sun and that Galileo and others, like Pasteur, were criticized for their “aberrant” thinking, in later centuries, what would be the unacceptable perspectives of the late 1900’s and early 2000’s?

Yes, I remember also in the early ‘50’s that the nuns in school talked about how the communists were going to take over our life by invading through Mexico. I lived in fear of the Mexican border and the communists in China for a whole year. The psychotic principal of my parochial school was reassigned and the nuns didn’t talk about communists anymore and nothing happened. By fifth or sixth grade, I had decided that the United States had a propaganda machine as well as Russia did and that kids in both the US and in communist countries were all probably fed a lot of “stuff.” Being a parochial grade schooler, I did not use foul language (that came later).

Point being, I still look at the world and wonder about what “stuff” I am being fed and what is the “stuff” that other people are swallowing with little or no reflection?

Surely, I have as much implicit bias as the next white person. Well at least almost as much. However, no matter how conscious I thought I was, I am now waking up to how little I really know about race in America, and how much I take for granted as a privileged white person. Yes, you may want to stop here. However, if you are white, no matter what you think your status is, you are privileged compared to a person of color.

It still boggles my mind that, in 2009, Professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested by a police officer in front of his own house while attempting to open its jammed front door. Doughnuts to a dollar, if Gates were white, no police officer would have been dispatched and no charges would have been made. I guess the officer didn’t watch the PBS program, American Roots, otherwise he would have recognized the “celebrity” face of interviewer Gates from that program!

So I look to my kid self and wonder at seventy-five what is the issue now that people need to see with new eyes: it is racism. Racism remains the American elephant in the room that no one wants to admit is there. Even the American Psychological Association admits that it is a topic that has been given short shrift. Now the APA is addressing the issue of racism more robustly, from how a white psychologist can discuss race with black teens to how psychological research can overcome implicit white biases.

Just as psychologists must push the envelope on their own thinking in the matter of race, so must we all. Everyone wants to believe that they are open and fair-minded. However, the way to be truly open and fair-minded is to question our very own mindsets.

In reading Caste by Isabel Wilkerson my old perspectives were challenged in new ways. First of all, “race” is an arbitrary concept that serves to perpetuate the notion of differences among human beings. Geneticists and anthropologists agree that “race” indeed is not biological. Wilkerson, along with other investigators, note that American society is a caste system with those whose ancestry is African, particularly those whose ancestors were brutally forced into slavery, are the lowest caste.

In fact, the appalling hierarchy that got established in slavery also established the idea of “black” and “white.” Immigrants from Europe were defined by their countries of origin, not called “white.” Naming the Italian or the Irish or the Pole “white” helped these immigrants climb the ladder of caste up from the slave—the blacks are kept on the bottom rung.

“To gain acceptance, each infusion of immigrants had to enter a silent unspoken pact of separating and distancing themselves from the established lowest caste. Becoming white meant defining themselves as furthest from its opposite—black. …Hostility toward the lowest caste became part of the initiation rite into citizenship in America.” (Wilkerson, pg. 50)

I recognize my father in this quote. He, Italian American, eschewed his Sicilian ancestry, trying hard to be as “white” as he could be, distancing himself from all who were “other” than that.

Wilkerson’s words about the American caste system give some meaning to why people who emigrate from oppressed societies turn around and become oppressors themselves. Instead of seeing how they are being oppressed yet again by those above them on the ladder of caste, they kick the lowest caste on the rung below.

There was one immigrant to America that didn’t buy into this caste system and that was Albert Einstein. In 1932, Einstein, a Jew, fled Nazi Germany only to be appalled to find a different scapegoat caste system in America. “The worst disease is the treatment of the Negro … the more I feel an American, the more this situation pains me … I can escape the feelings o f complicity in it only by speaking out.” And speak out he did. Later in his career, he rarely accepted honors. However, in 1946, he did come to historically black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania to receive an honorary degree and to deliver the commencement address. There, he told the graduates, “The separation of the races is not a disease of the colored people, but a disease of the white people. I do not intend to be quiet about it.”

Who among us joins with Einstein?