Pillars of Caste: Terror and Cruelty

Several months ago, I committed myself to writing about the eight pillars of caste systems identified by Isabel Wilkerson in Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Pillar number seven is one I would prefer not to think about – Terror as Enforcement, Cruelty as a Means of Control. I abhor the cruel tactics used by dominant castes to exert control over subordinate castes.

The Holocaust and the enslavement of Blacks both provide ample evidence of the dominant caste using its power to cruelly enforce caste hierarchy. To control the subordinate caste, unimaginable horrors were inflicted on human bodies – genocide, kidnapping, starvation, whippings, hanging, branding, rape, etc.

Black slaves were brutally punished for minor infractions or breaches of caste. Wilkerson told the story of a slave owner who criticized a slave for planting a crooked row of corn. When the slave replied by saying that as much corn grows in a crooked row as in a straight one, he was whipped to the brink of death.

Learning to read and write was a breach of the caste system, backed up by anti-literacy laws. Literacy represented power and social mobility. Literacy took away the justification for dehumanizing Blacks. Anyone caught teaching Blacks to read or write was punished. The slave was punished by whipping or amputation.

Making it illegal for black people to learn to read and write reinforced the notion that Africans were inferior to whites. In the antebellum South, literacy was a sign of intellectual development and, potentially, social mobility—in fact, many white southerners were illiterate, so it was imperative to prevent the blacks from learning to read in order to maintain the myth of white supremacy.

Encyclopedia.com, Literacy and Anti-Literacy Laws

It’s hard for me to imagine such cruelty. How can human beings inflict such pain and suffering? How can decent people stand by and do nothing when another person is being tortured?

Evil asks little of the dominant caste other than to sit back and do nothing.

Isabel Wilkerson

Dehumanization (pillar number six) desensitizes people to the pain and suffering caused by inhumane practices. When a human being is seen as less than human, it is easier for some people to excuse cruelty. I personally don’t get it; only a hateful heart callously inflicts pain and suffering.

Wilkerson noted that all civil societies have laws against murder, rape, torture, assault and battery. Yet these acts have been permitted when committed against Black bodies.

Unfortunately, Emancipation did not bring an end to the atrocities inflicted on Blacks in America. Jennifer Rae Taylor, an attorney for the Equal Justice Initiative, wrote an article describing the horrific injustices Blacks faced after Emancipation: A History of Tolerance for Violence Has Laid the Groundwork for Injustice Today.

Often committed in broad daylight and sometimes “on the courthouse lawn,” racial terror lynchings were directly tied to the history of enslavement and the re-establishment of white supremacy after the Civil War. These lynchings were also distinct from hangings and mob violence committed against white people because they were intended to terrorize entire black communities and enforce racial hierarchy.

Jennifer Rae Taylor

Vigilantes targeted Black men, accusing them of sexual assault or other crimes. Blacks “were presumed guilty and dangerous.” Allegations against Blacks were not investigated. Blacks were lynched without the benefit of a trial. Blacks were also lynched for fighting for political and economic equality.

Importantly, these lynchings were not isolated hate crimes committed by rogue vigilantes; they were targeted racial violence perpetrated to uphold an unjust social order. Lynchings were terrorism.

Jennifer Rae Taylor

Reflecting on this pillar of the caste system and America’s history of violence against Blacks helped me understand how we got to where we are today. From the brutal violence inflicted on slaves to vigilante lynchings of innocent black men to violence against Civil Rights activists to the beating of Rodney King by the LAPD, we have a long history of using cruelty and terror to enforce the racial caste hierarchy. Jennifer Rae Taylor helped me see how the “criminalization of black identity” has been used to further dehumanize Blacks and to justify the unjust treatment of Blacks in our criminal justice system.

How the light got in

I used to think I could write a book about my scandalous childhood but not while my mother was living. I hated to see her cry and I knew my criticism would hurt her. One of my favorite Christian authors, Philip Yancey, has written a memoir, Where the Light Fell, about his difficult childhood. He did so knowing it would hurt his 96-year old mother but also knowing he had a powerful story to tell about how he came to understand suffering and grace. Although he has written numerous books on these topics, he believes “this is the one book I was put on earth to write.”

I found it hard to put the book down. It made me think about how a difficult childhood shaped me. Like the author, I grew up poor in a household headed by a single mother. Like the Yanceys, we moved frequently because we were poor. Like Philip, I had issues with how my mother raised us. I also grew up going to church regularly.

Philip was brought up in fundamentalist churches in Atlanta, Georgia. As he put it, church defined his life. He and his mother and older brother Marshall went to church a few times a week – twice on Sunday and midweek for a prayer service. His mother made money teaching Bible classes. As a child and as a Bible college student, he experienced the things that make a church toxic – 1) fear, 2) exclusion, and 3) rigidity. The God of Philip’s childhood was not a loving, forgiving God. The God he knew was “eager to condemn and punish.”

Philip’s father, a minister, died when he was only a year old so he has no memory of him. After his death, Philip’s mother vowed to dedicate her sons to God so they could fulfill her own dream of being a missionary in Africa. As Philip described it, their mother essentially took on the role of God in deciding what her boys should do with their lives. The weight of that vow and their inability to meet her expectations hung over them. Philip went through the motions of a religious life, answering the altar call, getting baptized, witnessing to others, sharing his testimony, etc. But he and Marshall were plagued with doubts about whether any of their religious experiences were real. Philip did his best to fake it.

Philip’s mother claimed to be living the Victorious Christian Life. To Philip, she had a split personality. There was the gentle mother who took care of him when he was sick and the angry mother who showed up without warning. To the church and to her Bible students, she was the devout Christian woman. At home, she was often angry, moody, and vengeful. Neither son ever had their mother’s approval but she was especially tough on Marshall. Marshall defied his mother’s will by transferring to Wheaton College (it was too liberal). She was furious and said something to him that was incredibly cruel, that she would pray for something bad to happen to him.

What beings as love may, in fact, corrode into something akin to its opposite.

Philip Yancey, Where the Light Fell

My mom grew up attending a Nazarene church in a small town in Indiana. Her father was very strict, especially with his only daughter. Perhaps that is why Mom stopped going to church? Dad took us kids to the Nazarene church every week. The congregation was small, less than twenty or thirty people. Our large family was welcomed with open arms. Pastor Don Reeves and his wife Pat were poor and lived in the church basement until they could afford to buy an old fixer-upper house. The church was an old wood-framed building that needed a lot of work and Don worked on fixing it up.

If I remember right, Pastor Don was a recovered alcoholic. He was quiet and humble. He knew the meaning of grace. Sunday school classes were in the church basement and it was there that my Sunday school teacher told me about Jesus. I never had any doubt that God loved me for who I am.

Philip Yancey didn’t know what it was like to have a father. I was twelve when my parents divorced so I knew what I was missing when Dad was gone. Besides missing Dad’s presence, I missed his stabilizing influence on Mom.

Mom was kind and generous and had a wicked sense of humor. She accepted other people for who they are and could find something to like about anyone. She was generous with compliments. We loved to hear her sing and tell us stories about her childhood. Mom found something to appreciate in each of us. We always knew we were loved unconditionally.

But being single changed Mom. She stopped being a devoted mother. Her love life came first. The summer I turned sixteen, Mom uprooted us and moved us to another small town to be closer to her new boyfriend. When Mom found out he was married, she moved us again to Topeka, claiming it was because the furnace wouldn’t keep our old house warm enough. At the end of the school year, we moved back. Mom got a job at the local plant and began a relationship with a coworker who was separated from his wife. At the end of the workday, she went home with him and left my five younger siblings with me.

Like Philip, I saw my mother as two-faced. She sometimes talked about her faith but never went to church. Whenever someone heard that she was the mother of eight, they would express their admiration. Where they saw a saint, I saw an adulteress. In my mind, Mom may as well have worn the red letter A. With every affair, with every revelation about her sexual history, I mentally threw a stone at her. I was the judgmental, self-righteous one.

Philip grew up feeling ashamed because he grew up in a strict environment and did a couple of things he knew were bad. He could be ornery and devious. I was ashamed of being on welfare after the divorce because I knew people disapproved. I worried too much about what people thought of our family. When Mom had my youngest brother out of wedlock, I was so afraid people would find out that I lied about how long my parents were divorced. (I have not gotten over this shame.)

Where the Light Fell made me appreciate the humble, Jesus-centered church I attended. It made me appreciate the flawed mother who loved me unconditionally.

I saw Philip Yancey several years ago when he came to speak at my church in a suburb of Denver. When he ended his talk, he asked us make sure that no one misses out on God’s grace. His book, What’s So Amazing About Grace? helped me see the world through grace-filled eyes. I let go of my resentment. I forgave my mother. I realized that she did the best she could. Like me, she was broken. That’s how the light gets in.

Make sure that no one misses out on God’s grace. Make sure that no root of bitterness grows up that might cause trouble and pollute many people.

Hebrews 12:15 (CEB)

Shamelessly Audacious

When he sees me writing, my husband often asks: ‘Are you writing about me’? My answer is always ‘No’ but today the answer would have been ‘Yes, I am.’ I am writing about him because a sermon on Luke 11 reminded me to be persistent in my prayers for him. And not just persistent. My pastor used the words shamelessly audacious.

Which of you has a friend and shall go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine on his journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not trouble me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give you anything’?

Luke 11:5-7

The friend may not give him anything just because he is a friend but because of his impudence he will rise up and give him whatever he needs.

An image that comes to my mind when I hear ‘persistent’ is a toddler tugging on his mother’s shirt, trying to get her attention. She does her best to ignore him but he keeps on tugging. With each pull he says, ‘pay attention to me. I want something. I’m going to keep tugging until you look down and listen to me.’

Father, I know that it is shamelessly audacious of me to come to you again and again asking you to save my husband. I have no right to ask you to redeem him. I knowingly married a non-believer. We are unequally yoked. You knew the path I would take in life before I took my first steps. You know my heart and you know his. You know why he resists. You know how to get through to him. Don’t let me be a stumbling block before him. Show him that he needs You. I ask because you love me and I know you love him too. Save my husband.

So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

Luke 11:9-10 (NIV)

Meaningful Connections

I don’t know what I was thinking when I chose “networking” as a competency to develop this year for my job. Did I set myself up for failure? An unabashed introvert, I am not good at networking. Talking to strangers at a business conference makes me uncomfortable. I do not have the gift of gab. Connecting with people for the selfish purpose of getting ahead professionally is not attractive to me.

My company offers free LinkedIn courses so I watched a video on Creating Personal Connections, taught by John Ullmen, PhD. Ullmen began by describing personal connections as the flow of energy between people. He said that being uncomfortable is not a bad thing. It can help to reframe social anxiety as excitement. Connecting with others is an opportunity to make things better, to shine your light on others.

Ullmen gave advice on what to think, how to feel, and what to do before an interaction. First, observe your thoughts. Send silent positive intent to the other person, which will set the stage for rapport. Go into the interaction with curiosity about the other person. Your goal is learn how you are connected. Although we may appear unconnected to others on the surface, we can connect to others on the deep.

Secondly, choose in advance how you are going to feel about the person. Make the choice to like them. Perhaps they remind you of someone you really like.

Finally, prepare yourself physically for the interaction. Pay attention to your body language. Smile and adjust your posture.

It is customary when greeting another person to ask: how are you? Ullmen says to avoid the generic “I’m fine” response. Instead, respond genuinely (not by sharing your aches and pains). Share something meaningful that happened to you in the last 24 hours. Use two sentences to respond. “I’m great. I just heard a good story about…”

Ullmen also suggested syncing up your conversation with the other person. At the moment you begin a conversation, the other person has something on their mind. Try to align yourself with them.

Ullmen recommended using the E.M.P.A.T.H.Y.® approach to communicating, based on an acronym developed by Helen Reiss. (To learn more, watch her Power of Empathy TEDTalk.)

Eye contact – I see you
Muscles of facial expression
Posture – conveys connection
Affect – expressed emotion
Tone of voice
Hearing the whole person, keeping your curiosity open
Your response to the feelings of others (align yourself)

Ullmen also suggested that you create personal connections by learning about the other person’s strengths, goals, and interests (SGI’s). Ask what they like to do outside of work. Share more of yourself by talking about things that are personally meaningful. What are you thankful for? Share a treasured memory.

Ullmen approached networking from an angle that is much more appealing to me. I enjoy deep, meaningful conversations. I like getting to know other people. So I’m going to stop thinking of networking as necessary but distasteful and focus on making meaningful connections.

How am I? I’m great. Today a talkative little boy at church hugged me and said I love you.

Pillars of Caste: Dehumanization and Stigma

Isabel Wilkerson rightly described the sixth pillar of caste systems, Dehumanization and Stigma, as a war against the truth, a war against what the eyes can see. It is easy to recognize other members of the human species. Yet human beings have used ethnicity and meaningless physical differences to deprive other fully human beings of the benefits of being fully human.

Dehumanization is the denial of full humanness in others and the cruelty and suffering that accompanies it.

Wikipedia

Dehumanization allows the the perpetrator to avoid the stab of conscience that should come with being cruel to another person. If the marginalized group is seen not as the humans they clearly are but as something less than human, then it becomes easy to justify treating them inhumanely.

David Livingstone Smith says that “thinking of humans as less than human paves the way for atrocity.” Yes, it leads to the horrifying atrocities of slavery and genocide.

The Holocaust epitomized dehumanization. Nazi Germany made Jews their scapegoats, blaming them for the country’s troubles. Their heads were shaved and they were stripped of their clothes, their jewelry, their identities. The bodies of prisoners were tattooed with numbers. They were starved. Their bodies were used for experiments without their consent. They were systematically exterminated, like vermin.

What’s most disturbing about the Nazi phenomenon is not that the Nazis were madmen or monsters. It’s that they were ordinary human beings.

David Livingstone Smith

What’s most disturbing about the enslavement of Africans is that white slave owners were not madmen or monsters. They were ordinary human beings. Slaves were stripped of their given names. Their bodies did not belong to them; they were auctioned off like cattle. Children were taken from their mothers at a young age because they were just another commodity to be sold and put to work. Slaves were not allowed to learn to read. They were not even free to express normal human emotions.

Wilkerson noted that it is difficult to dehumanize an individual but if you dehumanize a group, you dehumanize the individuals in that group. When we dehumanize other people, we deprive them of human qualities like intelligence or personality. When we dehumanize, we deny others their human dignity. When we dehumanize a group of individuals, they become nameless, faceless scapegoats.

When we dehumanize others, we separate ourselves from our own humanity. We stop feeling what humans should feel when another person suffers.

Wilkerson didn’t write about how stigma is used to uphold caste systems. Wikipedia defines social stigma as “the disapproval of, or discrimination against, an individual or group based on perceivable social characteristics that serve to distinguish them from other members of a society.”

Blacks have been freed from the dehumanization of slavery but they have not escaped the stigma of being Black in America. Laura Cathcart Robbins wrote an article, A White Woman Told Me She Doesn’t ‘Think Of’ Me As Black. When a white woman said that to Robbins, she thought to herself: Do you imagine that affluence trumps race out there in the real world? Because honestly, it is the other way around. Despite her success, Robbins has been stigmatized and called nigger because she is black.

Even people who are not of African descent are not free from the stigma of being a person of color in America. Amelia Zachry, an immigrant from Malaysia, wrote about a racist incident she experienced at a restaurant in Kentucky: A Man Spit On My Toddler And Called Her The N-Word. He walked away, “oblivious to the inaccuracy of the insult.” Zachry did not retaliate against the man, saying “I would have been the angry Black woman who doesn’t even self-identify as Black.” Does it matter that she doesn’t even identify as Black? Of course not. People who do identify as Black do not deserve to be treated as subhuman.

It is disturbing to read about the cruelties and atrocities that result when human beings see other human beings as less than human. It disturbs me because I am fully human and have the capacity to empathize. But I think it is important to face the horrific things human beings have done to each other (and continue to do to each other) so we don’t forget our capacity for evil. It starts with treating someone as “other.” It starts with blaming and shaming and stigmatizing.

In this war against the truth of what the eyes can see and what the heart can feel if we let it, be the one who defends the dignity of fellow human beings.