After 386 pages of blistering critique of the ongoing harmful effects of caste in the human community, Isabel Wilkerson in her book Caste, offers a glimmer of hope.

In one word Wilkerson suggests a possible way beyond the tragedy of caste. She pleads that we might learn to exercise empathy rather than sympathy. The distinction is important.

According to Wilkerson,

  • 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 also not just walking a mile in another’s shoes and trying to imagine how they might feel. This may be a start; but is really little more than role-playing.

For Wilkerson “real empathy” is:

  • putting in the work to educate oneself about another person’s world
  • listening with a humble heart to understand another’s experience from their perspective, not imagining how we would feel
  • not about you
  • not about what you think you might do in a situation you have never been in and perhaps never will
  • finding the kindred connection in a place of deep knowing that opens your spirit to the pain of another as they perceive it (Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins Of Our Discontents. NY: Random House, 2020, 386)

(Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins Of Our Discontent. NY: Random House, 2020.)

What is it that makes it so hard to get to empathy? Why are we not better at really listening? What are the barriers that prevent us from truly entering another person’s world?

Empathy is hard for me because I have always been a part of the privileged dominant caste. No one has ever looked down on me for the colour of my skin. My education has never been jeopardized due to the location of my home. My options in life have seldom been dictated by my economic status, gender or sexuality. It is hard for me to really enter the world of a person who lacks the privileges I take for granted and assume are available to everyone.

Beyond my lack of vision, though, there is a deeper and darker reality that makes empathy particularly challenging.

Empathy requires, even when I do not understand and find it difficult to relate to, that I open to the pain of the person who suffers due to their place in a subordinate caste. But, the truth is, I do not want to feel the pain that is an inevitable part of life on the lower rungs of the caste system of which I am an automatic beneficiary assigned to a higher state.

I do not want to feel what it is like to be routinely overlooked simply because of some quirk of fate. I do not ant to see the privilege that comes to me due to forces over which I have no control and that has come to me by no virtue of my own. I do not want to sense the agony of a parent who knows their child’s options are curtailed by their place in the economic stratification of society. I do not want to experience fear every time I pass a police officer in the street. It is easier to shut myself off from these uncomfortable realities and to look away from the suffering of the person who is relegated to the subordinate class.

It would rather believe the lie that we are all born into the world equal and that those who find themselves in disadvantaged positions are there because in some way they deserve to be. They have made bad choices, or are lazy, undisciplined and irresponsible.

Of course there are rare exceptions of people who manage due to luck, incredible effort and unusual talent, to pull themselves up from their caste, but even then the world treats them as something less than those who are in the dominant caste.

Isabel Wilkerson tells of boarding an airplane and making her way to her assigned seat in the first class section of the plane. When she finds her seat, she asks the flight attendant to help her place her bag in the overhead luggage rack. He responds saying, “They’ll help you when you get to the back.” This subtle racism, pursues her even as she travels the world speaking to large gatherings of people in the dominant caste.

It is painful to know that, still today, we humans continue to respond to one another by the dictates of our position in the social strata. How can I look beyond my caste and get free of the shackles of my own privilege?