Moving the Diversity Needle Forward by Overcoming Casteism

It’s a rare book that makes us truly read, stop, think, sweat, get angry, read on, want to stop and walk away, and yet… we keep on reading, uncomfortable and sweating all the while, wondering, “What are we going to do about this issue covered in this amazingly uncomfortable book?” Rarely do authors write with such eloquence, clarity, statistical data, and conviction.

But that’s exactly the case with Caste, The Origins of Our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson. I first heard about the book in May 2020, when it had first been published. A client of mine, an immigration lawyer in Miami, sent me a copy of the book. Her message to me: “Since you are chairing diversity at the ABA Law Practice Division, please read this book and do something with it for the benefit of all of us lawyers.”

How can I say no to that request?

In July 2021, the ABA Law Practice Division Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) Committee hosted a two-part book club discussion about the book. Organized by an amazing group of DEIB Committee members who are all very busy lawyers, the conversation was open to any ABA member. The goal, as with all of our DEIB Committee activity, was to truly get lawyers thinking, becoming more self-aware about how the topic of casteism, discrimination, and diversity impacts not just their legal career and practice, but the collective well-being of every human.

On day one, we discussed the problems of casteism, as outlined by Wilkerson. We broke out the attendees into small groups for ease of conversation. The subjects discussed included:

  1. Race, class, and caste: While color is a fact, race, class, and caste are all labels and social constructs that we pick and choose to use. This is a problem as outlined so clearly in Caste.
  2. The self-perpetuating nature of caste: The caste system perpetuates itself by encouraging division, complicity, competition, and denial, all while maintaining the dominant caste’s concentration of power and resources. “The parties have grown so divided by race,” writes the political scientist Lilliana Mason, “that simple racial identity, without policy content, is enough to predict party identity.”
  3. The term “casteism” coined by Wilkerson: Wilkerson defines “casteism” as “granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy.” Casteism places the focus on structural injustice. Often the problem becomes what to do about the people who transcended these divisions to become helpers for the greater good, such as Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Eric Holder.

The breakout groups had lively and honest discussions on each of these three topics and more. In my breakout group, I was stunned by the amount of knowledge, wisdom, and creative ideas to address each topic.

We then met again in our full group to have one person from each group report what was discussed. Given the diverse mix of attendees, the commentary included a wide range of ideas.

Wilkerson says it’s up to each of us to change and shift and see things differently. Thus, we left the attendees with the following question to consider as they prepared to return in 48 hours to discuss solutions: “Did you find yourself different as a result of our conversation, day? If so, how?”

On day two, we gathered in our larger group to discuss possible solutions. We were not looking for feel-good conversations that didn’t move the needle. We have all had way too much of that type of conversation. No one wants to waste their precious time not making a true difference. This conversation was truly about how we could each be responsible to create the changes Wilkerson discussed in her book, and then some.

The first solution we discussed was a structural discussion about transcending the caste system, and how. Some individuals (Oprah) and minority groups (the Irish and Italians) originally seen as part of a lower caste have over time transcended the caste notion to become part of the white majority.

Can the experience of individuals and groups who transcended caste be replicated for African-Americans and other minority groups? The conversation here turned to a discussion of why such transcendence is so challenging.

The second solution was based on the idea that caste is a notion, a state of mind. Castes exist because each of us allows it to exist in large and small ways, in our everyday actions, in how we elevate or demean, embrace or exclude, on the basis of the meaning attached to people’s physical traits. As such, we asked, what everyday actions can you do consciously to eradicate casteism? This question hopefully made everyone realize that there is individual responsibility for all our actions, whether we choose to see ourselves as part of the problem or the solution, or not.

The idea of “radical empathy” was coined by Wilkerson. This is the practice of truly putting yourself in another’s shoes and seeing the world from their perspective, as best you can. Radical empathy allows us all to be able to see the humanity in one another without the filter of what the other person looks like.

The third solution involved the idea of forgiveness. As Wilkerson states, “the act of forgiveness seems a silent clause in a one-sided contract between the subordinate and the dominant. Black people forgive because we need to survive… what white people are really asking for when they demand forgiveness from a traumatized community is absolution.”

One definition of forgiveness found online is a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, nor does it mean condoning or excusing offenses.

Actual forgiveness is the solution to both sides (whites/minorities or subordinate/dominant) healing and seeing each other as equals.

So the only goal of real forgiveness is healing and unity, not absolution or survival. Forgiveness is a pretty deep question because it’s not just about casteism necessarily.

With that, the question is: What would you (each of us) do to forgive: a) ourselves and b) the other party?

This last solution spurred much discussion, most with deep emotional roots. Some participants were not ready to forgive, commenting that first, they needed a real apology.

As I pointed out, though, according to the definition of forgiveness, the party who has harmed you may not actually deserve forgiveness, which could mean they have not apologized. While forgiveness is not about condoning or excusing any offenses, including the horrific ones that Wilkerson outlines in vivid detail in her book, the idea is that you, the one doing the forgiving, get to heal and move on with your own life. You are no longer the victim of the aggressor and have inner peace, regardless of what’s going on externally. In this way, you are in control of your life.

As one participant eloquently stated, “forgiveness is beyond our society’s ability to accomplish.” I can see that point of view. However, this makes me truly sad. How are we ever going to heal as a society and move on to serve our real purpose as lawyers, humanitarians, and healers if we can never reach a point of saying, “I will be bigger than this issue and take the first step and forgive?”

I realize it’s much easier said than done. However, as lawyers, we have a duty to serve and lead the community that counts on us daily for wisdom, legal advice, and support. We need to be willing to rise above and take action truly with the intention of bringing healing to this topic.

About the Author

Katy Goshtasbi is a securities lawyer, branding expert, coach, consultant, speaker and founder of Puris Consulting. She is chair of the ABA Law Practice DEIB Committee and former chair of the Law Practice Division, where she conceived and held the first-ever ABA Lawyer Retreat in Vail, Colorado.

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