Caste

We went to see Origins yesterday – which I am still trying to process.  It’s so easy to automatically assume that everyone’s experience is similar to ours, but for many,  their world looks very different from mine as a middle-class white woman.  In fact, it’s almost impossible for me to imagine what life is like for those at the bottom of our well-entrenched caste systems.  We fostered a black teenager, and having maintained a relationship with her over the years, we often tangled over something I said or did that she found hurtful or demeaning.  Most situations came about because,  being completely unaware of what it was like to be her, to live in her world, and to experience prejudice every day, I acted or spoke out of pure thoughtlessness.  In the beginning I tried to justify myself,  but in time I came to realize that being unaware or joking or not meaning to put her down was no excuse.  I was the one who needed to change, the one who needed to reexamine my values and assumptions. Expecting her to be tolerant and forgiving was again putting the onus for change on her, not me, which is one of the ways we maintain our caste systems.   They need to do this or that or…..

I found Isabelle Wilkerson’s thesis that race is not the issue here in the US as we are so apt to do. very interesting.  Even the blacks tend to see the problem as race rather than caste.   There was this section in the movie where she tries to convince her family and friends that race is not the problem because in India, for instance, everyone is brown,  yet they have a very rigid caste system.  Her point is that every society has a caste system whether identified as that or not. Caste is the result of our addiction to social, religious, and political systems based on our ability to dominate.   Every society has its elite, a fairly exclusive group, then with differing social groupings down to what India once called the untouchables.  

joyce shutt

Being a fan of British TV, the evidence of their caste system is very evident.  Every society has its untouchables, as these are the people who are forced to do the dirtiest and most demeaning kinds of work.  Here in the US, our untouchables are Native Americans, blacks, illegals, and other people of color.

I found the movie difficult to watch because it reminded me that I am as guilty as anyone else of profiting from our caste system.  It’s so easy to categorize different types of work or culture or religion as more or less acceptable,  beneath me or above me,  to use jobs or education or religion o decide whether someone is better than someone else.  Nor are we willing to allow anyone to change, grow, or rise in the world.  Oh sure, we have the myth of the self-made man, but those are almost always white and male.  

Having worked as a prison volunteer for many years, I know all too well how our so-called justice system condemns anyone, especially a person of color,  to be a social pariah for the rest of their life just because they did something as a teen or even later in life.  Then we blame them for not working and being poor even as we refuse to hire them for any type of job that could allow them to improve or transform their lives.

Why are we so afraid of each other?  Why do we have this need to be better than the other guy?  To dominate and put down?   Why this insistence that one race is superior or to blame another ethnic group for all our problems, as the Germans did in the run-up to WWII?   Why is it so hard to accept that I am the one who needs to change, to work harder, to revise my assumptions about people?  Why are we so unwilling to allow others to change and grow?

It’s easy for me to blog about personal responsibility, gratitude, forgiveness, etc., when I am white and financially secure.  I am not an Untouchable.  I am not forced to clean dirty bathrooms or to labor long hours in the field picking cotton or beans.  Having seen the movie, I am reminded of how we humans seem hellbent on protecting our right to be selfish, domineering, and uncaring; how dare I profit from someone else’s suffering?  Sitting comfortably in my blogging chair I find myself recalling scenes from the movie The Help in which the black maids found their own ways of asserting their independence and maintaining their dignity.  But no one should be forced to live in poverty and shame or to be treated as less than others simply because those of us with means feel shame about having others wait on us and do our dirty work.  We need our myths that some are better than others so we can justify to ourselves that it is OK for us to treat our fellow human beings as lesser beings.  How tragic that our Bible translators chose the word dominate to describe our human approach to the world when other words such as stewards, caretakers, or trustees would be closer to what was intended.  I simply cannot accept that God intended for us to be so mean to each other.

One thing seems clear.  We cannot wait for the other guy to make the first move.  Granted, we can’t fix a broken system by ourselves, but we can set a better example.  We can leave generous tips when we eat out.  We can pay the women who clean for us not just the going rate but more.  We can express our gratitude and affirm them as persons of dignity.  We can leave tips for our mail carriers and those who pick up our trash to let them know they are valued.  We can go out of our way to smile, say thank you, treat others the way we wish to be treated.  Perhaps most of all, we can pray Jesus’ prayer on the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” not as an excuse but as a way of opening our eyes and ears to the reality that shapes far too many lives.

Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do.  Open our eyes so that we might see the suffering of others.  Open our ears so we might hear their cries. Open our hearts so we can resist the many evils of caste wherever we are.  amen

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Larry Wolf
Larry Wolf
2 months ago

Thank you Joyce for letting readers know about this film. All of us should seek personal growth throughout our lives and watching this film provides insight into the lives of those who experience our caste system. Reading Wilkerson’s book The Wamth of Other Suns helped me down that path. Now we have a film to shed more light. Larry Wolf

Rosemary Meagher
Rosemary Meagher
2 months ago

Joyce Shutt provided an impressive review of the movie, Origins. Because of her review, I attended the Majestic today to see it for myself. Interesting comparisons between Nazi Germany, the caste system of India, and our own prejudices in the US. The authors/film makers message is that they are all Caste systems. Difficult at times to watch, it is the reality and needs to be viewed seriously.

P J
P J
2 months ago

Another well thought out piece to share, Joyce. I’ve often told others that so much of our lives is dictated by our birth lottery – what gender/color/nationality we are, what language we speak, what socio-economic class we start in, etc. No one – not one single one of us – gets a say in that. Why do we judge others because of their slot? We’re all human. Let’s help one another and accept one another rather than treating others as trash. When we do judge, let it be due to current actions (as adults), not things done decades earlier or… Read more »

Charles Stangor
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Charles Stangor
2 months ago

Thanks Joyce!

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