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Seeking a More Satisfying Understanding

Published on 2/17/2024
”It raises too many questions. I don’t write the questions. I write the answers,” says author Isabel Wilkerson in Ava Duvernay’s “Origin” - now out in theaters - when asked to write about two 911 calls the night George Zimmerman killed teenager Trayvon Martin.

“Like ‘Why does a Latino man deputize himself to protect a white community against a black boy? Why is the cause of everything racism? Racism as the primary explanation for everything isn’t satisfactory,’” Wilkerson tells an editor.

In “Origin,” viewers follow Isabel Wilkerson as she wrestles with her questions, even as her husband dies suddenly, her elderly mother passes away and finally, her cousin dies. It’s as much a study of her grief as how “grief brain” intersects with her work, shaping how she frames the answers she’s seeking. 

It’s not race, she theorizes because race “is fluid and superficial, subject to periodic redefinition” but caste, “which is fixed and rigid... to meet the needs of the dominant caste...” Indeed, in the US, eastern Europeans, Asians, and Jewish people, among others, were all outcast races at various times.

Wilkerson chases her research first to Germany where two American sociologists who visited a Berlin library in 1933 were warned to leave Germany post haste because they were black. Thirteen years after forming as an anti-Marxist, pro-nationalist party and six years before invading Czechoslovakia, the Nazi Party burned 20,000 books in one night, which the sociologists witnessed.  A visit to Berlin allows tourists to find the illuminated monument marking the book burning. 

At the moment, the U.S. took an “America first” stance, and nationalism turned dictatorial, founded on beliefs about the superiority of each country’s civilization took hold in Germany, Italy, Spain, Japan and later Russia. What began as nationalism and arguments of superiority evolved. Some citizens of those nations became enamored with their strong man.  

While Wilkerson researched the possibility that Germany codified castes, the film allows viewers to see her face thoughtful challenges. “It’s not the same,” a German woman tells Wilkerson. “The Nazis aimed for extermination, not subjugation.”

Wilkerson researches further and learns that the Nazi leadership admired American Jim Crow Laws and used them as a framework for the segregation policies the U.S. created - preventing intermarriage, creating separation in education, neighborhoods, and financial opportunity, but ultimately, dehumanizing Black Americans as a whole group.

“Dehumanize the group, and you have completed the work of dehumanizing any single person within it. Dehumanize the group, and you have quarantined them from the masses you choose to elevate and have programmed everyone, even some of the targets of dehumanization, to no longer believe what their eyes can see, to no longer trust their own thoughts. Dehumanization distances not only the out-group from the in-group, but those in the in-group from their own humanity. It makes slaves to groupthink of everyone in the hierarchy. A caste system relies on dehumanization to lock the marginalized outside of the norms of humanity so that any action against them is seen as reasonable,” writes Wilkerson in her second best-seller Caste: The Origins of our Discontents. 

We’ve seen it, these false insinuations that some group of people are more immoral by nature - inclined not to marry their baby’s father, to be on government support, to be violent as young men, more likely to sell illegal drugs. Stereotypes fail, as Monica Guzman writes in I’ve Never Thought of It That Way, “People who are under-represented in your life are over-represented in your imagination.”

Some of those stereotypes changed over the years. Some used to apply to Irish women - too loose - or Italian men and women, and of course the horrific and untrue stereotypes about Jewish people and money. Now we have stereotypes about various indigenous peoples, Latino people, gay/lesbian, queer, bi- and trans people. We’ve seen some of the most vicious ideas soften, but others amp up. For Black Americans, among other groups, stereotypes don’t ever disappear fully. 

That came to bear in France at the start of the 20th century during the Dreyfus Affair. In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a well-off Jewish military officer, who along with his family had assimilated into French culture, was accused and convicted of treason. Over the next twelve years, the case divided the French people, who were stoked by antisemitic media outlets. Even though Dreyfus was innocent and had done all that was asked of him to fit into French culture, he became an easy target, because he was Jewish. 

Wilkerson discovered that the Nazi Party linked Black Americans to the Jewish “target caste.” The Nazis were “impressed by the American custom of lynching... Hitler especially marveled at the American ‘knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass death.’” 

The idea of caste is associated with India, so Wilkerson travels to meet with Dalit people in India as had Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - “Dalit” means “broken or scattered” and refers to a class of Indian people considered untouchable and assigned to the worst jobs and roles in the country. - When MK Achutan, a Dalit who overcame the culturally imposed limitations on his life said Dr. King was a Dalit too, recognizing their shared experience and testifying to the position of African Americans in the American hierarchy. At first, it affronted Dr. King, though he soon saw the truth in it. Race is a convenient way to formulate a caste, a scapegoat “out-group,” Wilkerson determines. 

Wilkerson’s grief reveals wisdom in the film. While dealing with her mother’s home, the basement floods, leaving her worried it’s structurally compromised. From this, she analogizes the U.S.’s situation to an ancestral home we inherited. Even though we didn’t build the home or design it, we are still responsible for the repairs. America is our home and while our ancestors may not have participated in slavery or discrimination against other groups, we still live in a country fractured and compromised in the past. Wilkerson may prefer to write answers, but she leaves us with the implied question, how shall we repair the fractures? That is communal work.