I recently read Caste by Isabel Wilkerson for our local book club. Much of what she wrote about was not new to me: I have lived with caste my entire life and have become intimately familiar with its emotional and social ramifications. But seeing everything compiled and laid out in gruesome detail in one place – in Wilkerson’s book – broke me. It broke me the way Princeton professor Eddie Glaude, Jr. described being broken when he watched the interminably long and callous murder of George Floyd.
During our book group’s Zoom meeting the sudden swell of emotion surprised me when we began discussing Wilkerson’s “Eight Pillars of Caste.” We didn’t go into great detail or depth during that conversation, but two personal revelations bowled me over. The first was realizing the unfathomable privilege of my own experience; the second was grasping fully the extent of individualized violence that persists in the African American psyche in contemporary everyday life, over one hundred fifty years after formal emancipation.
As Wilkerson recited the endless horrors of the slavery experience, during which slaves had to pretend to be happy and perform for potential buyers while they were being publicly humiliated and prodded in every orifice and on every inch of their bodies, it struck me how that primal violence persists within our communities and our families to this day. This is an existential cruelty inflicted not only by others as expected – we are prepared for this our entire lives and flinch almost reflexively in anticipation of physical and verbal aggressions every moment of every day. In addition, there is that cruelty imposed by our own on our own and by us privately on the intimate self, even when no one else is around. We participate in the horror because we remain untouchables in perpetuity, regardless of any external accomplishments or distance from the auction block. Even those of us descended from freedmen – the never enslaved – carry the slavery framework because we find it necessary to distinguish ourselves from the others who were not free.
Mixed Messages: Color
Don’t get me wrong: we have our sayings, such as, “The blacker the berry the sweeter the juice.” But for the most part colorism in our community – shades of black and brown – still carries as its reference point our proximity to the violence of involuntary miscegenation. We do not honor those families which have maintained their own version of African purity and continue to be very dark. Rather, and paradoxically, we honor those who are most decidedly the result of race mixing across the generations: those with lighter skin. I still recall one of the light-skinned leaders of the Black Power movement declaring with pride that his white-looking girlfriend was indeed black, purring about how hard it was to tell and that he had to announce it so she would not be ostracized and would be welcomed into our activist company. This is another form of internalized violence that has remained largely unaddressed until quite recently.
The Violence Within
I began to make a mental list of what I had until now considered idiosyncratic quirks in my family of origin, only to discover in reading Caste the extent to which these behaviors were the direct result of our antecedent slavery past not only in my family but in others as well:
• Obsessing about cleanliness, bad breath, body odor
• Stepping out of the way for just about everybody on sidewalks and in public spaces
• Hoarding and sharing to the extreme
• Using humor and parable to make pointed statements or criticize so as not to invoke wrath or physical retribution
• Smiling through pain and wearing a “high pain threshold” as a badge of honor
• Making excessive self-deprecating remarks
• Surveilling self and others constantly – especially the children – for any sign of inappropriate behavior, dress, language, insubordination, or attitude in general. The surveillance is even more pronounced if there is a sense of responsibility for others: “You’ll ruin your father’s work.”
Then there are those behaviors in our larger family, our community:
• Spanking and “cussing out” children in front of their peers. While I did not witness this public physical behavior much in Massachusetts, I witnessed it repeatedly when we visited family and spent summers in North Carolina. When getting a spanking we had to pick the switch taken from a tree branch ourselves and make sure the switch would hurt. If we held back, the “spanking” would be even worse. Straight out of Wilkerson’s stories. Most of us were actually not traumatized by these public humiliations because they happened to everybody. The more traumatic experiences – often psychological as well as physical – were the ones that occurred when there were no public witnesses.
Because I was the child of a Methodist pastor and army chaplain, comeuppances were frequent, private, and quiet. Deadly quiet so the neighbors wouldn’t hear. In the north most familiar to me violence usually came at the hands of the church and state: the sexual and physical abuse of truant and orphaned children. From the many stories I heard directly and witnessed through their consequences in the bodies and minds of my two foster brothers and others, these acts occurred behind closed doors: it was important to maintain the appearance of propriety – maintain the lie.
• Insisting on silence about incest and physical brutality. Refusing to turn our men over to the police when they damage our women and children, female or male. We look the other way and stay silent during the brutal spanking and beatings of our own offspring. The sexual violence is most often done by men and adolescent boys; the harsh beatings by both men and women. We embrace without question the adage, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” It is my personal belief that these behaviors are the direct result of our slavery past, during which we adopted dominant caste and slaveholders’ interpretations of scripture. Those selectively chosen biblical interpretations were meant to keep us under control, in our place, and they did just that. In my professional life, I lost close friendships with other black administrators because I tried to turn in a black student who had raped another black student. My colleagues and I never reconciled.
• Engaging in brutal fraternity hazing: branding, beating, humiliating pledges in front of each other and in front of women publicly. As during slavery, branding was the mark of ownership and coerced loyalty. Once initiated, the fraternity owned its members for life, the way slaveholders owned their property. And yet in the twentieth century men sometimes volunteered to be branded, even over the heart. No woman would ever receive the kind of fealty offered to the brotherhood. Unlike slaveholders, the fraternity took but also gave, supporting its members for life no matter where in the country or the workplace they might land. I have personally seen fraternity brands, and even recall one acquaintance who had been voluntarily branded twice over his heart: he was a true believer and literally belonged to his fraternity above all, even if God, country, and family were somewhere in the mix. It wasn’t until the 1990s that efforts were made to reduce violent Greek hazing, and yet I am told these practices continue to occur away from campus and prying eyes. Let me be quick to add that hazing is not the singular attribute of black fraternities; white ones engage in hazing as well. But the particular methods of initiation seem to be directly tied to the slavery experience for most black fraternities. What I do not know is how these practices might have changed as fraternities spread to the north and the rest of the country.
• Being more demanding of each other than we are of white people: we expect nothing from them and everything from each other
• Shunning individuals who do not conform; quite literally turning our backs to them for social violations (dress, sexual orientation, refusal to attend church)
The Black Body As Toxic
During my career I was teased often about my obsession with chewing gum and the way I would cover my mouth and lower my head if someone approached me for close conversation. The behavior was so dramatic others would have a difficult time deciphering what I was saying; I mumbled. On the one hand, to chew gum in polite company was considered unladylike and frowned upon. But for me, having bad breath was so much worse! I could suffer being teased about the gum as long as chewing it prevented me from having bad breath, which would render me foul smelling and even toxic.
I was already at the bottom of the ladder in terms of my caste position and certainly did not consider myself in the running for a mate or for being well dressed in comparison to my bosses, peers and subordinates. Poor class behavior, however, was much less important than what I now recognize as unforgivable and immutable caste behavior: smelling bad was framed as a biological trait of black people as race mythology would describe it.
Interestingly, black folks would regularly joke about how bad white people smelled and how poor they were with their personal hygiene. Those who worked as domestics would regale their friends and family with tales of the filthy houses they had to clean and the unbelievably ugly behaviors of the homes’ owners.
No Shame for the Dominant Group
From the white person’s viewpoint, however, one I had not fully considered before reading Wilkerson, the dominant caste might have figured they could leave their dirty clothes and dishes lying around for the untouchables to clean because their black servants were already immutably dirty and it was their job to handle the dirty objects of those above them. For whites, therefore, leaving dirty things strewn around did not make them feel dirty or ashamed; rather, it solidified their standing as members of the privileged caste. Conversely, no matter how fastidious, starched, pressed, bathed, and fragrant the domestic help were in their clothing and demeanor, they were perennially and existentially dirty. I am still wrapping my mind around this conundrum, even though I have witnessed this dynamic firsthand more often than I care to remember, not only in the United States but in neo-colonial Africa as well. Wilkerson nailed it.
Managing As a Black Military Officer
As my parents moved up in rank and my father became a field grade officer in the military, we had occasion to have servants of our own, especially when we lived abroad (that’s another entire conversation). My mother would insist on our helping to clean the house thoroughly before the maid arrived! By the time she got to our house, there was relatively little to do – primarily washing and ironing my father’s dress shirts and our bed linens. We would never leave our intimate items to another to clean. So my mother spent most of her time chatting with the “help” and taking advantage of this time together to learn about our housekeeper’s culture and to have her teach us a bit of the local language. When my brother and I would question why we had to clean the house before the maid came, my mother would respond with strong statements about her having been a maid herself before she became an officer’s wife; how important it was to make the servant’s life easier than it had been for her and how, since the maid was probably working in several other white officers’ homes in the neighborhood, there would be no negative stories to tell about those “dirty Negroes.” I am still not certain whether racially biased stories ever got back to her, but I am certain that my mother was vigilant, always on the lookout for feedback that might “ruin your father’s work.”
When we moved from one post to another, we had to make sure to leave the house in better condition than we found it: scrubbing, shellacking the hardwood floors until you could see yourself in them, washing walls and windows and eaves until we couldn’t crawl, then driving all night to the new location if we were on the mainland. We drove at night so our car would be harder to spot as one containing black passengers, thus reducing the likelihood of our being pulled over just because highway patrol wanted to have a little fun or make its monthly quota of stops, arrests, and fines. Most often my mother would do the driving since her driving would reduce the chances of my father’s being detained, with his Boston accent that could be problematic. It was also easier to pee on the side of the road at night since there most likely would be no hotels, motels, restaurants, or gas stations willing to serve us. We took everything we needed, camped out as often as possible as we could in safety, and got where we were going before daybreak if at all possible. That’s just the way it was. And my dad would often wear his Boy Scout uniform so that in case we were stopped we would be viewed as camping for fun, not moving everything we owned, lock, stock, and barrel. We were not fugitives on the run.
Once we got to the new place we’d have to clean that house as well, ceiling to floor, just in case the prior occupants left their own dirt behind. We washed and ironed and bathed incessantly. My uncle, born and raised in North Carolina, still does all of these things today, changing clothes sometimes multiple times a day and sheets almost as often as hotel service. We are all fastidious to a fault, but that deep-seated fear of offending by being existentially dirty never goes away. These habits border on obsession and Wilkerson helped me understand my family’s quirks in new ways. I now add a hefty dose of compassion and understanding and gratitude to this complex mix.
My Own Demons
Even now – especially now – my partner spends countless moments waiting for me to go through the interminable ritual of finding something to wear when we leave the house. No longer living in an all-black household but with someone who can trace her noble lineage twenty-nine generations to before the common era, I go into panic mode, trying on various outfits, tossing clothes all over the place, freaking out, just to take a trip to the market. Exceedingly modest and casual, she rarely mentions her family history and I have to pull hen’s teeth to get the full story. I never know when we might run into a relative or someone she knows from work and I don’t want to embarrass her or myself. At all costs, I cannot afford to bring unwanted notice or shame to this interracial, intercultural relationship.
The Land of Aloha Doesn’t Get a Pass
Living in Hawaii I am reminded daily how prevalent racial and ethnic stereotypes are here. Not just the usual black/white ones, but also those of various Asian, Polynesian, and Pacific Islander groups as well. My getting-dressed behavior is exhausting, not only for me but for my partner, who is forced to wait endlessly while I face my demons of caste. It is almost as if I go into another mental place, channeling my omnipresent, omni-surveilling mother, looking for the slightest flaw in my dress or comportment that might ruin my partner’s work. No wonder I am an introvert: playing by the rules is overwhelming, whether my playing is in compliance or defiance of caste! Reading Wilkerson made me comprehend this compulsive behavior more deeply than I ever had before and suddenly made my cancer diagnosis a few years ago all the more understandable. Fear and self-loathing can make anyone sick!
Why cancer now? I realized that I am not only more happy than ever, I am also more afraid than ever. I am afraid that I will upset the apple cart, will embarrass my partner, will violate some unfamiliar taboo of caste in what remains principally a plantation environment. As in some areas of the deep south, whites may be in the numerical minority here, but structurally – in the classic markers of power structure research – they still control almost everything, especially when it comes to land, tourism, military, and interstate or international business.
The land of Aloha is simmering in the toxic stew of caste and no one is calling it out. I feel it, I see it, but I dare not speak it for fear of threatening the delicate balance of my idyllic life. Hawaii may no longer be an iconic paradise if I rip off the scab and expose its underbelly in ways that only a black person can witness and name, through the voice of the perpetual untouchable.
The deep wounds here are different from those in Alabama and Mississippi, but minimally so. Original Hawaiians know it and feel it but their tongues have been largely silenced. They are not untouchables like me because they can lay historical claim to the land and a pre-colonial monarchy. I, on the other hand, have nothing to claim; my white ancestors whose Scottish-English names I bear have no meaning here. The mainland antebellum south has little currency here and yet I feel its tentacles reaching even these secluded islands in daily life, typically through its plantation history, the voice of the Christian church, and conservative talk radio. Caste is alive and well in Hawaii; make no mistake about it. And caste is denied as vociferously here as it is in Virginia.
I am a black Stewart and Hampton, not a white or mixed Campbell or Bishop or Castle or Cook. Even here I am Dalit, as Indian outcastes are called. I am nothing. I have nothing. I am worse than invisible: I am untouchable. Furthermore, like few others, I see clearly through the denials that caste does not exist in Hawaii.
Reclaiming the Sidewalk
Now that I recognize the illness of caste, I can heal my own melancholy. I can write and speak the unspeakable because in this world I am largely overlooked. Like the wind, I can be felt but I can no longer be contained. At last, through understanding the unbelievable scope of Wilkerson’s work, I am free.
Tomorrow, perhaps, I will go to the market without wearing earrings. And this time I will even use my side of the sidewalk.