I was eating lunch in the high school cafeteria. I can still remember the smell of the mixture of commercial cleaners and large-scale cooking.
I can also remember my feeling of guilt.
My high school was nearly all-white. The Paulus People had been “relocated” over 100 years previous and my home town was mostly settled by Norwegians and Germans. One of our classmates had moved into our area from Mexico. I will call him Juan. Juan was a very good classmate. He was a good baseball catcher. He was great at math. I considered him a friend. I was often the guy who befriended the lower status kids as I was also in a middle to lower section of the caste system in my town.
There had been a raid by the Immigration enforcement folks who had arrested a lot of folks from Mexico. At lunch some of the higher status kids told the story in a dehumanizing way. These workers “scurried like rats” as the INS people came to arrest them. After hearing the story from some of my higher status classmates, out of the blue, with no forethought, I said something derogatory about these human beings – and I used the “S” word in reference to them. Juan looked at me in shock and in pain. I think he had expected that from the others but not from me. I saw his reaction and said, “I wasn’t talking about you.”
So, you can see why I still remember this.
This was NOT just an interpersonal mistake on my part. Our society, as Isabele Wilkerson says, is a caste system. It ranks people by the color of their skin. The caste system had taught my classmates that Mexicans were not fully human. They can be described as rats. The caste system never questioned the fact that we were living on land once stewarded by the Paulus Peoples. It framed them as violent to the settlers who had every right to the land because we were the truly human ones.
We all say things that we regret. We all hurt people by what we say and do. That is a part of being human.
But very often, we don’t just say words that we don’t mean to say – we say the words that the caste system has formed us to say.
When I used the “S” word, I was reacting to retain my place, to maintain my status in the system. Feeling the sting, as I often did, of being part of a once-proud farming family who had lost status, I was hungry to say: “At least I am higher in status than those Mexicans.” And I was. But I was also trapped in a system that denied my own value and worth and so I learned to devalue others.
We have been formed by a status-keeping system in our nation. It has shaped much of how we see the world. It has formed our “common sense” in ways that make no sense at all.
But not only can we be formed, we can be re-formed to see our common humanity. This is painful work. Real growth always includes pain. This work will never end, as long as I live.
However, the work of living more fully into our stated ideals, into our common humanity and the future we can build together is also blessed and enjoyable work. As we break the mold we have been formed in, we find ourselves freer to move, to stretch, to relax.
I invite you to reflect on when you have said what you don’t want to say, and to investigate how the caste system shaped you to say it.
I invite you to chip away at the caste that holds us apart from each other and ourselves and experience the freedom of our common humanity.
The goal here, however, is not just to change ourselves, but to participate in the transformation of the caste system so that our next generations are not limited by this system. We can only do that work together.