An eager audience in Centennial Hall welcomed author Isabel Wilkerson, who joined the Gilman community virtually on Tuesday, March 29. The winner of a Pulitzer Prize and a National Humanities Medal and the author of two critically acclaimed New York Times bestsellers needed no introduction, but Headmaster Henry P. A. Smyth and Assistant Director of Community, Inclusion, and Equity (CIE) Joe Valentine-White provided an impressive and heartfelt one, no matter.
Wilkerson began her talk by acknowledging the “political upheaval both at home and around the world.”
“The majority of Americans have been deprived of the opportunity to know the full history of our country,” she said, noting that many people are perplexed by the current state of affairs and how we got here. She compared the United States to a patient with a pre-existing condition: When a heart disease patient has a heart attack, it is sad and scary, but no one is caught by complete surprise. Similarly, when a country built on a foundation of slavery finds systemic and structural racism in headlines over and over again, we may feel angry, enraged even, but no one should be bewildered. “But people say they don’t recognize their country,” Wilkerson said.
Her talk included the topic of caste and how, even though that word isn’t usually applied to the United States, it is, indeed, part of its infrastructure. She said, in our country the metric chosen by early colonists was the social construct of race — a set of otherwise meaningless characteristics that were given value and a place in a hierarchy.
As we continue to witness the ongoing consequences of our caste system, Wilkerson explained that “those of us alive today are tasked with the burden of having to explain [it] to succeeding generations.” She likened this responsibility to owning an old house. You didn’t install the faulty wires or the outdated plumbing, but you own the house now, and it’s your job to fix it.
She also spoke about “radical empathy,” which she explained is more than just imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes; it takes place when someone is willing to do the hard work to truly understand someone else’s experience. “Those who are marginalized can see the world from a different perspective. There is a tremendous amount that can be learned from them. It requires a lot of listening and humility.”
When a parent asked how to talk about these hard topics with young children, Wilkerson said to “find language appropriate for where they are” and to “first do the work on ourselves.” She added that we — including our children — have absorbed the message of hierarchy: We’ve all been trained to know who is more likely to have a corner office and who is more likely to be stocking shelves. “It’s embedded, without even trying. It’s as basic as who dies first in a movie.”
“We have 400 years of this history,” she said. “There’s no one election or policy or person that will get us out of the situation we are in. The challenges we are facing are multi-systemic. But you can’t fix what you can’t see.” Her job as a writer is to bring these issues to light.
Watch below for people’s reflections from CIE Night with Isabel Wilkerson.
About Isabel Wilkerson and Her Books
A book steeped in empathy and insight, “Caste” explores, through layered analysis and stories of real people, the structure of an unspoken system of human ranking and reveals how our lives are still restricted by what divided us centuries ago.
“Modern-day caste protocols,” Wilkerson writes, “are often less about overt attacks or conscious hostility. They are like the wind, powerful enough to knock you down but invisible as they go about their work.”
Wilkerson rigorously defines eight pillars that underlie caste systems across civilizations, including divine will, heredity, and dehumanization. She documents the parallels with two other hierarchies in history, those of India and of Nazi Germany, and no reader will be left without a greater understanding of the price we all pay in a society torn by artificial divisions.
“The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality,” Wilkerson writes. “It is about power — which groups have it and which do not.”
Isabel Wilkerson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Humanities Medal, is the author of the critically acclaimed, New York Times bestsellers “The Warmth of Other Suns,” and “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.”
“Wilkerson’s work,” in the words of The American Prospect magazine, “is the missing puzzle piece of our country's history.” “The Warmth of Other Suns” won the National Book Critics Circle Award, among other honors, and was named to more than 30 Best of the Year lists, including The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker and The Washington Post. TIME Magazine named it one of the “10 Best Non-Fiction Books” of the decade. The New York Times Magazine named “Warmth” to its list of the best nonfiction books of all time. Her new book, “Caste: The Origins of our Discontents,” was published in August 2020 to critical acclaim and became a Number 1 New York Times bestseller. Dwight Garner of The New York Times called it, “An instant American classic and almost certainly the keynote nonfiction book of the American century thus far.” Oprah Winfrey chose it as her 2020 summer/fall book club selection, declaring it “the most important book” she had ever selected.
Wilkerson won the Pulitzer Prize for her deeply humane narrative writing while serving as Chicago Bureau Chief of The New York Times in 1994, making her the first black woman in the history of American journalism to win a Pulitzer Prize and the first African American to win for individual reporting. In 2016, President Barack Obama awarded Wilkerson the National Humanities Medal for “championing the stories of an unsung history.”
As the historian Jill Lepore observed in The New Yorker: “What Wilkerson urges, isn’t argument at all; it’s compassion. Hush, and listen.”