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Diversity and Inclusion

#4: Isabel Wilkerson on America’s enduring caste system

This discussion guide is designed to get you and your colleagues learning and talking about racism. This guide forms part of a six-week Black Lives Matter Discussion Group series that we had internally at Hive Learning. We’ve published this guide so you can use it to have honest, uncomfortable and entirely necessary conversations about racism with your team, too.

Why we need to talk about this

The Black Lives Matter movement and growing scrutiny of the police are waking more people up to systemic racism — the racism that is embedded into and influences the outcomes of our societies.

In a long-form article for The New York Times Magazine, Pulitzer prize-winning writer Isabel Wilkerson suggests that modern America’s systemic racism might not be so different from the casteism commonly associated with India.

Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred; it is not necessarily personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things.

Isabel Wilkerson, author and journalist

Let's do this

Here’s what you’ll need:
Participants: 2+
Time: 1 hour (plus an additional 45 mins – 1 hour to read the resource)
Difficulty: Easy
Resources: Key resource, discussion questions, anything you usually need for any remote joiners

This guided discussion will:

⚡ Ask you to think about the racism that’s built into America’s foundations — and what might be needed to overcome it

⚡ Offer an alternative way of thinking about racism — through the lens of casteism — and maybe give you new language that resonates with you

⚡ Get your team talking about the pros and cons of using casteism as a parallel to racism

Key resource: Isabel Wilkerson on America’s Enduring Caste System in The New York Times Magazine (45-60 mins)
🔗 Link: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/01/magazine/isabel-wilkerson-caste.html

Bonus resource: Dr Martin Luther King, Jr’s Fourth of July Sermon (15 mins)
A third of the way into the piece, Wilkerson mentions a famous Fourth of July sermon Dr Martin Luther King, Jr gave to Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1965. This is well worth a read if you can spare 15 minutes.

In it, MLK speaks about the broken promise of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal”, and his realization when visiting India that as a Black person he was an “untouchable” in America. He also says his dream (from his famous “I have a dream” speech two years earlier) was shattered. Here’s a very famous quote from this sermon:

Oh yes, love is the way. Love is the only absolute. More and more I see this. I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate myself; hate is too great a burden to bear.

Dr Martin Luther King, Jr

Questions to think about and discuss
💡 What did you think of the analogy of America being like an old house built on unstable ground with issues lurking, just hidden from sight?

💡 Do you agree with Wilkerson’s argument that the US has a racial caste system? Why or why not? What makes it similar or different from India’s caste system?

💡 You could argue that every society in the history of the world has some form of social hierarchy, even if not as brutal and damaging as the American system of chattel slavery, or as rigid and pervasive as the Indian caste system. Is hierarchy inevitable? Can you think of any exceptions?

💡 What did you think of Wilkerson’s definitions of casteism vs racism? Do you like this concept of two definitions rather than simply calling both racism? Do you think there’s a danger in re-labeling / softening the emotive term “racism” that we sidestep it / absolve ourselves of it?

Refresher on Wilkerson’s definitions for these terms:

🔦 Casteism: any action or structure that seeks to limit, hold back or put someone in a defined ranking, seeks to keep someone in their place by elevating or denigrating that person the basis of their perceived category.

🔦 Racism: any action or institution that mocks, harms, assumes or attaches inferiority or stereotype on the basis of the social construct of race.

💡 If MLK were alive today, what do you think he’d think of the progress we’ve made since the 1960s? Do you think he’d still be advocating for nonviolent resistance?

One week before
✅ Send out an email and calendar invitation including the link and discussion questions.

One day before
✅ Send a reminder to everyone to read the key resource before the session. Note down some of your own thoughts which you can share to prompt others to do the same.

On the day

  1. Welcome everyone and introduce the key resource and discussion topic, which is Isabel Wilkerson’s article on America’s enduring caste system. (3 mins)
  2. Ask everyone for their initial thoughts from reading the article. What resonated with them most? (5 mins)
  3. Work through the discussion questions. Be mindful of the time and nudge the conversation on to the next topic when someone stops speaking. If people need more encouragement to speak, start by sharing your thoughts. (50 mins)
  4. Wrap up by thanking everyone for attending and for their input. Let everyone know that they are welcome to continue the conversation in your company’s social channels and to share feedback on the discussion with you. (3 mins)

Afterward
✅ Send a follow-up email to thank participants and to re-share the resource and questions with anyone who couldn’t attend.

#4: Isabel Wilkerson on America’s enduring caste system

Each week, we dip into the unanswerable, nuanced and gray areas of inclusion and offer, not answers, but inklings.

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Inclusion Works

This resource was taken from our Inclusion Works programme, which was created with a network of more than +100 diverse contributors and advisers. We learn from, amplify and cite creators of different races, ethnicities, genders and cognitive styles and continually work to represent all dimensions of diversity.