The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

The Caste System and The Emotional System

Authored by Stephanie Ferrera, M.S.W.

Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste:  The origins of our discontents, is a hard book.  Her words confront us with a hard truth about human behavior:  that humans are capable of imposing extreme cruelty and suffering on other humans and have done so at many points in history.  With brilliant writing and thorough research on three caste systems–American slavery and its aftermath, Nazi Germany, and the millennia-long caste system of India–she traces the forces that drive human behavior to destructive extremes.

Wilkerson defines the caste system as “an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it.” (17)  Later in the book, she adds:  “Caste is more than rank, it is a state of mind that holds everyone captive, the dominant imprisoned in an illusion of their own entitlement, the subordinate trapped in the purgatory of someone else’s definition of who they are and who they should be.” (290)

Drawing from a wealth of data from many disciplines, Wilkerson identifies the “pillars” of caste systems, the shared characteristics of these hierarchies.  They include: the belief that the caste order has been ordained by God and nature; heritability that designates one’s place in the caste for life and passes it on to descendants; attribution of purity to higher positions and pollution to lower ones; occupational ranking that relegates some to menial work; and most important, de-humanization that denies the basic humanity of another person or group and justifies the use of cruelty and terror as a means of control.

It is hard to dehumanize a single individual whom you have gotten to know.  Thus, people who aspire to power focus their effort on stigmatizing whole groups.  Wilkerson explains: “It is better to attach a stigma, a taint of pollution to an entire group.  Dehumanize the group, and you have completed the work of dehumanizing any single person within it.”  (141)

As I read this book, I heard echoes of Bowen theory throughout.  Wilkerson’s depth of insight added to my understanding of Bowen’s concept of the emotional process in society, and Bowen’s thinking helped me understand the anxiety-driven patterns of behavior that result in the level of regression that Wilkerson describes in caste systems.  The following Bowen theory concepts are especially relevant:  the projection process, emotional cutoff, multigenerational transmission, societal regression and differentiation of self

Dr. Bowen saw the projection process in society as a large-scale version of that in the family.  It works to focus the collective anxiety of a society on targeted groups.  Bowen identified a variety of such vulnerable groups, and noted that they become objects either for overly harsh and punitive treatment, or overly lenient and sympathetic treatment.  While Wilkerson focuses entirely on the harsh side, Bowen focuses more on the damage done by over sympathetic help. Groups that are objects of societal projection “are vulnerable to become the pitiful objects of the benevolent, over sympathetic segment of society that improves its functioning at the expense of the pitiful.” (Bowen 445) This is an important difference between Bowen’s and Wilkerson’s thinking.  However, the end result for those on the receiving end of the powerful projection process, whether the harsh side or the benevolent side, is that they are put into a “ ‘one down’ inferior position.”  (Bowen 445)

Emotional cutoff operates alongside the projection process and reinforces it.  Without interaction between members of different groups, people don’t know one another except through stereotypes and prejudice.  Distorted views lead to fear and mistrust which leads to more avoidance and so on.  One example is the racial segregation that still marks American society.

Bowen’s concept of multigenerational transmission resonates with one of Wilkerson’s “pillars” of caste systems:  heritability.  One is born into a caste; most people remain in it for life and pass it on to descendants.  Similarly in Bowen theory, social status, and the attitudes, values, and resources that operate to perpetuate social position, are part of what families transmit across generations.  Wilkerson sees caste as more deeply embedded and fixed in our social life than class.  Class is based on education, income, occupation, and taste, and can be acquired by hard work and ingenuity or lost by poor decisions or adversity.  She notes:  “If you can act your way out of it, then it is class, not caste.”  (106)

When society is driven by increasing chronic anxiety, the balance of individuality and togetherness shifts toward intensifying togetherness and reciprocally declining individuality.  The process leads eventually to chaos and violence.  Bowen named this societal regression. Wilkerson gives many examples of regression. The following description of public lynchings speaks for itself:  “Lynchings were part carnival, part torture chamber, and attracted thousands of onlookers who collectively became accomplices to public sadism.”  (93)

The intensity of the emotional system presents a great challenge for the process of differentiation of self.  In rigid, stratified systems, individuals have little room to move. Dr. Bowen captured this in his astute question regarding slavery:  “How does a slave develop a self in an oppressive, dehumanizing system forcing him into a no-self position?”  (Keller 2006, 103)  Wilkerson notes that steps toward autonomy and achievement by lower caste individuals or groups frequently evoke an automatic fear reaction by those in the dominant caste.  She writes:  “In the zero-sum stakes of a caste system upheld by perceived scarcity, if a lower-caste person goes up a rung, an upper-caste person comes down.  The elevation of others amounts to a demotion of oneself, thus equality feels like a demotion.” (183)  In this way, the caste system entraps those at all levels and presents a major obstacle to differentiation of self.  It locks people into a vigilance and focus on others that is the antithesis of the focus on self that is essential for differentiation.

It seems that human nature reveals itself at the extremes.  The study of schizophrenia, an extreme degree of mental illness, set Bowen on a path that led to a theory of the family as an emotional system, and a concept of the society as governed by a parallel emotional process.  Wilkerson chose extreme cases to study the caste phenomenon, and from them she was able to discern the variables, “pillars,” that come together to create and perpetuate caste systems.

She ends her book with a word about responsibility:  “None of us chose the circumstances of our birth.  We had nothing to do with having been born into privilege or under stigma.  We have everything to do with what we do with our God-given talents and how we treat others in our species from this day forward.”  (387)

Bowen, Murray. 1978.  Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. New York:  Jason Aronson.

Keller, Mignonette Nunn. 2006. A Case Study: Efforts toward Differentiation of Self among Slaves and Their Descendants.”  Family Systems 7(2): 103-121.

Wilkerson, Isabel. 2020.  Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.  New York:  Random House.

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