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  • Writer's pictureMennonite Women USA

Affirm: The Problem Is Caste

During a dinner party in India, Isabel Wilkerson, author of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, observed the interactions between guests from different castes. She could easily distinguish which caste (socioeconomic class) they belonged to based on their actions, without even being told by the guests themselves. When she pointed out to one guest that she was likely from the dominant caste, the woman was taken aback and revealed how hard she had been trying to conceal it. Despite her efforts to promote equality, her ingrained behaviors and societal norms gave away her socialized identity and exposed her learned and societal biases.

In that moment I became aware of what bothers me most about the dominant American caste, typically composed of those who are White, male, wealthy, and/or educated, regardless of their social and/or political leanings. It is the social science concept of unconscious bias. This term refers to discriminatory actions from subconscious biases that individuals who claim to believe in equality are unaware they hold. As humans of goodwill, we must actively acknowledge our own unconscious biases and strive to dismantle societal and cultural systems that perpetuate them.

One cannot overlook Jesus' deliberate actions to uplift and empower those in the lowest caste. He carefully navigated interactions with individuals from this marginalized group. Jesus had a deep understanding of the cultural, historical, and systemic factors that played a role in creating and maintaining a ranking of human value.

I believe significant change could occur in America, and even the world, if we had a better understanding of our position within the caste system and consciously addressed our ingrained reactions towards others as we navigate through life. However, before any of this can happen, many of us must confront ourselves and strive to lead lives that are centered around Christ's teachings, actions, and values.

In this world, we begin to understand ourselves by seeing through the eyes of others, and vice versa. We confront the weight of history, the influence of caste, and the grip of fear that has brought us all to this point. Only then can we break free from the systemic barriers that have plagued humanity for centuries. One can start at any stage as long as they devote time to each one: researching and understanding history, learning about the pervasive caste system in America and those around the world, and confronting the deep-seated fears ingrained in our psyches due to generations of caste oppression.

According to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., his greatest disappointment was his inability to convince poor whites that he was fighting for their rights as well. From the very beginning of the United States, people of color and poor whites have been pitted against each other. Isabel Wilkerson describes this as a form of the privileged class using the lowest caste to do their bidding. This system has been reinforced through slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, and now colorism. On January 6th, 2021, we witnessed a mob storming the US Capitol by the direction of someone from the dominant caste. While many of those involved were later arrested and charged with crimes against the state, the person from the dominant caste watched it unfold without consequences, at least up to now.

The concept of caste is pervasive and destructive, eroding the very foundation of humanity. To combat its power, we must strive to fully comprehend it. We must take up Dr. King's dream and educate our sisters and brothers on the role we play within the caste system. However, this will be a challenging endeavor. I recall speaking to a woman about socioeconomic class, and she expressed a preference for identifying as lower middle class rather than upper lower class, despite occupying the same societal position. There is something in how we perceive our own worth that causes someone to desire or imagine these two categories as separate social standings.

As followers of Christ, it is our duty to resist oppressive systems like caste that aim to harm and destroy God's creations. We must take the first step and act with compassion towards all people and living beings. The world is currently in a state of turmoil, but we as Christians should not be adding to the chaos; instead, we should be modeling the love and teachings of Jesus. It is no longer acceptable for us to separate ourselves from any of God's children or creation. In situations where there is hatred, we should sow seeds of love, as St. Francis Assisi once said. Furthermore, when faced with violence, we must promote peace, and in times of division, we must strive for equality.

Rev. Cyneatha Millsaps

Mennonite Women USA Executive Director

+ Midwest Regional Representative


Mennonite Women USA values what all women have to say and Women's Voices blog is a space to honor their words.

Posts are reviewed for tolerance and respect but don't necessarily reflect MW USA's official position.

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