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Wordy Wednesday: Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson with hand drawn bookmark on heather gray background

On my drive to tutor a student, I listen to NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly state we are fifteen minutes away from hearing the verdict. Will Derek Chauvin be held accountable for the murder of George Floyd? In fifteen minutes I’m out of my car, sitting next to my student with a reading assignment. I’ve already forgotten that monumental news is breaking at this same moment elsewhere. (It’s not fair that I can tune in and tune out like this; it’s white privilege.)

When I hop back in my car ninety minutes later, the news pops back on and I hear a man speaking. He’s a brother of George Floyd, imploring people to continue fighting, to continue saying that Black Lives Matter. I slump in my seat. It sounds like a “we lost this time but we won’t give up” speech. But as I wait for the left turn signal, the speech turns too: the speaker is thankful for his family members who are alive to see this victory.

Oh my God. Chauvin was convicted. This is a big deal. I feel close to tears. I feel relieved, and grateful, and sorrowful.

I’ve been reading Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. I sent my mom a copy too, and we both have been horrified to read the morbid details of slavery, the shocking brutality of lynchings, the infuriating instances of discrimination today. Mom and I discussed the book over the phone: we knew what the country and its people did to Black people was bad, but we didn’t know it was this bad.

Wilkerson argues that the U.S. construction of race is a caste system, just like the caste system in India, and that the U.S. version inspired the Nazis’ creation of caste in Germany in the twentieth century. Her writing grips the reader with its powerful message.

I can’t believe how many centuries it has taken the U.S. to get from the transatlantic slave trade to finally, finally, holding a white man—a police officer—accountable for murdering a black man. But George Floyd’s family has it right: we must still declare Black Lives Matter. We must dismantle caste.

Below are three words from Caste by Isabel Wilkerson. For each I cite the sentence in which I found it, provide a definition, and then share a sentence of my own with the word.

1. malefaction

“He rebounded from these malefactions to be elected to the U.S. Senate” (132).

Noun: an evil deed; crime (Merriam-Webster).

Don’t you think “true malefaction” is a better genre name than “true crime”?

2. vitiate

“‘The moral fiber of the nation has been weakened and its very life-blood vitiated by the influx of this tide of oriental scum,’ Rev. M. D. Lichliter, a minister from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, said in his testimony before the committee in 1910” (123).

Verb: spoil or impair the quality or efficiency of; destroy or impair the legal validity of (Oxford).

To a perfectionist, one error vitiates the entire work.

3. alacrity

“‘They must obey at all times, and under all circumstances, cheerfully and with alacrity,’ said a Virginia slaveholder” (162).

Noun: brisk and cheerful readiness.

“I can help,” she offered with alacrity, eagerly collecting the dirty dishes and carrying them to the sink.

Thank you for joining me this Wordy Wednesday. What have you been reading lately? Share in the comments!



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