We kicked off our E-Cultural Diplomacy Series by celebrating Black History Month and hosted a powerful discussion on Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. The book addresses the roles of race and caste in American society, making comparisons with the Nazi system in Germany and the caste system in India. Paula Herring, Ph.D. moderated the discussion between our two co-hosts: Fern P. Nelson, M.D., a dermatologist, professor of dermatology, and member of our advisory board whose experience as an African American woman reflects issues of race in America; and Bashker “Bob” Biswas, Ph. D., an accredited professor whose experience as an Indian man provides insight into the idea of caste.
Dr. Herring opened the conversation by prompting an exploration of the differences between class and caste. Dr. Nelson and Dr. Biswas explained what Wilkerson outlines in her book: class is economic and more flexible, but caste is permanent. They proceeded to discuss the presence of racism, caste, and hate in America, with Dr. Biswas saying “as an immigrant and a foreigner, the American system was cancerous from the very beginning.” Dr. Nelson expressed that, despite living in the U.S. her whole life, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents opened her eyes to the American system being a caste system and to the connections between racial opression in America and Nazi Germany, saying, “I was dumbfounded that they looked to us for inspiration.” Dr. Biswas supported this point, but additionally asserted that the similarities between the Nazi system and the American system show the incongruence between the Indian caste system and the American caste system; the Indian system is based on the job, but the Nazi and American systems are based in hate. Dr. Nelson spoke to her experience as a Black American, stating that she feels racism “quite frequently, at least once a week” and that she sees Wilkerson’s caste diagnosis of race relations in America as accurate due to the divine will, dehumanization, and terror that are inherent to both. To close out the discussion portion, Dr. Herring commented that the statement “never again” is often tied to many historical tragedies, but no such promise exists in relation to the brutal history of racial oppression in the U.S.
During Q&A, our audience asked Dr. Nelson and Dr. Biswas about a fascinating range of topics, including unconscious bias, preparing children for discrimination, and culturally diverse education. Dr. Nelson and Dr. Biswas ended the event by encouraging the audience to make efforts towards cultural understanding and overcoming bias. Thank you to Dr. Nelson, Dr. Biswas, and Dr. Herring for the captivating discussion and thank you to everyone who attended the event!