Marcia Smith-Hutton is BPSI Psychotherapist and Library Committee Member. Her below remarks originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of the library newsletter, which can be read here.

Wilkerson, I. (2020). Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Random House, 496 pp.

The tentacles of white supremacy stretch far. The tyranny of caste is that we are judged by attributes that we cannot change (or cannot easily change), such as the color of our skin, our gender, and physical disabilities. The price of privilege is the moral duty to act when one sees another person treated unfairly. The least a person in the dominant caste can do is not make the pain any worse. If each of us could truly see the humanity of the person before us by searching for the key that opens the door to whatever we may have in common, it could begin to effect how we see the world and others in it.

Wilkerson writes: “In December 1932, one of the smartest men who ever lived landed in America on a steamship with his wife and their thirty pieces of luggage as the Nazis bore down on their homeland of Germany.” The physicist and Nobel Prize winner Albert Einstein had managed to leave Germany just in time. Yet in America, Einstein was astounded to discover that he had landed in another caste system. In 1946, he wrote that “the worst disease in the United States is the treatment of the Negro.” He also wrote: “The more I feel an American, the more this situation pains me. I can escape feelings of complicity in it only by speaking out.” He co-chaired a committee to end lynching, joined the NAACP, and spoke out, lending his fame to the civil rights cause.

To imagine an end to caste in America, we need only look at Germany’s history. It is proof that if a caste system—in this case, the twelve-year rule of the Nazis—was created, it can also be demolished. We make a serious error when we fail to see the overlap between our country and others.

The common vulnerability of human beings is social programming, what the political theorist Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil. It is tempting to believe that the Germans were bloodthirsty people, but, as a philosopher who has studied cultures of dehumanization observes, “what is most disturbing about the Nazi phenomenon is not that they were madmen… It is that they were ordinary human beings.”

Wilkerson adds that it is also tempting to vilify a single despot as the sight of injustice when, in reality, it is the actions—or more commonly, inaction—of multitudes of others that keep the mechanisms of prejudice alive.

Marcia Smith-Hutton, MSW, LICSW, BCD, is a Psychotherapist member of the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and a member of BPSI’s Library Committee. Having grown up in Paris, she is bicultural and bilingual. She moved from Paris to Boston in 1970, earned several degrees from BU, the last one being in Social Work. Soon thereafter, she became drawn to psychoanalysis intensely pursuing studies in this field. She graduated from BPSI’s Advanced Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Training (ATP) program in 2003. Marcia has a private psychotherapy practice in Brookline, MA, and currently an advanced candidate at MIP.


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