Can White People Change? Isn’t This Still An Important Question?

“Society builds a trapdoor of self-reference that, without any effort on the part of people in the dominant caste, unwittingly forces on them a narcissistic isolation from those assigned to lower categories.  It replicates the structure of a narcissistic family system…”                                                                         

– Isabelle Wilkinson, Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents

“Jimmy [Baldwin] would insist that we find our elsewhere in these after times…an elsewhere can and must be found here…that affords us the critical distance to imagine our lives, and hopefully the country, differently.”

–     Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. , Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons For Our Own

After reading Isabelle Wilkinson’s book Caste, I understand differently a major life choice – maybe two – I made, 36 years and 21 years after the fact.  One of the decisions of my life I’ve long considered defining was moving to ethnically-racially mixed Utica, rather than residing in any of the nearly exclusively white towns surrounding it, in two of which I’d been raised. The choice felt defiant to me at the time, I understood it as defiance of unconscious racism.   Having trained in and served in the ministry biz – a total of 11 years – it had become natural to me to think in terms of addressing social divisions. Moreover,  the motivation to move toward the urban – maybe saving it from the reverse-white flight trend toward which James Baldwin was mercilessly scathing – was the need for self-reflection (an inner “downwardness” ) that came with dropping out of what was supposed to have been my career.  

I see  now, the move to take up residence among lower caste people – not to “renovate a brownstone,” or to be seen having black friends, or serve the poor in the manner of the Catholic Worker, but simply to live locally amongst the city’s multiplicities – paralleled my inward move to re-connect with my lower caste soul. In that latter purpose I was right on schedule in good 80’s “me-decade” fashion, attempting to answer more satisfactorily the question who am I? than had been possible following the conventional upward mobility route via college, grad school, etc. that had not worked for me.

Wilkinson asserts that the rise of fascism we’re seeing is consequence of white Americans being reactivated by the movement of black Americans up the caste scale to positions of power and prestige, as well as by the well-known prediction that by 2045 there will be more of them than of us. Today I’m wondering if my decision to move down the caste scale has brought me a different kind of pushback from the surrounding society.   Not pushback, perhaps, but something that, because of my fragile sense of connection, having been raised to to be existentially separate in the upper caste way, has a greater effect on me than if I were either receiving admiration or vituperation from my fellows of the left or the right.  That is, no acknowledgment at all. I have done something that does not compute in liberal reality.    

Back when I made this downward social move I considered I was doing something practically any white person with a job (and a social conscience) could do,  that is, choose where you will live conscious of the moral dimension of that decision.  In my case, conditioned to the white protestant liberal world in which I grew up,  it felt to me like an activism. Moreover, it was an activism I could take on that granted me time to be inwardly-focused, which otherwise would have been unacceptably selfish.  

Ultimately, the move downward paved the way for my fall through the cracks of whiteness into full throttle breakdown, out of which emerged conscious commitment both to acceptance of deep-buried childhood trauma, and to my writing. That is, my writer self had been similarly obscured for me as was the reality of the lower caste.  Whereas before I’d treated the writing as a private musing below identity,  I was now an habitué of the “nowhere” in which art-making was not a choice, but a necessity to psychic wholeness. More than this –  it was obligation coming from gratitude for having been delivered into my story.

Professionally trained as I’d been in religious ministry, albeit the most leftward, the most tolerant-of-the-tolerant, the most “unreligious” end of it, it felt legitimate to call the object of this newfound commitment my “soul.” I understood that this soul – its “otherness” having been powerfully revealed –  conferred upon me a duty to my own self-expression.  The story of this wallflower white girl – who otherwise had no story other than the one I’d been told – now fell into place: I had abandoned that entity, my soul – both its trauma and its creative function in response not to a harsh upbringing but to pressure – the pressure to be white and upper caste.

To my credit, I guess, I was unsuccessful at making that upward move. I’d say “and thank goodness for that,” except for the fact the alternative –  identification with my true self – never fully “took,” even after the decade of psychotherapy and all the writing.  Obscurity is hard. Maybe recognition too has its downside.  But I have found it impossible to fully and without reserve remain identified with my true self, its poetic reality, except insofar as I’m able to actively, participatorially defend the mixed bag of failure and (unconventional) success I am, through constant creative practice of writing.  The writing is compensatory, yes, for having abandoned my place; it replaces caste identity with identity conferred via the Other – my soul – which unlike Christian salvation is never once-for-all.


Trauma research now provides evidence for the deleterious effect of buried trauma upon peoples’ health.  We who have learned to bury our trauma in order to be included in the higher caste ranks put ourselves at great risk of injuring our health, especially if we are not affluent enough to buy the supplements, fitness gym memberships, vacations, and general carefreeness from financial worry that is – theoretically and in many cases actually – reward for upper caste membership!

In fact, I seriously doubt I can “prove” that my health is better than many of my peers because of my downward identification. This is too bad, since with  physical health being so important to many higher caste people I could be so much more persuasive!  Fortunately, personal health is not my subject as a writer.

My subject, rather, is the cost of identifying as higher caste when it is not the truth, as much a lie as the lower caste person accepting that identity of lower worth, lower intelligence, suitability only for menial work, etc. The cost of living at odds with the knowledge contained in the body is high, taken out not only against the individual body’s health but against the social body and “body politic.”  It makes one incapable of escaping one’s caste role and – against all good intention – always to be unconsciously buttressing the lie of caste.  

As I understand it caste is an assignment of ontological ranking by which the value/reality of everything in our world is stratified.  Taking caste all the way would mean lowest in caste of all are the earth, soil, rivers, oceans and air, plants and animals.  This would explain why we’re blowing that relationship bigtime.  To some of us upper caste people, this environmental disaster is more urgent than the fact that our status – its lie –  depends upon robbing lower caste brown and black people of hope.  But they cannot be so separated and categorized. If you have accepted the lie of caste, to live otherwise, to leave space for the real otherness of others through one’s conscious behaviors and choices is only possible for one who piously practices the self-containment of his/her art.  One who, recognizing there are no free lunches, is willing to pay the price.

That at this very time historically when black people are following an opposite trajectory, moving up in ranks of power and prestige, encouraging their children to compete and thus to rise in the caste reality, does not contradict what I’m “prescribing” for white people. For the “prescription” is we all must do what’s in our power to defy the lie of caste.  Being white makes the task different.  Our task is to widen the spaces in society for those who currently have little space to breathe in.  We can do this by valuing creative expression – beauty and truth –  over money and power, making ourselves into outliers, outsiders, intentionally, revolutionarily allied with all the others.  Besides placing our energies on the side of all that is being destroyed, living as lower caste outsiders – a kind of general strike – has an added benefit.  It removes us from direct and no-win conflict with rightwing racist extremists who are constantly aggrieved by the hypocrisy of the white liberals who dominate the higher caste, who are seen as talking equality while keeping a secure hold on the wealth and status that go with their caste.

Consciously downward mobility takes us out of the world defined by affluence and materialist meaning that keeps white people separate and spiritually very weak; it is a trauma that shakes one down to the roots, the truth of one-for-all-all-for-one interdependence.  That is, defiance of the caste system acquaints one with the trauma that was there anyway, that has kept one clinging to the identity of caste. Trauma makes the fire of transformation, it kills the old so the new can be born. Creativity is means for that transformation; I employ my  imagination simply so I can have any hope at all.  Not hope that the bane of Trump may pass us by, not hope that my bourgeois reality can remain the same, but the hope of the dream of all-connected interdependence among beings whose sufferings – not their triumphs – make linkages with others necessary – that makes us moral.  In the game of interdependence, if you don’t know your trauma, you can’t play.


A couple of weeks ago on my birthday I attended a poetry reading down the valley in Little Falls, with my friend Ruth who had been invited to read.   The setting for the reading was a charming space, an old storefront  on an arcade-lined Main Street that features art and artisanal crafts.  Heaven knows how they keep their doors open – rents must be low-to-nonexistent.  The readers were a troupe of 4, 2 women and 2 men, plus Ruth.

Turnout, for a poetry reading, was good! Ruth and I  – with a couple of exceptions – were the only old people in the room.  The room was replete with candles, an incensy fragrance, free cups of tea home-brewed from roses and hibiscus, a single-stem flower handed to each patron, all very reminiscent of the hippie era.  The slender woman whose storefront it is and who was the evening’s host,  managed a quintessential flower child appearance, her hair long and unstyled, wearing a long dress with a slightly plunged neckline.  After we left I told Ruth how struck I was with the fragility of these young people.  Their nervousness was apparent. The women’s poetry, in particular, pointed to dark experiences; one of them clearly recovering from substance abuse, the other, gender-ambiguous and pointing to incidents in a subcultural love life.  The men, too, I know to have wrestled with darker angels.  

In their identification with lower-caste hippies,  they’re oddly and arguably morally ahead of the rest of our caste, who now must learn to confess and carry our damage, not leave it to the lot of a few fragile hippie exceptions.  To be lower caste, then, not as exception but obligation,  simply, naturally, responding to the soul’s way of addressing oneself as chosen that makes obligation feel like an honor. This obedience to the wounded soul’s wholeness is how a person may participate in bringing this very sick and dying world back to life, by no longer suppressing that soul life in herself.


Now, as Orin and I face the end of our Cafe, that for 21 years has been the  fullest local expression of our downward and inclusive identification – I struggle to find meaning in what has every appearance of failure:  the debt that will not be paid off by the pending sale faces me with an accusation coming from some higher-caste voice – this was all a mistake.  Your life a mistake. How could it not be when we look at the hole we’ve dug ourselves into financially, that will take many months, maybe years to dig  out from? Who says money isn’t more important than poetry? – we blew that balancing act big-time.

Am I just feeling terrified instead of feeling the grief of losing our Cafe, just as, in childhood, unable to grasp what had happened to leave me traumatized, my creative unconscious manufactured obsessions to get me through, turning my imagination against me into my personal plantation overseer?  

Short of completely turning on myself, then,  as if lower caste identity is reason for denunciation, I must understand this failure differently. I take a clue from Eddie Glaude’s emphasis on James Baldwin’s use of the elsewheres he found in Paris, Istanbul, etc., that gave him space to recover from America and  to still be in/of it. Providing a space wherein people will connect, befriend, converse, be themselves  – in a caste-based social structure that alienates people from one another – is part of revolutionary process; as suchour coffeeshop cannot have failed. Just as the Wobbly anarchists weren’t able to bring about the One Big Union, or the civil rights activists of the 1960’s didn’t prevent the assassinations, or the new Jim Crow, the meaning lies in the spirit not in the outcome.

Based on where my writing is taking me these days,  the truth must be that the aloneness and vulnerability I feel so acutely today is precisely the spiritual emptiness and lack of breathing space that is our context in America, against which our coffeeshop asserted itself as an “elsewhere” in the first place.  Without the this-world reassurance the Cafe gave me that there’s an alternative reality to America’s existential isolation, I will still have to defend outlier, lower caste reality as where white people must enter to know the truth of our need for each other.  Art-making-as-constant-prayer is the elsewhere that can make the terrible realization bearable, lead us to the sad joy of adulthood, the long-awaited change in white people that could give relief to so many.

Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious. She can be reached at: