Caste Identity and the ‘Graver Questions of the Self’ 

The question of color…operates to hide the graver questions of the self…The questions which one asks oneself begin, at last, to illuminate the world and become one’s key to the experience of others.  One can only face in others what one can face in oneself.  On this confrontation depends the measure of our wisdom and our compassion.  This energy is all that one finds in the rubble of vanished civilizations and the only hope for ours.
James Baldwin, intro to Nobody Knows My Name.

…in this survey of the general condition of their whiteness, we should notice that at all times these boys dwell in the feeling that they’ve got options, avenues, routes out…Life is elsewhere and you have a ticket for entry.  Whiteness knows this and it doesn’t know it knows this.  That is the magic act.
Jonathan Lethem, Brooklyn Crime Novel

These days it’s not clear to me that anybody cares much about self-examination. Touted by the many, perhaps always practiced by the  few, self-knowledge has long been considered essential to the process of becoming a morally whole human being. Back in the 1980’s self-examination became an almost popular activity, its availability widened by 12-step recovery groups meeting in church basements.  That it was “me-focused” can’t be denied; it’s hard to examine oneself without gazing at the navel.  But Baldwin suggests there’s important social meaning in white people taking it on, and so perhaps, giving him the benefit of the doubt,  there is! 

The times are not conducive, for sure.  I get it that people on the left are in a Trump-panic, a panic with layers to it, of climate change/uncertainty and post-pandemic trauma, real threats of social and economic collapse, etc.  Whether one is consciously panicking or pretending not to reduces a person’s energy for contemplation. Maybe taking medications  makes more sense than plumbing the depths of ones’ experience, but what does it mean when the  ultimate goal of well-being is stress reduction, wisdom now taking second or third place, maybe?  It still seems to me people are begging the question posed to white people many years ago by James Baldwin – and before that by Socrates – which is really a question about our humanity and whether or not we are willing/able to maintain our “higher functioning” amidst existential stress and demands of living. 

What makes self-examination an attractive option in my mind despite its currently low favor is not just about removing ourselves from the wretched caste system, which was Baldwin’s concern, although it is about that.  It’s about being able to exist fully alive, with one’s full capacity for relationships intact, that which makes life livable in the face of all the world’s trauma-inducing, meaning-crushing potentialities. 

One of the problems with “going within” may be that people misconstrue self-knowledge as something highbrow – the word “knowledge” making it sound like an activity for the intellectually gifted.  Many people still don’t know that the distinction between (objective) knowledge about the world, and subjective knowledge coming from the deep personal self, is artificial, and even more, it’s convenient. It keeps people falsely believing that their own crummy experience is “just personal.” It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter.  

That “the personal is political” is a known trope; the insight brought us feminist consciousness-raising. What’s less commonplace is that “the personal,” going all the way, keeps a person on the side of her longings and ideals; in that way it makes her revolutionary on behalf of love.  Following the inward path of knowing pitches consciousness out beyond the corporate-owned media’s political spectacle, the only politics we’re offered, into a reality that has never been but must be.  Following the inwardly-guided path does not stop at equal pay for equal work, or even at a woman becoming President, but holds out, most inconveniently, for a world beginning here, locally,  in which people can recognize their need for each other, thus must be safe and provide enough for everybody. Taught interdependence as the first lesson of the soul, people will tend to keep their energy local, in relationships at hand, defending these against the forces seducing us into believing meaning lies in accruing and centralizing power and wealth at the cost of relatedness.  

Caste identity (I follow Isabelle Wilkerson, author of Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, in my use of this word, to name the system in which society is hierarchically structured) doesn’t only block out the reality of others; most crucially, it blocks out this “self” that can contemplate “graver questions,” and thus can “illuminate the world.”   For that reason, it is a barrier to joy and, equally,  for that reason caste is comfortable/comforting even to those of us who don’t want to be/don’t believe we are white supremacists.  That the lie of caste comforts is because caste identity defends my consciousness from something it does not want to know at any cost, which is my personal trauma.  A liberal mind can bear knowledge of the barbarous atrocities committed by one’s white European ancestors, albeit with a grimace, but the knowledge of intimate trauma is so unbearable it remains something those unfortunates – war veterans, victims of childhood abuse and bombings – have endured.  Until now.


Baldwin knew that keeping that subjective/objective knowledge distinction sacrosanct means we never will remove ourselves from the caste system, the “magic act” which keeps white people believing we matter more than others.  Moreover, the continued devaluation of inward exploration and communion with the creative self – a devaluation demanded in the caste system – means for many of us we remain victims of the historical trauma that is white peoples’ as much as black peoples’ (as Baldwin also knew), never to know we build our lives upon a lie.

Trauma experts now tell us that trauma, PTSD, is much more common in society than previously thought.  Very likely it’s inevitable in a society that tells its people some are of worth and some are less so or not at all.   In any case, trauma is a social concern; left hidden, it blocks self-examination, the way to healing of the self.  The hyper-vigilance of us traumatized ones keeps us corralled in the defensive mode that must have distinctions, must have winners and losers, failures and successful people, some mattering and others not mattering.  Only the deeper wisdom of the inmost heart can rise beyond and integrate these hard and fast distinctions upon which we hang our values and by which we – white people included – limit our non-material aspirations for the good.  

Knowing what we now know about trauma provides the key to something that throughout history has been kept behind a veil, property of religious officialdom guarding entrance to “the mysteries.” The religious hierarchy made the challenges of entering the wilderness of the psyche – which are very real, as the  myths show! –  seem traversible for those who will believe rightly.  The rest we need not care about; they’re the damned. The gate-keeping officials accrued power according to their ability to dispense salvation or damnation; a power which in history became valuable to the rule of might.  

The power of religious officialdom, that is, derived from a natural instinct to place trust in some entity outside oneself that exemplified the power of this mystical knowing that will grant one the sense one is cosmically seen, thus “I matter.” So relieved are the ones who get to be among the saved, that when the “unsaved” don’t know or forget their place, it’s easy to see them as blameworthy.  Under sway of unscrupulous demagogues, the “unsaved” can even be seen as aggressors, threats to the entire system that guarantees my place in the order of existence (caste), deserving of punishment and even extermination.


Dependent as it is upon the old mediated relationship to religious truth,  the “magic act” of caste is a serious disempowerment of the self, with serious social consequences.  Though registering as a Democrat probably means you’re unlikely to participate in a lynching, it won’t bring about the revolutionary change in consciousness that can shed the false skin of caste altogether. Free of religious “superstition” or not, many white people, including educated ones who’ve moved up out of the wage-slave caste,  are still captives of the lie that access to the great mysteries is in someone else’s keeping, not mine.  To free oneself from the distinctions dictated by caste one has to act on behalf of that which is trapped by the trauma carried in the  body.  Due to the economy of repression, you do not know that trauma directly, only in its symptoms – the neuroses, addictions, compulsions that keep one’s thinking in a rut, the illnesses robbing energy from oneself.  That is, one has to free that part of one’s personal history, which because repressed, is mightily mistrusted, despised and feared.  Most of us white liberals would rather die than know the trauma we carry.   

Without taking upon oneself initiation into the mysteries – the path leading through the vale of trauma – one is compelled to live within the pre-formed distinctions of caste.  The word “mysteries,” any more than the word “knowledge” ought not to discourage people from making the effort. Whether it makes us lucky or not, we live in a time when spiritual initiation is attainable to individuals outside of the Church or Mystery cults, or tribal and indigenous societies.   Following the example of prophets, poets and mystics in every age to know for themselves the deep truth of inclusive unity is available to those who will open the body’s sealed package of personal trauma.                                                                     


In the intimate  inward “place” where white supremacism, or upper caste identity, functions as a defense against trauma,  caste becomes a secret alliance between white liberals and rightwing Trumpies.   Nobody goes willingly near the trauma carried in the body which, following
Baldwin,  is there because our historical context is traumatizing for everybody, dished out differently, like social injustices,  according to location in the caste.  You might be the recipient of secret sexual abuse, like middle class white 9th grader Charlie in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a movie I watched recently, or you might have had more explicit abuse, beatings at the hands of an angry tyrannical father or alcoholic mother. 

On the other extreme, your abuse may have consisted of the lack of touching and embrace in childhood.  That is, parents who do not have energy for extending themselves in hug and embrace are as traumatized as those whose energy goes into beatings or molestation.  Giving love is neurologically rewarding, part of the biological feedback system evolved to make sure infants are sufficiently nurtured for maximum health and benefit to the collective. The inhibition of love’s expression in the manifold ways it can be expressed, is aberrant. 

As black writers point out over and over, the trauma of America’s history cannot be traumatizing for some and leave everybody else unscathed.  This truth is not something to which white people can give intellectual assent and then go about your business.  What is your trauma? How long will it take you to reach out to that rejected part of your being, face any amount of trial and tribulation in order to love it back to life?  The very neuroses and craziness white people exhibit in their automatic reflexive efforts to cover up the lie of whiteness are exhibit A – evidence of the wound. 

In the social context that devalues imagination, white people are left with a proximate self worth as it is defined/delimited for us in secular liberal reality.  Such a shaky self-worth can be assured by being good, doing good, or identifying with a group that has been elevated to all-good that – in truth –  can be no more than relatively good. This limited self-worth, dependent upon outwardly socially-defined “goods” that will ever and always be mixed (i.e, good for whom?)  leaves the core in oneself unconvinced.  Outer-derived means to self-esteem are ego-defensive; they preserve the sense of victimhood.  And this is why liberal good – not limited to “Genocide Joe” – is so damnably entwined with evil and cannot extricate itself.

Inasmuch as each white person accepts social (caste) reality as given, then not only is there denial shrouding early trauma, but – this was true in my case –  the  “inner plantation overseer” moves into place, keeping one’s path of genuine desire (freedom) equally hidden.  Thus is true individuality, the supposed sine qua non of liberal aspiration and essence of human freedom, and also the real energy of love that begins in oneself, extinguished. There’s no possibility of the “joy of individuality” – the joy of being human – when ones’ best energy goes to suppressing the truth of one’s pain.  Creatively articulated, the pain is one’s blues.  

There, in the demeaning of imagination, lies the real cost of our history, which has left us with caste as sole basis for our social ground.  Anyone who just doesn’t believe me I invite to leave your power identity – status, profession, salaried income – experience your life without it.  Live as a stripped down human being, down to the essentials (Thoreau-like?), not in the milieu that reaffirms your caste, but “downtown,” on a “meaner street,” no “options, avenues, routes out.”

That is, shed of caste, the utter human need for the safety we can grant each other can reveal itself.  To have authentic community does not and never did depend upon a religious hierarchy but upon a willingness to suspend disbelief in order to experience the “self-blessing” of imaginal reality, in the manner of the poet, artist, or the indigenously spiritual. Trauma has a purpose. For white people concerned about retention of our humanity,  the “last frontier” is sealed away behind real trauma, kept locked up by our consent to caste identity. The key to that sealed room is the creative voice.  Thanks  to all the prodigies whose work gave us our culture we’re familiar with the power of art-making to inspire secondhand.  Our gratitude to their genius is great, even worshipful, but the question that confronts a white person today is how am I to have my power direct-sourced, no longer dependent upon the arrangements of caste? 

At this time of extreme discouragement in my personal life I’m tempted to see my ideals, the star that has guided me thus far, from the inner plantation overseer’s perspective, as full of shit.  It helps when I remember the revolutionary voices of black people, the reality that the social-economic arrangements don’t work for a whole lot of people; this is not just “my” melancholy speaking.  Perhaps my strategy for taking this truth on in my one real life has not “worked,” or seems like failure to me at this moment. If I can keep from panicking, some other reality may be able to appear;  my soul, though traumatized, never ceases its wanting to connect.

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: