Isabel Wilkerson Captivates Sold-Out Crowd at Queens University’s Learning Society Event
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson recently visited Queens University of Charlotte to discuss her latest book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” Wilkerson offered a profound and insightful exploration of the unspoken caste system, calling it an “invisible scaffold” that has shaped America and continues to affect our lives today.
For 35 years, the Learning Society of Queens has brought notable experts, like Wilkerson, to Queens and the broader Charlotte community to provide new perspectives, inspiration, and transformative leadership that extends the reach of a liberal arts education far beyond the classroom.
“Education is a powerful tool in dismantling the artificial barriers that divide us,” said Queens University President Dan Lugo. “My hope is that by gathering tonight and learning together, we can be catalysts for continued conversations and increased participation in dismantling these barriers. In the spirit of Isabel Wilkerson’s work, we can listen to understand rather than defend, and recommit ourselves to empathy and unity.”
Wilkerson began her talk by tracing the history of caste in America, from its roots in slavery and Jim Crow to its modern-day manifestations in areas such as health care, education, and the criminal justice system. She discussed the pillars of caste and explained its rigid hierarchy of social groups based on birth that are often difficult to escape.
“When I do this kind of work, I think first and foremost about the people in my family lineage whose faces I will never see, and whose names I can never know, those who had the fortitude to survive the Middle Passage,” said Wilkerson. “Everything I do is propelled by the thought of these people who suffered unimaginably and how their suffering means something, and that’s what my work is all about.”
Examining the ways in which caste has shaped the American experience, Wilkerson explained how caste is a fundamental problem in American society that has prevented us from fully realizing the ideals of equality and opportunity.
Wilkerson emphasized the importance of working together and recited the theory of the butterfly effect in which one small change, like the flutter of a butterfly wing, can have tremendous impacts across the globe. She urged the audience to familiarize themselves with the stories of our past, to recognize patterns of injustice and inequality, so that we can identify them and create an environment where everyone, regardless of caste, has the opportunity to thrive.
“Our country is facing real challenges, and we shouldn’t waste our time or energy on false divisions,” said Wilkerson. “This is why I advocate that we recognize what divides us so that we can overcome that which divides us.”
Wilkerson’s talk was met with a standing ovation. Audience members were deeply moved by her insights and her powerful call to action.
“Hearing Ms. Wilkerson’s words about ancestral recognition of those who came and suffered before us was extremely powerful,” said Ryan Byrd ‘24, president of the Black Student Union. “It reinforced my mission of honoring those who sacrificed their lives so that I can stand where I am today and be empowered to make changes in my community.”
Matthew Brown ’24, a nursing major, commented, “As someone who will be working in health care, it was fascinating to hear Ms. Wilkerson use the analogy of America being a patient with a preexisting condition. As a society, we cannot ignore the symptoms of the caste system and we must work together to address the lasting effects of this malady.”
The Learning Society will continue its mission of bringing leading thinkers and doers to Charlotte by welcoming National Geographic writer and renowned explorer Dan Buettner on Feb. 27, 2024. The award-winning journalist will be the guest speaker at “An Evening with Dan Buettner: Unlocking the Secrets of Happiness” where he will discuss his findings in exploring the five places in the world where people live the longest, healthiest lives– dubbed “Blue Zone hotspots. For more information, visit the Learning Society webpage.