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Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste” And The Power of Cognitions

Isabel Wilkerson’s ‘Caste' teaches how beliefs determine emotions and behaviors.

Every Spring I teach "Cognitive-Behavior Therapy" to college undergraduates who are mostly intending to become psychologists, clinical social workers or teachers. I am always on the lookout for metaphors, analogies, images and stories, relevant to their lives in these times, that might help them better understand the power and range of the cognitive model as way of understanding and a tool for changing emotions and behaviors.

Stories in-particular are often more useful than straightforward explanations as we seem to be wired to powerfully respond to and learn from stories. A side benefit: these stories can be helpful to neuro-developmentally atypical patients, and their parents, in my independent practice as well (see the last section of this blog post for details).

The Cognitive Model

The foundation of cognitive-behavioral therapy is the cognitive model: (a) our beliefs and assumptions about ourselves, others and the world at least somewhat and often largely determine our emotions and behaviors in general and (b) biased and dysfunctional beliefs and assumptions almost always at least somewhat and often largely determine the kinds of problematic emotions and maladaptive behaviors that prompt people to come to therapy (or to bring their child to therapy) in particular.

A Powerful and Memorable Story

I have recently been reading and thinking about Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson and am struck by one of her real life, all-too real-world stories.

Ms. Wilkerson, the first black woman in the history of American journalism to win the Pulitzer Prize and the first African American to win for individual reporting, writes about a time, relatively early in her career, when she was working at the Chicago Bureau of the New York Times and doing in-person interviews for an article about New York retailers opening stores on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. Everyone, she notes, “. . . was thrilled to describe their foray into Chicago and to sit down with the Times.”

Until, that is, her last interview. When the store manager arrived at his boutique, in a rush, he brushed past her, stating they would have to talk another time, as he was late for an important appointment. Ms. Wilkerson writes:

“I think I’m your appointment,” I said.

“No, this is a very important appointment with The New York Times,” he said, pulling off his coat. “I can’t talk with you now. I’ll have to talk with you some other time.”

“But I am with the New York Times,” I told him, pen and notebook in hand. “I talked with you on the phone. I’m the one who made the appointment with you for four-thirty.”

Ms. Wilkerson then relates an extended back-and-forth, she repeatedly trying to convince the manager she was his New York Times interviewer, he remaining skeptical and eventually dismissing her saying “She must be running late. I’m going to have to ask you to leave so I can get ready for my appointment.”

Ms. Wilkerson continues:

“I left and walked back to the Times Bureau, dazed and incensed, trying to figure out what had just happened. This is the first time I had ever been accused of impersonating myself. His caste notions of who should be doing what in society had so blinded him that he dismissed the idea that the reporter he was anxiously awaiting, excited to talk to, was standing right in front of him. It seemed not to occur to him that a New York Times national correspondent could come in a container such as mine, despite every indication I was she.”

Wilkerson’s Story and the Cognitive Model

Cognitive therapist Judith Beck (2020) writes that when core beliefs are activated, “ . . . clients readily recognize data that seem to support their core beliefs, while discounting data to the contrary or failing to process data as relevant to the belief in the first place.”

Ms. Wilkerson’s timely and heart-wrenching story powerfully and memorably illustrates this process in a real life interaction: the store manager’s “cast notions” and the “container” in which he placed her prevented him from seeing her clearly (or at all) and caused him to dismiss her and lose a golden opportunity to publicize his store.

According to Beck our most basic or ‘core’ beliefs about ourselves, others and the world are (1) primarily learned (2) in our day-to-day childhood experiences and interactions (3) outside of our awareness and deliberation about their truth or falsehood (4) quite rigid (5) can ‘feel’ as if they are true even when mostly or entirely untrue (5) we can become more aware of them, super-cede them at times with other more accurate and adaptive beliefs, or even revise or replace them (6) this kind of belief modification is very hard to do.

Ms. Wilkerson, elsewhere in her book, also describes the origins, pervasiveness, automaticity, unconsciousness and power of our beliefs about others – her focus being on beliefs signaled by and organized around class and race:

“As a means of assigning value to entire swaths of humankind, caste guides each of us often beyond the reaches or our awareness. It embeds in our bones an unconscious ranking of human characteristics and sets forth rules, expectations, and stereotypes that have been used to justify brutalities against entire groups within our species.”

“If we have been trained to see humans in the language of race, then caste is the underlying grammar that we encode as children, as when learning our mother tongue. Caste, like grammar, becomes an invisible guide not only to how we speak, but to how we process information, the autonomic calculations that figure into a sentence without our having to think about it.”

“What people look like, or, rather, the race they have been assigned or are perceived to belong to, is he visible cue to their caste. It is the historic flash card to the public of how they are to be treated, where they are expected to live, what kinds of positions they are expected to hold . . . whether they will be administered pain relief in a hospital . . . whether they are more or less likely to survive childbirth . . whether they may be shot by authorities with impunity.”

‘Guides each of us beyond the reaches of our awareness’ ‘embeds in our bones’ ‘underlying grammar we encode as children’ ‘an invisible guide’ ‘the historic flash card’ - Ms. Wilkerson uses powerful and memorable images, analogies and metaphors that, from this cognitive therapist's perspective, illustrate the formation and unconsciousness of cognitions.

‘Where they are expected to live’ ‘what kinds of positions they are expected to hold’ ‘whether they are more or less likely to survive childbirth’ ‘whether they may be shot by authorities with impunity’ -- Ms. Wilkerson uses heart wrenching facts about our unequal society that, from this cognitive therapist's perspective, illustrate the power of cognitions to influence behaviors.

Wilkerson’s Story and Neuro-Developmentally Atypical Children

I think Ms. Wilkerson’s description of her reaction – “dazed and incensed” - to not being seen for who she was also powerfully illustrates the ways our ‘’notions” about others and the “containers” we construct for them can trigger anger and dismay.

Ms. Wilkerson was, and is, a hugely accomplished person, with a long history of successes and achievements, a person who is unlikely to lose her basic sense of competency and worthiness in response to one such awful experience. But what about those without such a history?

What about a neuro-developmentally atypical child? What happens when this child is placed, by family or teachers or peers, in a container labeled lazy, incompetent, demanding, or hopeless; a container largely determined by their struggles to perform well in school and our inabilities to see and take-into-account their neuro-developmental delays and abnormalities; rather than a container that includes and even emphasizes their strengths, talents, interests, efforts and successes?

Perhaps that child becomes “dazed and incensed” (or depressed, or anxious and avoidant). Perhaps a neuro-developmentally atypical child who, unlike Ms. Wilkerson, likely does not have a history of achievement and success and a strong sense of self-efficacy and worth to use as a buffer against such blows, may continue to be “dazed and incensed” long after a particular episode or interaction is over OR come to believe at a deep level - at the level of core beliefs about self -that the container and label fit them well.

I think Ms. Wilkerson’s story can help challenge us to think about our notions of neuro-developmentally atypical children, the containers in which we put them, as well as the notions they develop and the containers in which they put themselves.

We can strive to make these notions and containers, our own and theirs, more individualized, accurate and multifaceted. We can strive to include their strengths, talents, and possibilities. We can learn to write and tell stories that help us see and understand these children in new ways and make a positive difference in their world.


Beck, Judith S. (2020). Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Basics and Beyond (3rd Edition). New York: The Guilford Press.

Wilkerson, Isabel (2020). Caste: The Origins Of Our Discontents. New York: Random House.

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