I saw a great political advertisement last week from Curtis Johnson, who is running for school board in Roseville. Mr. Johnson stands in front of famous time travel machines from the movies (TARDIS from “Dr. Who” and the DeLorean with flux capacitor from “Back to the Future”) and suggests that rather than being worried about making a small change in the past that has a big effect on the world as we know it, we should take that small step today that will have a big effect on the world for coming generations.
Mr. Johnson suggests that voting is that step that everyone can take to change the world, and he asks the viewer for their vote. As a reader of science fiction, I am very familiar with the genre of alternate history. This type of fiction operates on a premise of changing a few historical facts and then imagining what the world would be like.
For example, there are dozens of books visualizing the world if Germany and Japan had won WWII. And I’ve read several books detailing a world where religious extremists take over the government and set the rules for everyone. Both premises offer scary visions of reduced civil and human rights for those living under fascist regimes.
But I hadn’t given much thought to the alternative. What if an action I took today had the affect of critical change to a better future?
Looking through the eyes of history, what have I done or what could I do that will change the world? Perhaps that’s too big of an idea. After all I’m not Marie Currie or Susan B. Anthony. I don’t have political power. I’m not an influencer on social media. I’m not rich. I don’t teach or research new things. So I started to think about the alternative here and now I would like to be living in.
What would our country look like now if it hadn’t been built on a foundation of colonialism (land and resources from Indigenous people) and slavery (forced labor from enslaved people)? Would we have people of all colors, genders, creeds and cultures in representative numbers in government, schools, neighborhoods and economic classes? Would we have similar birth rates and lifespans for people of all colors? And more personally, would my own life become more inclusive of those with different backgrounds from my own?
I recently read a book titled “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent” by Isabel Wilkerson. The book discusses a hidden caste system in America that is not just about race or class, but about the need for a bottom rung or lower caste of people which those in the middle can measure themselves against. Ms. Wilkerson discusses the costs of such a system, and how it affects our culture and politics.
One of the metaphors she uses throughout the book rang true for me. She describes America as an old house that we all have inherited. It is beautiful on the outside with shiny windows and painted facades, but if you go to the basement, you will find the beams are crooked and that there are cracks in the foundation. If you go behind the walls, you might find dry rot in some of the wood structure or old electrical wiring that could be dangerous and cause a fire.
Like it or not, our old house was built in no small measure on the foundation of slavery and colonization. The labor and resources of a lower caste of people helped generate the wealth and influence of upper caste people. Her argument is that while its true none of us here today built the house, we all live in it, and we all have the responsibility to repair it.
So here’s the tricky part, what do we do to repair our old house? We have to build a better foundation of equality; equality in education, opportunity, housing, access to wealth building, employment and safety. We who have been lucky enough to have been born with physical traits associated with the upper caste in our society have to educate ourselves and practice what Ms. Wilkerson calls radical empathy, “the kindred connection from a place of deep knowing that opens your spirit to the pain of another as they perceive it. The price of privilege is the moral duty to act when one sees another person treated unfairly.”
“In a world without caste,” Ms. Wilkerson writes, “being male or female, light or dark, immigrant or native-born, would have no bearing on what anyone was perceived as being capable of. In a world without caste, we would all be invested in the well-being of others in our species if only for our own survival, and recognize that we are in need of one another more than we have been led to believe.”
I was taught in grade school that America was the land of opportunity, that each of us can go as far as our talents and hard work can take us, that we can imagine and implement our own future. I loved that image of America. It’s been painful to understand how this image isn’t reality for many groups of people. As we contemplate how to be one of those people who takes action today to build an alternate history for the future, let’s think about what we can do in our everyday activities by way of home improvement.