Last summer, I was excited to learn of a new book by Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. I had launched into a focus on unlearning and relearning — specifically in regards to racism, anti-racism, and the history of treatment of black people in America — and this book promised profound insights. Ultimately, I bought this book twice, first as an audiobook, then a hardcover copy from Book of the Month. Caste did not disappoint, and I can wholeheartedly say that it’s a book all of us should read.
At its core, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents dives into the history and continued presence of caste among people, with particular attention on three key societies: India, Germany, and the United States. Isabel Wilkerson offers a deep dive into where caste comes from and how it’s implemented. Why have people divided populations up to create strict hierarchies? How is such a thing achieved and instilled in all members of that society? How is caste enforced in all areas of life, generation after generation?
And indeed, this isn’t just about our painful pasts. With the exception of Germany, whose caste system primarily existed within the years of Hitler, both India and American have maintained caste structures for hundreds of years. How has caste survived so long, despite the horrors it inflicts on so many? In what ways is caste still visible today?
After looking backwards and at our present, Isabel Wilkerson ends with a glimmer of hope: how we can all awaken and tear down caste, brick by brick.
I won’t lie: Caste is a difficult book, one that requires all of your attention and an open mind. But it’s also a book that is worth every second of your time. Every person who reads it will come away from it better informed and more empathetic.
From the very first pages, Wilkerson provides powerful observations, connections, and truth bombs. In the introduction, she describes a photo from Nazi Germany, in which a full crowd is cheering on their leader, Hitler. But one single person in the photograph is not cheering; he’s the only one present who saw how problematic and dangerous Hitler was, long before his supporters ever did. We all like to think that, had we been in Germany during the 1930s, we would also have seen the evil for what it was. The sad truth, though, is that most of us would not. Most of us would have been among the Nazis, supporting our country’s leader. One need only look at Trump supporters today to see the obvious parallels.
Wilkerson makes other analogies early on, such as the idea that hate hasn’t died; it’s just been hidden, waiting for its chance to reemerge, just like the anthrax in the permafrost of Siberia. Or consider how America is like an old house: We didn’t build this ancient house, and it’s not our fault it has all these issues. But it is our responsibility to fix it up now and provide regular upkeep going forward. White people today aren’t responsible for our ancestors who owned slaves, but we are responsible for making sure black people — and all marginalized communities — are treated equitably, with respect, with compassion. We can and must amend the mistakes of our past.
In America, our caste system puts white people (specifically, white men) at the top. At the bottom of our caste system is black people (especially black women). This caste structure was put into place hundreds of years ago, and despite finally abolishing slavery in 1865 and later giving African Americans the right to vote, black people remain in this lowest caste to this day. They continue to face racism, harsher economic realities, and limited opportunities.
Our caste system, which is based on racism, parallels the caste system in India. However, in India, it’s not so much about how light or dark one’s skin is. Rather, depending on one’s family name and where they were born, one can determine where in the hierarchy they belong. Their caste positions are considered to be divined by the gods, and they’re still strictly enforced. The Dalits of India are at the bottom of their caste rung, just as black people are in the US.
Germany is unique in that it built up a caste system fairly quickly, inflicted suffering and death on millions of people over about a decade, and then was defeated. In Nazi Germany, Jewish people were the primary target, treated similarly to how black people had been and continued to be treated in America. Particularly shocking and eye-opening for me was a chapter in part two that reveled how early Nazis explicitly built their caste framework on that of the United States. They saw how Americans dehumanized black people, and lifted our exact processes to implement against Jews and other groups they deemed inferior. That Nazism was inspired by and modeled off of America’s inhumane treatment of black people is further proof of just how bad America is. But it gets worse: There were some things that America has done to our black citizens that the Nazis actually deemed too cruel, too evil, to implement. Yes, we’re worse than Nazis. That is shameful.
Isabel Wilkerson describes eight pillars of caste, including ideas of heritability, purity versus pollution, and using dehumanization and stigma to enforce it. These sections are among the most important of the book, because they really identify why and how caste has been instilled within our society, why and how it continues to control our lives. Many of these pillars are hard to read about; it’s painful to see how thoroughly cruel and sadistic humans can be, how people can suffer such physical and psychological abuse for years, lifetimes, generations.
Don’t forget, though, that caste is something humans arbitrarily came up with. No group of people is inherently better or worse than any other group of people. Consider how easily a teacher was able to turn blue-eyed kids against brown-eyed kids, and vice versa. Apply that to race, or any other unchangeable attribute, and we see how unfair and untrue these caste ideas are. Caste frequently miscasts people. In India, a man can have a slim build, yet he’s in the warrior class based on birth; how is that right? In America, a white person is often seen as more intelligent than any person of color, but we know that’s not how intelligence is divided. There are plenty of black scientists, for example, who are smarter than most any white person. Just because one is a man doesn’t mean he’ll be a good leader; plenty of women are much better leaders. Caste is not accurate in the attributes or values it assigns people. And these miscastings harm all of us, even those at the top of the hierarchy.
Sadly, caste hierarchies interrupt every layer of our existance, intruding on our daily lives. Isabel Wilkerson shares several examples, ending with ones that have gone viral, and even with ones that tragically ended in death. Consider Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy killed for playing with a toy gun. Consider the many viral videos of white people surveilling and accosting people of color trying to walk their dog, eat in the park, or simply go home. It’s constant, it happens everywhere, and it costs people their lives.
As evil as caste is, the dominant castes are often gleeful in their horrible actions. They don’t recognize the evil of their thoughts and actions; for them, that’s just the way things are. They’re not inherently bad people, but they’ve been propagandized and mobilized to support the bad. We need to unlearn and relearn, individually and as a society.
Those are just some of the examples and themes that Isabel Wilkerson dives into in Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. As I’ve alluded to already, this book features many diverse metaphors, illustrative stories, personal anecdotes, and bits of history. You’ll need mental agility and ready attention, because this jumps a lot: Examples range from American slavery to WWI soldiers to modern-day politics to the Nazis to India’s own hierarchies. You’ll see famous figures and ordinary people alike. Further, the themes and anecdotes can gets quite heavy. You’ll learn about violence and murders, psychological abuse and day-to-day micro-aggressions. But Caste is also highly important to read, because it’s so informative and illuminating. You will grow as a person by reading this book.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is a dense, highly researched, and compelling book. If you’re like me, you may find it easiest to absorb in small chunks over a few weeks; you may want to take notes and reflect on what you’re reading, too. And it will all be worth it, because this is one of the most wide-ranging and enlightening books I’ve read. It will inspire radical compassion and even an awakening (see the end of the book), and hopefully, will lead to more of us working to break down caste and lift everyone up.
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