I’ve been meaning to read “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson for a while, and I’m glad I finally have. Having done so, I have this to say: if you read one book on your anti-racism journey, let it be this one.
The book presents a theory of everything that makes terrifying links between Nazism, the operation of the caste system in India and anti-Black racism in the USA.
If the topic sounds heavy, it’s because it is, yet Wilkerson makes it read like a novel, weaving academic study in with personal and other anecdotes that show caste at work. In doing so, she gives plausible explanations for questions such as:
Where did caste come from, and why are its effects so hard to shake?
Why does colorism exist?
Why do the police keep killing Black people?
Why do some Black people support white supremacist narratives?
Why did the 2016 election result turn out the way it did?
Why does the definition of whiteness - and who’s perceived to be white - keep changing?
In this book, Wilkerson reveals the structures that underpin and support caste systems, including the “eight pillars of caste”. These are:
Divine will and the laws of nature
Endogamy and control of marriage and mating
Purity vs. pollution
Dehumanization and stigma
Terror of enforcement, cruelty as means of control
Inherent superiority vs inherent inferiority
It doesn’t take much to see the blueprint for the operation of systemic anti-Black racism in the US, in particular, but also in other post-colonial societies. Indeed, Wilkerson shows how the desire of members of the dominant caste to hold on to their superior position can result in a backlash against any attempts to reverse what they see as the natural order. (I couldn’t help thinking of the election of the orange one as a prime example of this, and Wilkerson agrees.)
Though Wilkerson concentrates on Germany, India and the US in her book, I also found insight into the Caribbean context, and some of the backlash that happens whenever Black people there try to move out of their assigned box.
At the end, she tries to imagine a world without caste, citing the example of Germany. Interestingly, that required acknowledgement, education, and acceptance of responsibility, rather than sweeping things under the table. (Those things being absent, it’s no wonder that we’re still dealing with the fallout from the history of enslavement of Black people.)
Honestly, there’s an epiphany on virtually every page, and I know I’ll have to read the book again. I’ll pick out a few of the quotes that made me think:
"In 2022, the US will have been independent for as long as there was enslavement on US soil. In 2111, African Americans will have been free for as long as they were enslaved."
That second number really made me sad.
“It was in the making of the New World that Europeans became white, Africans black, and everyone else yellow, red, or brown. It was in the making of the New World that humans were set apart on the basis of what they looked like, identified solely in contrast to one another, and ranked to form a caste system based on a new concept called race. It was in the process of ranking that we were all cast into assigned roles to meet the needs of the larger production. None of us are ourselves.”
“White people embrace narratives about forgiveness,” wrote the essayist and author Roxane Gay after the massacre, “so they can pretend the world is a fairer place than it actually is and that racism is merely a vestige of a painful past instead of this indelible part of our present.”
What makes this book so powerful is the combination of Wilkerson’s chops as a scholar with her existence as part of the subordinate caste. In common with most Black people she understand how whiteness operates and what it means for Black people. And she also explains it from an academic viewpoint, citing early research which supports her findings, including some overlooked research by embedded Black ethnographic researchers.
While, like Wilkerson, I see the appeal of a world without caste, I don’t know when - or if - we’ll get there. In the meantime, her book is a helpful guide to the world as it operates now, and the history that got us here. I thoroughly recommend it.
If you’ve read this book, I’d love to hear your take on it.
Get Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents on Amazon.
Thanks for reading,
© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2021. All Rights Reserved.