With a week left in the year, I think I can safely say that Caste is the most important book I’ve read in 2020.
Before I get started with some musings on the book, I need to start with a disclaimer.
I am a white woman, or, in Wilkerson’s terms, a woman from the dominant caste. I grew up in an upper middle class family to college-educated parents, also both of the dominant caste. I went to schools in dominant caste neighborhoods, and the majority of my friends throughout my childhood were also dominant caste, purely by the nature of de facto segregation in my mid-sized midwestern city. My perspective on Caste, both as a book and as a sociological lens to view my home country, is undoubtably colored by my experiences as a member of the dominant caste by birth.
If you’re an anti-racist, you’ve probably heard of this book, among a dozen other books in a similar vein that have been published throughout the term of our current president, Donald Trump. Why, then, read this one, which isn’t even about racism?
The power in Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is in the systematic way Wilkerson consciously reframes the narrative around race in America.
Wilkerson reveals how racism is the face that caste wears, but caste itself is the “unseen skeleton” that makes up “the infrastructure of our divisions” (p. 17).
And yet, this isn’t a book for people who believe racism doesn’t exist. It isn’t Wilkerson’s, or any other marginalized person’s, job to convince dominant caste people of the problems that lie beneath the surface of our allegedly post-racial society. Rather, this book picks at the scabs of our nation and reveals the festering wound underneath that we’ve been trying to ignore for centuries.
If you’re interested in this book at all, I’m sure you’ve read the raving reviews already. Rather than breaking down each chunk of the book, I’m going to share just a few of the most mind-boggling things I learned from reading this book slowly over the past month.
- The breakdown of just how impactful slavery was on our country: we had slavery in this country for more years of its history than the years after its abolition; 2111 will mark the first year that African-Americans will have been free for as long as they were enslaved.
- The word Caucasian was literally an accident that was then adopted in an attempt to scientifically cement what it means to be white.
- The Nazis looked to the American South when they were determining how to blame the Jewish people for everything wrong with the country; they saw the Jim Crow South as being too harsh.
- Alabama had a law against intermarriage until the year 2000, and in that vote, 40% of the electorate voted to keep the law.
- Donald Trump, rather than being an accident or a surprise, makes perfect sense—the dominant caste needed a narcissistic leader to reassure them that their superiority is safe.
- “People of color with the most education, who compete in fields where they are not expected to be, continually press against the boundaries of caste and experience a lower life expectancy as a result” (p. 307).
- The majority of white Americans didn’t vote for Obama. Louder, for the people in the back: only 43% of white Americans voted for Obama in 2008, and 39% in 2012. Then, in 2016, only 37% of white voters chose Hillary Clinton, where 53% of white women voted for Trump and 62% of white men.
Caste is more than rank, it is a state of mind that holds everyone captive, the dominant imprisoned in an illusion of their own entitlement, the subordinate trapped in the purgatory of someone else’s definition of who they are and who they should be.Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, p. 290
Reading this book as a dominant caste person was not just eye-opening or enraging, but truly saddening as well. Caste is such a hidden part of our society that it seems nearly impossible to fight. Yet throughout the book, Wilkerson includes personal stories, those of herself and of other people she interviewed, about their experiences with caste. Then, toward the end of the book, she pulls out her vision of what it would look like to fight against caste.
We need radical empathy, she writes.
Which “means putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another’s experience from their perspective” (p. 386).
As I read this passage, I couldn’t help but think about my own dreams for my future classroom, a place where young people are exposed to all kinds of stories from all kinds of people, in the hopes that they will learn to see people who are different from themselves as just that—people. In my mind, this is where we start: by showing young people how to enact radical empathy, how to find common ground, how to listen to other people, how to look past the surface and treat others with respect and dignity.
I hope, if you’ve read to the end of this review, that you choose to pick up Caste. I hope it’s as awakening for you as it was for me.