Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Isabel Wilkerson's Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents should be required reading for all high school and college students. Although America has found itself in the throes of racial division since the nation's inception, Caste is simultaneously a timely and timeless examination of where we are as a country and how we arrived here. Over the course of her brilliant book, Wilkerson threads a thorough narrative of our nation in a heartbreaking, illuminating tapestry of American history. Caste is nothing short of a masterpiece, and I only hope that it sparks the millions of hard conversations we need to enact positive social change.
With her expertly (and exhaustively) researched book, Wilkerson examines slavery and its chilling legacy of brutality in the United States - ultimately culminating in the racial division that plagues us today. Wilkerson's central thesis is that America's racial hierarchy is simply the European incarnation of India's caste system: layers of social status arbitrarily ascribed to cross-sections of the population. Circling between histories of India, America, and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson recounts the tragic history of racism and subjugation in the United States and abroad. Whereas India's caste system is based on the belief that ancestral names and occupations reflect one's position in the social order, America's own caste system is derived from a perceived value in one's skin tone. Since 1619, American soil has been host to generations of discrimination and violence that have dehumanized both perpetrator and victim, erecting invisible barriers between America's diverse populations. Caste is one writer's valiant attempt to battle that inhumane inheritance.
In the opening chapters of Caste, Wilkerson cleverly compares America to an architectural structure plagued by preexisting damage that threatens to destroy the entire edifice: "we in the developed world are like homeowners who inherited a house on a piece of land that is beautiful on the outside, but whose soil is unstable loam and rock, heaving and contracting over generations, cracks patched but the deeper ruptures waved away for decades, centuries even." With her sophisticated, insightful prose, Wilkerson discusses how racism is not a simple choice of the individual; rather, racism is a societal structure that conditions us to view each other with suspicion and disgust based on a few insignificant strands of DNA. Not to to minimize the gravity of Wilkerson's book, but it does share a thematic helix with Avenue Q's "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" - "Look around and you will find, / No one's really color-blind." The first step towards battling racism is to recognize that we all harbor (consciously or subconsciously) racist beliefs and ideas that have been inculcated through multitudinous signs, symbols, and signifiers broadcast into our brains via millions of interactions and observations. Like it or not, society has programmed us with faulty, manipulative code; it's our job to seek out the biased bugs in the script and combat them with wisdom and self-awareness. Unfortunately, as Wilkerson reminds us, it's a lifelong battle: "America is an old house," she writes. "We can never declare the work over."
In many ways, Caste is a "hard" book to read: the detailed descriptions of cruelty and violence (including in-depth discussion of lynchings, beatings, rape, and abuse) are horrifying. Likewise, the emotional challenge of facing one's own preexisting prejudices can be psychologically taxing. However, it's only through a clinical self-evaluation of our reflections that we can begin the acts of attrition that will lead us towards humility and healing. The first step to repairing the damage is to investigate its origins, and Wilkerson thoughtfully quotes Albert Einstein on the subject of racism: "If the majority knew the root of this evil, then the road to its cure would not be long." Sadly, as long as people fail to learn about the roots of racism, it will only prolong the path towards equality.
As Wilkerson states in the book's epilogue, "We are responsible for our own ignorance or, with time and openhearted enlightenment, our own wisdom." Despite the fact that society has brainwashed us and shaped us like unwilling clay, we can educate ourselves (with help from brilliant minds like Isabel Wilkerson) and assert our own agency. We have a duty to combat these programmed prejudices, in order to improve the world for subsequent generations. However, the author also reminds us that "unless people are willing to transcend their fears, endure discomfort and derision, suffer the scorn of loved ones and neighbors and co-workers and friends, fall into disfavor of perhaps everyone they know, face exclusion and even banishment, it would be numerically impossible, humanly impossible" to stand up against injustice. It's high time for us to do the hard work of improving the world. We should count ourselves lucky that we have Isabel Wilkerson to inspire us with her words.
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Mild-mannered librarian by day… and a mild-mannered rock & roller by night.