I've seen review after review stating Caste : The Origins of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson should be required reading for all Americans. After finishing this book, I cannot agree more. There is a lot to unpack with this one and it will make you self reflect and feel uncomfortable, but it is so so necessary. Caste will hold a mirror up to your darkest biases and will go against what you learned in grade school history class, but it is all facts compiled by Wilkerson's research and put in a format that we all need to sit down and take in. There is so much to take away with this book that I am sure I will eventually revisit specific chapters in future years.
Caste examines and peels back the layers on the unspoken caste system in the United States, which creates a human division that is so engrained in Americans, yet goes unseen. Wilkerson compares the caste system in America to that of India and the Nazi regime. She divides caste into eight pillars that uphold the caste system and breaks down the reality of this unseen system.
There is so much to unpack with this book. I feel like I could re-read it and pick up things I missed on the first round. First of all, I was shook when I read that Nazi Germany modeled some of their regime after the US Jim Crow laws. And, not just that, but they thought some of it was a bit too extreme for them to adopt. Let that sink in a bit.....Why we don't think of the millions of Black slaves who died on US soil, like we do when we think of Holocaust victims makes absolutely zero sense. The comparison between the American caste system to Nazi Germany and the India caste system may sound extreme, but when you listen to the facts Wilkerson lays out, it makes a lot of sense. And you can't argue with cold, hard facts.
Another point that Wilkerson makes is that Black folks in the United States have spent more years under slavery, than not. It is easy to think that slavery long ago, but it really wasn't. Some of our Black friends and neighbors are direct decedents of slavery and are still battling it's long lasting effects.
What I love about Wilkerson is that she is able to weave research with personal anecdotes to bring the message full circle to the reader. I appreciated Wilkerson sharing stories of racism that she has faced. I am sure that was incredibly difficult to drudge up and put into writing, but she did so to drive the message home to the reader that racism is alive and well in our country. No one is immune.
For those who think racism died years ago, read this book.
For those who think we don't have a race problem, read this book.
For those who think Black people are treated equally to white people in America, read this book.
Bottom line, read this book and sit with it. Then go tell someone else to read it.
I listened to the audio and highly recommend it. Caste is narrated by Robin Miles, who also narrated Wilkerson's book, The Warmth of Other Suns. (Another book I highly recommend you read.) Her voice is as smooth as honey and I would listen to any book she narrates. Wilkerson is a gifted researcher and her books are true works of art that should be added to all high school and college curriculum. Both Caste and The Warmth of Other Suns are books that I plan on having my children read. This history is not taught in our schools, but should be.
Favorite Quotes (and believe me, there were many):
“A caste system is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups.”
“The price of privilege is the moral duty to act when one sees another person treated unfairly. And the least that a person in the dominant caste can do is not make the pain any worse.”
“In our era, it is not enough to be tolerant. You tolerate mosquitoes in the summer, a rattle in an engine, the gray slush that collects at the crosswalk in winter. You tolerate what you would rather not have to deal with and wish would go away. It is no honor to be tolerated. Every spiritual tradition says love your neighbor as yourself, not tolerate them.”
“Radical empathy, on the other hand, means putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another's experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel. Radical empathy is not about you and what you think you would do in a situation you have never been in and perhaps never will. It is the kindred connection from a place of deep knowing that opens your spirit to the pain of another as they perceive it.
Empathy is no substitute for the experience itself. We don't get to tell a person with a broken leg or a bullet wound that they are not in pain. And people who have hit the caste lottery are not in a position to tell a person who has suffered under the tyranny of caste what is offensive or hurtful or demeaning to those at the bottom. The price of privilege is the moral duty to act when one sees another person treated unfairly. And the least that a person in the dominant caste can do is not make the pain any worse.”
Other Books by Isabel Wilkerson:
The Warmth of Other Suns (click the title link to read my full review)