Caste by Isabel Wilkerson (2020)

Says Wilkerson on page 17, “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 on the bases of ancestry and often immutable traits…” and this system predates race, a concept only 500-ish years old as compared to caste which goes back millennia, thousands of years older than the concept of race. She goes on to say the human impulse to create hierarchies runs across societies and cultures…making it farther reaching, deeper, and older than raw racism of the comparatively new division of humans by skin color” (67).

Yet, in America, it’s hard to separate the two as both caste and racism rely on structure, power, status, honor, etc. After acknowledging how interwoven these constructs are in America, she tries to explain: “Any action or institution that mocks, harms, assumes, or attaches inferiority or stereotype on the basis of the social construct of race can be considered racism. Any action or structure that seeks to limit, hold back, or put someone in a defined ranking, seeks to keep someone in their place by elevating or denigrating that person on the basis of their perceived category, can be seen as casteism” (70). As the book goes on, at times I felt more clear on the differences, and at times I felt less clear because both rely on maintaining power for some while keeping (or taking) it away from others. Still, it’s an interesting concept to apply to the US because we associate caste with places like India, but as Wilkerson breaks it down, it plays out similarly in our country (she also goes on to distinguish caste from class)

I did not get to the end of the book (almost 400 pages of dense reading), but I feel like I understand her argument, which she infuses with historical examples and personal narrative. As in her previous book The Warmth of Other Suns, her depth and breadth of research is astounding, making me feel a tad guilty for not getting to the end. I may yet return to the last 1/3 of the book, but this, along with a lot of other recent reading, has made me continue to question my own beliefs and behaviors so embedded into a hierarchical system, that even when I think I’m seeing clearly, I’m probably not.

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