Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
I first came across this book on Oprah’s Instagram account back in August of 2020. She posted a video choosing Caste as her Book Club pick for August of last year and I knew instantly that I had to add it to my reading list. Isabel Wilkerson, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her reporting work while working at the NY Times, also wrote an incredible book titled, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. I have that book on my shelf and I’ve been told by numerous people how incredible it is! I need to pick it up one of these days, which I most certainly will do. Also, just to add, her most recent book, Caste was EVERYWHERE once it was released in August of last year. Everyone and their mother was reading it, or posting about it on every platform there ever was.
I won the audiobook for Caste on Instagram from the accounts @downtogetthefictionon & @momandmadread last Christmas which was extremely exciting - that spurred me on to finally listen to this book, and boy am I glad that I did! Read on to learn what Caste is all about and my review & song pick for this gigantic and strikingly, intriguing read.
About Caste: The Origins of our Discontents:
Caste is a nonfiction book that examines the unspoken caste system that has shaped America and shows how our lives today are still defined by a hierarchy of human divisions.
In this brilliant book, Isabel Wilkerson gives us a masterful portrait of an unseen phenomenon in America as she explores, through an immersive, deeply researched narrative and stories about real people, how America today and throughout its history has been shaped by a hidden caste system, a rigid hierarchy of human rankings.
Beyond race, class, or other factors, there is a powerful caste system that influences people’s lives and behavior and the nation’s fate. Linking the caste systems of America, India, and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson explores eight pillars that underlie caste systems across civilizations, including divine will, bloodlines, dehumanization and more. Beyond this, she points forward to ways America can move beyond the artificial and destructive separations of human divisions, toward hope in our common humanity.
-See her website here for the full description of what this book is about and to learn more about Isabel Wilkerson.
-Source for synopsis: Goodreads
Where do I begin!? This book was sheer brilliance.
It took me about 3 months to fully listen to this audiobook. I remember I started listening to it in December of 2020 and didn’t finish till March of 2021. It’s one of those books that you will want to take your time with. I have to firstly say that I absolutely LOVED the audiobook. The narrator was really fantastic. It’s a brilliant book to listen to and I don’t say that often about audiobooks because I’m very much a reader rather than a listener. I highly recommend the audiobook. Having said that, I will also be purchasing my own physical copy of this book because I know that I will want to re-read some chapters of this amazing book.
What is caste? I often thought how interesting it was that she used the word caste, and not the word race, or class.
Isabel Wilkerson, who specializes in narrative non-fiction, said that The Warmth of Other Suns - where she writes about the 6 million people who left the Jim Crow South, “is what led her to this book” Caste. She “realized that racism wasn't what had led these millions of people to migrate to the north, it was much deeper than that”. She began to use the word caste, in The Warmth of Other Suns in which eventually “led her to this book”.
What is Caste?
“Caste holds everyone in a fixed place.”
“An artificial hierarchy that grades the ranking of human value in a society. It’s what determines one’s standing, respect, access to resources, assumptions of intelligence, beauty and competence.”
Here are a few quotes that stood out to me that explain what caste is and the difference between Race & Caste. Wilkerson says,
"Caste focuses in on the infrastructure of our divisions and the rankings, whereas race is the metric that's used to determine one's place in that."
“..Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin.”
“is about respect, authority and assumptions of competence — who is accorded these and who is not.”
“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.”
"is the term that is more precise [than race]; it is more comprehensive, and it gets at the underlying infrastructure that often we cannot see..”
“..the natural order of things.”
What she says about caste, race & class is that -
“Caste is the bones, Race is the skin, & Class is the education, the accents, the clothes, the diction, and things that allow us to move up - things that we can control..”
This was an absolutely brilliant book. It was incredibly and thoroughly researched which I honestly was completely in awe of how well she had put it all together. Yes, it definitely covers a lot of subject areas, and yes, it is in a way, a ‘heavy’ non fiction read. But what I liked most about it was how accessible it was. How easy it was to understand everything that she covered within this book and her immense research. I learned so much while reading this book and that to me is what made it an incredible book.
In this book she delves into a plethora of subject areas.
Wilkerson notes that caste has been around for thousands of years. She delves right into the beginning of what caste is. She explores what race is, where it comes from, what the default race is, I also found it quite fascinating learning about where the term Caucasian comes from. Throughout the entire book, she continues to define what caste means and I honestly found it to be so insightful and necessary, which in turn made the book very accessible for anyone to be able to understand and take in what she covers and explores in this read.
In this book she explores the origins of caste in the American system, and the hierarchy that began in the United States with the Jim Crow era and how we still live under the shadow of that to this day.
In Caste, one of my favorite features in this book is when Wilkerson brings in a global approach and compares other caste systems in this book: the Dalits - the Hindu castes in India, and the Jewish people in Nazi Germany. In this, she explores the ways in which the Dalits, Jews, and black Americans are all placed under this caste umbrella as the subordinate caste. I will note that her focus stays mostly on the American system in this book, but I really loved how she explored how caste systems have affected these other global groups of people in history. She asks; What are the similarities? What are some of the behaviors between the dominant and subordinate castes? What were the after effects of these caste systems?
When you think of the word caste, your mind automatically goes to India, well, mine does anyways! So I loved that she got into the history of the caste system in India, and explained the dominant and subordinate caste and where the origins of that began. An absolutely fascinating chapter that this was! The similarities between Dalits and black/African-Americans are crazily uncanny. I learned so much about why structures are the way that they are today in the United States, and in India. This in turn, led her to research how the Nazi Regime began. One thing that I learned during this book is that the Germans, during this time, were actually studying the Americans during the Jim Crow era, and tried to emulate these systems into their regime and into what eventually became the Nuremberg Laws. An absolutely fascinating chapter!
After understanding the caste system in Germany, Wilkerson looked into how Germany handled the aftermath of the Nazi Regime, and how the country dealt with this unspeakable horror in comparison to the Americans and how we have dealt with the horrors of the Jim Crow era. For example, now, in Germany, “displaying the swastika is a crime punishable for up to three years.” But in the US, the rebel flag or confederate flag is basically displayed everywhere, or in numerous places across the states, on car bumper stickers, etc. Freely and unashamedly. The comparisons are staggering.
I will say that this was not an easy book to listen to emotionally. It was upsetting, and it made me feel tired. Tired to be a person of color in a western country. Wilkerson did not shy away from the brutal realities of what happened in history. As hard as it was to hear some of the stories she told in this book from the Dalits, Nazi Jewish experience, and African American Jim Crow era, and even today’s current racism, I felt that this was necessary for this book. This is why it took me so long to read it, I had to take breaks from reading or listening to some of the heavier chapters that were in this book. So brace yourself once you reach these chapters.
One of my other favorite sections in this book was when she described how white immigrants first arrived in the US, and where they fell in the rankings of caste. Absolutely amazing chapter. I've never thought about this aspect of caste systems at all. Even though white immigrants migrated here and were not from this land, they automatically were put in the dominant ‘white’ caste, even though they were immigrants. Simply because of their skin color.
I also loved that towards the end of the book, she looked deeply into the current US affairs for dominant and non dominant people. Some of what she researches are some of the issues that affect everyday Americans such as the flawed healthcare system, politics, gun control, education, incarceration system, happiness and the quality of life in the US, in comparison to other countries.
All in all. I will say that this book is an absolute must read. I cannot stress that enough. An absolutely brilliantly researched and told book about the US caste system, the Nazi Germany Jewish caste systems and the Dalits & Brahman Indian caste systems. You truly will come away with a new found sense of understanding why systems are the way that they are, especially in the US. You will also appreciate how different the aftermath of the Jim Crow era could have been in comparison to Germany and it’s post Nazi era. You will also leave this book feeling unsettled and disturbed, but also relieved to finally understand what caste is. It’s terribly upsetting but isn’t it better to know the truth than to live in a lie, or to live in a world where you don’t understand why things are the way they are? Think of this book like in The Matrix, do you want to take the blue or the red pill? If you chose the red pill, then read this book.
It’ll be a favorite of mine for many years to come and I cannot wait to read her much talked after book, The Warmth of Other Suns sometime soon.
Caste was a brilliant and remarkable book.
Highly recommend watching this interview between Bryan Stevenson and Isabel Wilkerson on her book “Caste’.
For the song pick, I knew immediately who I wanted the artist to be. Based from this book. I knew I wanted an artist that lived to see the Jim Crow era, I knew that I wanted a black American artist, I knew that I wanted it to be a timeless artist because I feel that this book will carry on for generations to come just like this artist did with his incredible music career. The artist that I chose for this book is Miles Davis. A true legend. Whenever I think of Miles Davis, I think of the strong emotions that live in each of his songs, his brilliance, a true and raw effortless talent. The song I chose by Miles Davis is a true classic 'Blue in Green'. I adore this song and it truly compliments this book very well. Highly recommend this entire album, 'Kind of Blue'. Brilliant album.
Genre: Non Fiction | History
Publication Date: August 4, 2020
Pages: 496 Pages
Publisher: Random House