By Anya Shukla
This book has been on my to-read list for quite some time. I started it in January, and then my hold expired, which means that there was a six-month gap between my reading of the first and second halves of “Caste.” Please take my review with a grain of salt.
This book also criticizes India. As a daughter of Indian immigrants, I'll admit that I am automatically predisposed to hate anything that attacks my homeland—even if the critique is accurate. I think it’s because I’ve spent most of my life reading Western authors who bash Indian culture and people. So when someone tries to hurt my country, I get super defensive.
Review: In “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” Isabel Wilkerson adds a novel twist to an old idea: she argues that it is the idea of caste, not race, that has perpetuated and continues to perpetuate inequities. Through the lens of three minority groups—Black people in America, Jews in Germany, and the Dalits in India—she showcases the lasting ramifications of caste systems.
It is the rare argument in “Caste” that feels underdeveloped. A deeply-researched, yet accessible read, this book helps readers understand American racial dynamics, attitudes, and even voter trends. My Rating: 4.25/5.
What I Loved: I appreciated Wilkerson’s focus on caste and not race, ethnicity, or another specific demographic trait. (She defines caste as a “fixed and rigid” [pg. 56] system that assures the supremacy of the dominant group. In contrast, race can change depending on the point in history—for example, the Irish were historically not seen as white, but racial perceptions of them have changed over time.) That choice really opens the book up and makes its lessons applicable to a wide variety of situations.
Also, Wilkerson writes in such an accessible way! Yippee! A nonfiction book that I can actually read without wanting to cry! And the depth of her research really shines through—I learned a LOT that I didn’t already know before about racism, castism, and the ways that the two intersect with one another.
Namely, I saw how racist America was (and still continues to be, in many ways). Wilkerson provides both personal and vivid historical anecdotes about the systemic discrimination in our country. While I had learned about slavery in class, I feel like my schoolwork never went into this level of detail: many slaves “subsisted on a peck of corn a week, which they had to mill by hand after their labors in the field,” (pg. 100) and that some owners “denied them even that as punishment and allowed meat for protein only once a year” (pg. 100). Slaves often faced extreme physical tortures—chains, whippings lasting as long as three hours—for small infractions. Worse, the Nazis based their caste system off of American slavery and the ideas of American-born eugenicists: “Hitler had studied America from afar… and attributed its achievements to its Aryan stock” (pg. 170). Which is horrific.
What I Didn’t Love: The bulk of “Caste” focused on America. Although Wilkerson did provide some background on the caste systems of India and Germany, I wish she had delved into them a tiny bit more; it was sometimes difficult to see clear parallels between all three systems. Why did some countries (like Germany, rightly) denounce their caste systems while America maintains strong ties to its history? What are the connections between the affirmative action policies in India and the United States when it comes to underrepresented minorities?
I also think Wilkerson could have provided a little more evidence for some of her arguments. For example, she claims that our nationwide distrust of welfare programs and healthcare-for-all stems from the caste system and slavery. Although I’m sure racial animus affects policy decisions, I feel like there could be other factors at play (a strong sense of individualism enshrined in our Constitution, for one). I also wonder whether other countries with a strongly entrenched caste system faced the same backlash when it comes to "socialist" issues.
BIPOC Book Connections: Like Audre Lorde in “Sister Outsider,” Wilkerson discusses how minority communities tend to tear each other down rather than support one another. Wilkerson explores how caste might play a role in this phenomenon: “with few other outlets for control and power, people on the bottom rung may put down others of their own caste to lift themselves up in the eyes of the dominant” (pg. 458).
A Quote I Would Like On Goodreads: “‘For the generations that come after us, we should be guardians of the truth’” (pg. 667).
Up next: “Time Is a Mother” by Ocean Vuong.