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Isabel Wilkerson’s Book “Caste”: How Americans Lie to Themselves

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Poor People’s March participants at Connecticut and L Streets NW in Washington, D.C. June 1968. Washington Area Spark/flickr. Caste isn’t always about race; shouldn’t ever be.

Why I Read Caste and Why You Should

I have been on the fence about reading Caste:The Origins of our Discontents.  I have wanted to read Wilkerson’s first book, The Warmth of Other Suns, for a while. The main reason I hadn’t was because it was so long, and I always had other things to read.

The Warmth of Other Suns appealed to me because it is a true epic story. I love an epic. A true epic? Even better.

The topic of Caste gave me pause because I felt that I was already familiar with the topic from other books I have read. Goodness knows it’s gotten plenty of press without my input!

After seeing it in the bookstore a few weeks ago and taking a look at the chapter headings, which looked amazingly detailed, I put the electronic version on hold at the Brooklyn Public Library. Well, the wait list was over 900, so I really wasn’t holding my breath. I figured the decision had been made for me because I wasn’t going to get that book for a while. Then I somehow managed to get a paper copy from my local library with no hold at all.

 

I checked it out, and then it sat around the house.  For some reason, it ended up on my kitchen table, but it still didn’t get read, except for a few pages. 

Then someone in my local library system finally put a hold on it, so I couldn’t renew it anymore.  I had to either read it or get back in line.  So with 7days left and a run of cold, nasty weather, I sat down with it on a Sunday afternoon. And I read the nearly the whole thing in one day. 

Why Reading Caste is Hard

I’m not going to lie to you.  Caste is a hard read.  Not in terms of style, but it terms of the subject matter.  There are a lot of graphic descriptions of the ways that different people have been treated in order to maintain caste structures, primarily in the United States, Nazi-era Germany, and India.   

I thought I knew stuff, but I had no idea that there was so much violence in the United States and that it went on for so long…and I’m from the south!   

I’m from the first generation who went to integrated schools from the beginning, and I’ve come to realize that relationships between Black and White people in my local area are perhaps different from many places because the federal government was such a big employer here.  I don’t live far from Hampton, Virginia, the setting of the book and film Hidden Figures.  While Hampton has Langley Air Force Base, my hometown is near a large federal shipyard, so I see we must have had a similar situation in which Black people could get decent jobs here before they could in other parts of the south, which in turn enabled more of them to move into the middle class. 

That’s what I remember: my school was about half/half Black and White.  In those days, we didn’t live in the same neighborhoods so much…that started to change then and has changed even more now…but many of our houses were pretty much the same.  I knew things weren’t exactly equal before the end of Jim Crow, but I had no idea how unequal they were.

 

Anyway, the bottom line is that the first few sections are tough to get through, and to be honest I kept going partly to get it over with. I was reminded of reading The Painted Bird, by Jerzy Kosinski, when I was just out of college.  The book is so horrifying…still one of the toughest books I have ever read…I had to pretty much read it straight through.  I felt as though I couldn’t walk around, metaphorically in the middle of that.  Same here, and I did read most of Caste in one day.  I can report, however, that if you make it through the section, “The Eight Pillars of Caste”, the rest of the book is not as upsetting.  It gets more hopeful.

 

The truth of this book is that we do have castes in this country. If you don’t believe that, I don’t know what to say other than read the book and use your eyes. 

The thing that kills me, and I suppose the thing that makes them effective, is that they most hurt the people who cling to them the tightest.  We have always had, and still do have, a lot of areas in the south that are rural where there are a lot of people who struggle, White and Black.  Obviously, if you keep them pushing against each other, they don’t make trouble for the people who are really on top.  Basic concept. 

And I suppose there are always people who don’t have confidence in themselves, or know, deep down, that they are being propped up by an unfair system.  I’ve seen this happen in several contexts, for several reasons, in my life.   

Maybe these are the people who never had the guts to put themselves out to try anything new.  I don’t know. 

When I see any group of people who all look exactly the same, I feel uncomfortable.  You know, when you put too many like things together of anything, you are going to have problems.  Didn’t royal families find that out centuries ago?   

When I look at any group, especially a governing group, in the U.S., I do kind of check the boxes in my head to see that a lot of different kinds of people are represented.  I feel like that lowers the chance that the task will be messed up considerably.  I just don’t get why other people see things that way.  I mean, apparently they don’t. 

An important thing to understand about Caste is that it starts out with many of the horrible stories, mostly, but not all, from the past, but as it moves forward it’s more about the things that we don’t see because we are so used to it. 

I feel like I can understand some of what she is saying because I’ve been to so many other countries, and it’s easier to see what’s going on when you are an outsider.   

So the key understanding of Caste, as far as I’m concerned, is trying to see what we don’t see.  Sometimes we don’t want to see, and sometimes, we are who we are too much.

Also, my hope for the future is that the next book on this topic explores the variety of castes that we have in this country, which Wilkerson alludes to at times, without going into detail. Whites and Blacks might be the most pronounced, and arguably the dirtiest history (check with Native nations on that one), but there are many more across this country that is also a part of the problem, or could become one.

I remember reading decades ago the theory that the future of the United States will end stereotyping by race and ethnicity and bring stereotyping and castes by socioeconomic criteria to the forefront. Where I live, I see that all time because, as I said, we have a large African American middle and upper class, and I see that as the story of the future. 

A Note on Citations in Caste 

There are a lot of anecdotes in Caste that will probably make your jaw drop. Wilkerson cites her resources by quoting a portion of her sentence in the endnotes, which is nice because the text isn’t cluttered up with numbers, and I’m guessing is her point.  Since some of the stories do defy belief, I’ll be honest, I found myself checking sources.  I always look to see that there are notes in any nonfiction book, but I usually just check them when I am questioning or I want more information. 

While the vast majority of the book is well cited, there are stories throughout, especially those that are italicized, that have no source information.  I could not find any explanation for this in any of the front or back matter, of which there is little that comes from the author directly.  Some of the stories are obviously personal experiences, but not all of them.  If she meant the stories to be apocryphal, she should have said so. 

The missing citations do not destroy the message of this book for me, but they are there, and it is a flaw.  Creative writing doesn’t belong in a nonfiction book without explanation. On the whole, however, sources are well cited, and I believe what she has to say.

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