Article content warning: N/A
Book content warning: racism, violence, sexual assault
Let me tell you a story.
This is how Isabel Wilkerson approaches her book, Caste: not asking her audience to listen to a sermon or a lecture or an academic journal publication, but a story.
And it is only through this structure of storytelling that Wilkerson is able to reach her audience. Through Caste, Wilkerson narrates a much-needed, hard-to-hear history of America’s caste system. Her narrative begins in 1619 before tracing caste ramifications to the present day, using the histories of Nazi Germany and India, as well as intimate stories of Americans like herself, to illustrate her book. By involving stories from other countries, she invites readers, both American and non-American, to sit down and listen to the truths she wants to share. She tackles historically rich and emotionally heavy concepts within Caste: race, guilt, caste systems, death, murder, Americanness. These concepts underscore dark moments of American life that pressure an idolized American dream. Ugly moments that, when studied, rear their heads and make America the beautiful— the ugly.
No one wants to hear about this ugliness.
But everyone loves a well-told story.
The power of her book is in her narrative voice—persistent, grief-stricken, angry. Hopeful. Wilkerson is the storyteller of our time who is unwilling to flinch during the climaxes of darkness. Wilkerson walks through the history of America by sandwiching her research on the American caste system—how it started, where it’s going, and why it’s still here—with personal experiences. Stories of fiction are easier to dismiss and critique, or call out as nothing but imagination, but stories of experience are real, often painful, and impossible to silence, as they’ve already happened. By incorporating experience into her presentation of American caste, Wilkerson tells her audience that caste isn’t something “out there” but “in here,” happening to American people of all races everyday.
To get to know someone is to get to know their story. For America, Wilkerson recognizes that we have yet to hear her full story. And for Americans, caste here means we all are part of stories that act upon the power of caste expectation and conformation. Using her strong narrative voice to weave a moving, deeply disturbing history of America, Wilkerson tells us the story that started centuries ago. Constructed upon the “pillars” of caste, America’s history relies on an understanding of this pervasive system.
Wilkerson defines caste as the “granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy.” Caste in America is not the same as racism in America, Wilkerson explains, drawing a thin but powerful line between the two. Caste is the foundation for American discontents.
She continues to provide the riveting answer to so many abominable, questionable stories that seem unanswerable: tragedies of Black people still experiencing discrimination, dramas that say racism is but a moment of the past, narratives that tokenize Black friends as proof of equality, or chapter upon chapter of blind white privilege. Caste is the narrator behind countless stories of microaggressions: stories of white shoppers making assumptions about their fellow Black shoppers or white party guests asking Black party guests to serve them a drink. These questions are built into the American story that paints promises of happiness, equality, freedom, and opportunity atop a broad canvas. The colors of this canvas, however, rely on a black and white palette.
Wilkerson doesn’t generalize. Rather than make sweeping statements about the story of America, she breaks each aspect of caste and America into rich chapters and personally detailed narratives. By rooting her stories in the personal, readers can assign faces to wrongs dealt and felt. As she moves through caste history, she explains how whenever those of the lowest caste rise above their station, they are met with upper caste backlash. She gets personal, providing a raw experience from an airplane to illustrate such backlash: “I was in disbelief, forced to arch my body back, as he rammed himself harder against me, heavy and sweaty . . . he thrust his full weight, his entire frame, into mine, his back muscles crushing my breasts, his buttocks protruding into my pelvis, violating my body in full view of other passengers, and no one was doing a thing.” She closes the story by observing, “had an African-American man pressed his body against a white woman the way this man had, it is hard to imagine that no one on board would have intervened, if only to say to him, ‘I’ll get your bag for you so you can get off of her.’” In this story, Wilkerson presents callousness on a platter for every reader to see. As she records the violations to her body and humanity, her grieved yet bold voice emerges, asking every reader to not only pay witness to the moment but also empathize with her feelings of violation, disrespect, and invisibility.
Caste explores the history and current times of white and Black American people. Stories of Americans who may not fall into the white and black binary, who may be a different shade of brown or gold, are not prominent within Caste. While Asian and Hispanic communities do not share as much of the direct explanations within Wilkerson’s book, Wilkerson’s story of caste still applies. As an Asian American reader, I grew to understand the deeper motives pushing Asians to act as a “model minority,” as “almost white,” since Wilkerson’s story gave me a greater vocabulary to articulate where we fall in the social stratification we call American class. Caste, she argues, filters every American into their social and human place.
This saga of inequality and brokenness, spanning centuries and cemented into historical textbooks and monuments, is like a movie full of jarring horrifying scenes—hard to watch yet impossible to turn away from. Scenes of Black women again discarded or sexualized or limited, or cuts of Black men again shot or blamed or mistrusted, are not the only moments Wilkerson narrates. In the last pages of her book, Wilkerson challenges us to imagine a better story. In the last chapter and epilogue, Wilkerson weaves the story we all want to hear: one where the heart is conquered and changed and the world is without caste.
ISABEL WILKERSON, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Humanities Medal, is the author of the critically acclaimed New York Times bestseller The Warmth of Other Suns. Her debut work won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction and was named to Time‘s 10 Best Nonfiction Books of the 2010s and The New York Times‘s list of the Best Nonfiction of All Time. She has taught at Princeton, Emory, and Boston Universities and has lectured at more than two hundred other colleges and universities across the United States and in Europe and Asia.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents can be purchased here.