Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Lies That Divide Us, is the focus of this month’s Safer London Book Club. Here, Service Manager Symone, shares her thoughts on Pulitzer Prize winning Wilkerson’s powerful exploration of the ‘American caste system’.
Isabel Wilkerson is a Pulitzer Prize winner – the first African American female to receive the prestigious award. This book is centered on the social divisions in America, and through this she explores such themes as racism, inequality, division and injustice and their impacts on the societies that uphold them. Something that is a common theme associated with the work that we do at Safer London.
It is interesting that Wilkerson has chosen to write about caste rather than race, as so many others before her have, but having read this book I can see why. The divisions that we see today in American society, and indeed our own, can easily be passed off as race related, but the way that she successfully delves into the subject of caste it is evident that the problem lies in something much more than just skin deep (pun intended); a deeply entrenched hierarchical system.
“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” Wilkerson writes.
Caste: The lies That Divide Us, takes you through a journey of how and why America got to where they are today and makes reference to the enslavement of Black people, the Jim Crow era, the civil rights movement, and of course the Black Lives Matter movement that has so recently become a part of American history, but will no doubt be spoken of in years to come.
It also explores the origins of the caste system. One that we may all have come across, that of the age old system in India of separating human beings into classes (Varnas) solely dependent on occupation i.e. priests, warriors, traders etc. I personally remember learning about the ‘Untouchables’ (Dalit, meaning oppressed in Sanskrit) when I was at school, realising even then at such a young age how unfair and unjust it all sounded, but until reading Wilkerson’s words I had never related it to the injustices that we still see in western society today.
She likens the issue of the injustices based on caste systems to that of Nazi Germany and speaks of the elevation of dominance and power by certain groups in society over others. She states that the power afforded to the dominant castes, even those that have not asked for it or do not want it, and the inequalities those deemed to be in an inferior caste face, only breed more contempt and distrust amongst the people of that society, resulting in further separation and subsequent reinforcement of the concept that they are indeed separate.
Wilkerson talks of the roles we each have in society and the responsibility of us all to recognize and defy these systems that have been put in place, describing a ‘casteist’ as someone who ‘upholds or benefits from the hierarchy, never challenging it.’ Something summed up by one phrase I suspect was included in lots of discussions in 2020; White privilege. She states that “The price of privilege is the moral duty to act when one sees another treated unfairly. And the least that a person in the dominant caste can do is not make the pain any worse.”
The case Wilkerson puts forward is inspiring and hopeful. Her writing incorporates and reflects the anti-racist traditions embodied by figures such as African-American liberationist W.E.B. Du Bois and the trailblazer of India’s Dalit movement, Bhimrao Ambedkar, who wrote: ‘Caste is [just] a notion; it is a state of the mind.’ Like him, Wilkerson wants us to recognise that caste can be dismantled, setting everyone freeAshish Ghadiali ― Guardian
Throughout the book Wilkerson uses metaphors to get her message across. My particular favourite being whereby she relates American society to the structure of an old house passed down through generations, with damp and mold in the corners and cracks in the foundation. Her point here is clear; that you, or rather we as a society, cannot ignore or indeed accept these flaws, or else, like an old house they will worsen over time until they are problems that we can no longer ignore.
Although Caste is a long and sometimes complex read, I have really enjoyed reading it. It stirred emotions, was very thought provoking and highlights issues that we at Safer London encounter in our day to day work. It is extremely powerful but is written with an expert narrative that draws you in. Definitely one to read.
I will end this review with my favourite quote from the book:
“We are responsible for our own ignorance or, with time and open hearted enlightenment, our own wisdom.” Isabel Wilkerson.