On the book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson

It was an awful coincidence when it turned out so timely that it was the same week I managed to finish the book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” written by Isabel Wilkerson on the invisible yet omnipresent caste system in the US, simultaneously coming across the shocking news of a gunman who killed six women of Asian descent and two others in attacks happened at the spas across the Atlanta area, US. The book has therefore a life and these recent happenings bear a testimony to the scope of the book, making it worth reading, especially from an American perspective, given the status quo of social discontents is apparently reflected by the surge in violence against non-American descendants.

Honestly, it took a while to finish this book, as I felt it is a heavy read to me and dried out (only) at the beginning. The book has seven parts with each part having several sub chapters. Isabel starts with discussing the toxins in the permafrost and heat rising all around. While reading the very first chapter, I was wondering why Isabel is bringing the thawing of the permafrost of Siberian tundra by heatwave-pathogen relationship and all that. Sooner or later, the discussion proved her beautiful craftmanship towards getting in to a nice introduction to the classic problem of Caste. Thereafter, every page is fortified with Isabel’s own research findings, facts, historical basis, reports, wordings from several relevant personalities related to the topics and moreover simple and familiar examples.

From Part I, Chapter One.

Being from India, a country known to have caste based oppressions still existing, it was interesting to read about what caste meant to America. I was therefore hoping the book to have several referrals to India and it was not surprising that Isabel could draw a clear parallel between the caste based oppression in India vs America, also comparing with that of Nazi Germany in very detail. Apparently, in an American context, it is not the word ‘Caste’ which is familiar to us when one talks about all these violence against people of non-American descents, especially African Americans. It is the word ‘Racism’ which is always being used while apprehending and discussing such issues. Isabel therefore clearly describes what we mistakenly think of as race and racism from the historical perspective of the US, and the notion still is, in fact, better redrawn as caste which is the baseline of racism when analysed in depth.

Coming to the title of the book ‘Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents’, the reader is in constant search of the answer to the origin of caste in America. In Isabel’s detailed narrative, caste’s origin dates back to America’s slavery times, where a hierarchy of humanity was evolved with the English Protestants at the very top while the rest rank in a descending order with Africans descendants at the bottom. It is this ranking that makes caste different from race. Though often people interchangeably consider and use caste and race, they are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive. They can and do coexist in the same culture and serve to reinforce each other. Race, in the US is the visible agent of the unforeseen caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin. Race, which is fluid and subjected to redefinition over time, is what we can see, the physical traits that have been given arbitrary meaning and becomes a shorthand for who a person is. Instead, caste, which is fixed and rigid is the powerful infrastructure that holds each group in place-Isabel says. As race is periodically redefined according to the needs of dominant community at the US at a particular time, the requirements to qualify as ‘white’ also is subjected to change accordingly. However, the dominant caste concept remains unchanged. Whoever fits with the definition of ‘white’ are entitled to the privileges of the dominant caste. Hence caste, unlike race, is often invisible, invincible and hard to topple from the envelope of race. It is this very invisibility which gives caste its power and stays in perpetuity. Caste predates at the notion of race. They are so interwoven in America that decoupling is close to impossible. Because any action that mocks, harms, even assumes or attaches stereotype on the basis of the social construct of race, can be considered as racism. On the other hand, any structure that put someone in their place by elevating that person on the basis of their ‘perceived category’ can be seen as casteism. Importantly, many of us don’t feel ourselves like a racist or a casteist, but as long as we invest in keeping that hierarchy intact or content to do nothing to change it, we are right there at the onset of a ‘casteist-to be’. Overall, Isabel’s whole idea of this book is to make us understand that race is not a complex enough or a sole framework to comprehensively understand this inequalities in today’s America.

Yes, it is hard!!

Isabel also brings in a small discussion on the origin of the words race and caste as well. The word ‘Race’ is likely derived from the spanish word ‘raza‘ which was originally used to refer to the ‘caste or quality of authentic horses’ whereas the word ‘caste’ comes from a Portuguese word ‘casta‘ which meant ‘race’ or ‘breed’. However caste concept, especially when applied to an Indian context is even older than the Portuguese invasion of India or the European concept of race as the existence of the ranking system, i.e, four varnas is thousands of years old or as old as the birth of Hinduism. From there, she takes off to probe the Indian caste system to draw parallels with that of the US, also to show that how does caste operate beyond borders, by analysing the work of Dalit scholar and social reformer (and many more) Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. Ambedkar is considered as the chief architect of the Constitution of India and a key-player in shedding light on the inequities of the caste system, especially on the subjugation of Dalits (“Dalit” means “broken down” or “oppressed”) through his writing and social works. Caste, Ambedkar argues, is a ‘graded inequality’, spanning from Brahmins at the top to Dalits at the bottom. From the American side, she brings in the ideas of legendary figures such as Martin Luther king, W.E.B Du Bois and so on. She did not also forget to acknowledge their mutual visits to India and the US in the middle of the 19th century to excavate these issues. Another reason why India and US is compared is that (and Isabele nicely connects them too), US is the world’s most powerful democracy while with India is the world’s largest. Dalits were considered as untouchables and were forbidden from education in India, as enslaved Africans were in the US. It therefore hinges on the aspect that both groups faced denial at education. Several ‘customs’ emerged to uphold the social construct of degraded status, which meant both Dalits and African Americans to enter by back doors and to wear unattractive clothing. While having striking similarities between India and the US, there are subtle differences as well. The diversified Indian caste system involves infinity of caste ranks. Among those who follow Hinduism, there are atleast 20+ hierarchically ranked castes. Essentially, most of them have an idea of who is ‘above and below’ them. Brahmins, who are at the apex of the system, usually does not undergo redefinition of who belongs to them or not belongs to them whereas that is not the case with the bottom-mainly the Dalits. They always have a community they think are lower than them: mostly associated with the nature of job such as hair cut, scavenging works etc. which makes them feel ‘purer’ or ‘better’. So the bottom part is not as rigid as with the top. In the US, on the other hand, the system is only binary- there is only black or white (not sure if there are ‘graded’ blacks and whites) and hence there is less evidential basis for one white/black person to feel racially inferior to another white/black. Nevertheless, in this modern renaissance era, both countries are still washing their laundries from the past, though there are remedial and affirmative actions of ‘reservations’ established in India. Notably, these too have ignited several backlashes including those from African-American critics, echoing the concepts of reverse discrimination. That is another story.

Despite the book appears as seemingly an intellectual read, Isabel shares several real-time stories that help the readers to loosen themselves. For example, as an African-American journalist, she shares her own experiences. While she was on an assignment with taking interviews with various people, a boutique manager, based on her appearance, simply did not buy that she was the Isabel Wilkerson who has been given appointment to interview him, even after showing her ID card. She quotes from a Nigerian- born playwright she met at London that African people think there are no black people in Africa. They are just Igbo, Yoruba, Ewe or Akan there. They don’t become black until they go to America or the UK. It is only then they become black. She also shares a story about a black girl born in Texas in 70s named by her parents “Miss”. The naming was done deliberately because the rule at that time was that, the lowest caste was to remain low in every way all the time, making sure that the inferiority is always reinforced. Black men/women were never to be addressed as “Mister/Miss/Mrs.” So Miss faced severe outrage from her teachers at school.

Overall, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” is a timely book amidst the current scenario of socio-political and ideological debates and controversies on casteism and racism. Though the topic does not look novel, the book is surely a good read. Isabel is opinionated that unless one penetrates to the depth of the complex, interwoven race-caste relationships and their rippling effect on the surface of American democracy, caste will stay immortal.

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