• Anisa Begum

Learnings from Isabel Wilkerson's "Caste"

“You talk to people who have been through it and to specialists who have researched it. You learn the consequences and obstacles, the options and treatment… and work to ensure that these things, whatever they are, don’t happen again”.

Photo: Penguin Random House

After hearing Isabel Wilkerson discuss caste as the root of racism on a recent podcast, I felt obliged to read her 2020 bestseller Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. A few pages in, Wilkerson’s message was clear: if we don’t learn about and act on the inequalities around us “the awkward becomes acceptable, and the unacceptable becomes merely inconvenient”. We cannot allow this to happen.

What is the difference between racism and casteism? Because race and caste have become interwoven, it can be hard to differentiate between them. Any action or institution which works to mock, harm, or attaches inferiority on the basis of race, can be considered racism. Any action or structure that limits, or puts someone in a defined ranking on the basis of their perceived category, can be considered as casteism. Why is this an issue? Casteism maintains a hierarchy where some are more advantaged and privileged than others and those in “lower ranks” remain restricted within their categories.

Wilkerson embeds storylike narratives within her writing. From a reader’s point of view, it feels like being told a story as a child, except these anecdotes uncover ways that we have been divided and how it has become so deep-rooted - to the point where we’ve accepted it as part of our lives. She compares this to an old house where we learn to adjust to the discrepancies by putting “buckets under a wet ceiling”, and learning to “step over that rotting wood tread in the staircase” - in doing this, “we learn to believe the incomprehensible is the way that life is supposed to be”. And these ways to “survive” are being handed down onto the next generation just like folklore.

It’s not uncommon to hear these stories as a minority in a country where the infrastructure of racism, caste, has subconsciously kept people apart. Because “it’s not racism that prompts a white shopper to go up to a random black or brown person who is also shopping and to ask for a sweater in a different size”. It’s the internalised assumption of roles given to whole groups of humankind. It is in the jobs we are offered, the areas we’re allowed to live in, the rules and policies made for us. Caste is a means to justify the stigmatisation of the “lowest-ranked” people and keep them at the bottom. And casteism goes unnoticed because it isn’t as loud and in-your-face as its branch, racism - it’s been woven into the fabric of our society.

Wilkerson outlines: “the bottom caste, though it bears much of the burden of the hierarchy, did not create the caste system, and the bottom caste alone cannot fix it… many in the dominant caste, who are in a better position to fix caste inequality, have often been least likely to want to”. She describes a point where we are “awakened” to the inequalities around us. And once we are, we then have a choice. We may be from a dominant caste and choose not to dominate. Alternatively we may be born into a subordinated caste and resist the limits forced upon us.

As a first-gen British Asian who has experienced the effects of casteism, reading this insightful book by Isabel Wilkerson has opened my eyes to the vast amounts of people who have yet to be “awakened”. There are people who have unknowingly accepted casteism as a norm in their lives - and those, like many of us, who are aware of the issue but cannot single-handedly bring about change. On the other hand, I now have a greater appreciation for those who have been “awakened” to the caste inequalities around us - those who choose not to apply rankings to masses of people based on uncontrollable factors and thus set supremacy and inferiority within these groups. This book emphasised the importance of coming together and breaking down the systems that have been created to divide us, as well as the importance of valuing the character of a person and their impact on our society.

For those who haven't yet read this, I highly recommend Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, a truly eye-opening book by Isabel Wilkerson.

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