Caste: The Lies That Divide Us by Isabel Wilkerson

‘Few problems have ever been solved by ignoring them.’

In this book, Ms Wilkerson frames the treatment of African American people in the USA as being part of the same caste system which still governs India, and which infected Nazi Germany. So, racism is less about what a person looks like and more about where they are seen as belonging in the hierarchy.

I was drawn into this book from the first page, considering the ramifications of caste, about the assumptions we make and the consequences.

‘As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theatre, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance.’

Ms Wilkerson draws on history, on the stories of others and on personal experience in writing this book. It is an uncomfortable and at times confronting read. I had to read it slowly.

‘While all countries in the New World created hierarchies with Europeans on top, the United States alone created a system based on racial absolutism, the idea that a single drop of African blood, or varying percentages of Asian or Native American blood, could taint the purity of someone who might otherwise be presumed to be European, a stain that would thus disqualify the person from admittance to the dominant caste.’

And there is this. In 1944, the public school district in Columbus, Ohio, decided to hold an essay contest challenging students to consider the question ‘What to do with Hitler after the War?’

‘It was the spring of 1944, the same year that a black boy was forced to jump to his death, in front of his stricken father, over the Christmas card the boy had sent to a white girl at work. In that atmosphere, a sixteen-year-old African-American girl thought about what should befall Hitler. She won the student essay contest with a single sentence: ‘Put him in a black skin and let him live the rest of his life in America.’’

By including stories about people, some well-known and others unknown, Ms Wilkerson illustrates the challenges and double standards applied in a world where caste assumes a bottom rung of humanity. These assumptions have costs in health and economic productivity and clearly influence politics. But how does any country move beyond such entrenched divisions?

‘Caste is more than rank, it is a state of mind that holds everyone captive, the dominant imprisoned in an illusion of their own entitlement, the subordinate trapped in the purgatory of someone else’s definition of who they are and who they should be.’

I read a review of this books somewhere recently and wanted to read it for myself. I am still thinking about caste and its ramifications. Ms Wilkerson writes from an American perspective, but I think that much of what she writes applies in other countries as well.

Because of the content this is not an easy read but it is a book I would definitely recommend to others.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith