Book Report: Caste – The Origins of Our Discontent

Oh my. Here’s a book you probably should read. I guarantee you won’t “enjoy” it, but you may well be a better person for having read it. You know how they say there are things you can’t “un-see?” Well, this book hammers you with things that you won’t be able to “un-read” even if you want to.

I set it on a pretty backdrop.

I had to stop reading Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, by Isabel Wilkerson, for a couple of weeks, because I was having nightmares about lynchings and beatings. I was ignorant of how many there were in the 20th century, as well as how people came to see the lynched people, took photos with them, and even sent postcards of it, until the Post Office banned them. Nightmare stuff. This was in my parents’ lifetime.

That’s just one example of what Wilkerson shares as she lays out the history and consequences of what she defines as the two-caste system in the US, which is unique to this country. Oh boy, makes me so not proud. Makes me sick.

Taking a break to breathe.

She also makes it frighteningly clear how similar the US caste system parallels the way Nazi Germany was set up. What horrified me most was learning that they based their system for de-humanizing the Jews and others on how the high-caste people in the US made people from Africa into non-humans, to justify how they were treated in the slave economy. I got sick to my stomach just typing this.

Yeah, it’s a hard book to read. But it’s so important to look at the way Black people have been treated here in the US and (most important) how they continue to be treated up until the present. Especially for those of us who just happened to be born in the high caste, if you don’t have this information presented to you, right in your face, it’s easy to assume everything’s just fine, because, heck WE like our black colleagues and friends and treat them well. Oops. Not true.

Breathing some more. What a lovely morning sky. Sure looks like our electric pole is slanted.

No, things are NOT better, and no, people have not stopped treating lower-caste people as less than human. Yes, progress has been made, but all you have to do is look at how panicked a large portion of the white people in the US got when a Black man became President. Preserving the status quo turns out to be more important for this group than many things that might help them as a group (and that’s all I’ll say about this; read the book).

In good news, not all the book makes you sick to your stomach if you have any empathy at all for fellow humans. Wilkerson does talk about interesting historical parallels in India and talks about ways to make things better. Like I’ve always thought, she concludes that actually getting to know people and seeing their common humanity, one at a time, is how ANY of us can work to break the caste system down.

People who show a greater sense of joint responsibility to one another when they see their fellow citizens as like themselves.

page 353

It’s just that we still have a lot of work ahead of us, and it will go way slower if we don’t actually LISTEN to our fellow citizens, even when it hurts.

I did not exactly “enjoy” the journey through this book, but I’m glad I embarked on it. And I am glad I finished.

The chapter of Caste that gobsmacked me was the one at the end, where she shares the consequences of the caste system and the fear and distrust it engenders in the US. When put in the context of the rest of the world, this is one weird place. Examples from the book:

Americans own nearly half the guns in the world owned by civilians.

If the U.S. prison population were a city, it would be the fifth largest in America.

page 355

I know this is not a popular thing to say right now, but I can see why so many of my friends are moving to other countries. I’ve just been conveniently ignoring a lot of things that are right in front of my face, passively watching fellow Americans support and encourage the caste system, and failed to do the work needed to make this a good place for all of us. I’m so afraid of the dominant caste and the masses it’s indoctrinated that I’m not much better than them.

Well, that is changing, thanks to what I’ve been learning this year, and I’m just going to have to deal with the nasty consequences from fearful fellow citizens. It’s not like I have to be on the defensive every second of every day like so many Black people, the ones I know and care about included, must deal with. Because, as Wilkerson notes:

There are thriving, prosperous nations where people do not have to sell their Nobel Prizes to get medical care, where families don’t go broke taking care of elderly loved ones, where children exceed the educational achievements of American children, where drug addicts are in treatment rather than in prison, where perhaps the greatest measure of human success – happiness and a long life – exists in greater measure because they value their shared commonality.

pp. 353-54

I don’t know for sure how I came out this way, having grown up in the American South. But I don’t want to see people’s potential wasted just because of what they look like or where their parents were born. We need all the contributions of all the brilliant humans out there…so maybe we can live in peace. I’m still gonna try, no matter how cynical books like this make me.

Not gonna give up. Image from peaceoneday.org – Peace Day is September 21!

Author: Sue Ann (Suna) Kendall

The person behind The Hermits' Rest blog and many others. I'm a certified Texas Master Naturalist and love the nature of Milam County. I manage technical writers in Austin, help with Hearts Homes and Hands, a personal assistance service, in Cameron, and serve on three nonprofit boards. You may know me from La Leche League, knitting, iNaturalist, or Facebook. I'm interested in ALL of you!

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