Book Reviews

How We See Ourselves, and What We Think

Her new book goes back much further—400 years—to the origins of our discontents. . .

Isabel Wilkerson
How We See Ourselves, and What We Think

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson, Random House, New York, 2020, xvii + 477 pages, hardcover, US$19.02. Reviewed by Lael Caesar.

Isabel Wilkerson is well remembered for her exhaustively researched 2010 volume, The Warmth of Other Suns, which traced Black Americans’ mass migration from South to North through several decades of the twentieth century. Her new book goes back much further—400 years—to the origins of our discontents, the book’s subtitle. Its 31 chapters are divided into seven sections that examine and comment on everything from the bases for establishing human divisions, to their antiquity, the strength and breadth of the reach of those divisions, their lethality, and the difficulty of escaping from them, whether as individuals or as a people or nation. Her comparison between the world’s oldest democracy, the United States of America, and the world’s largest, India, is not path breaking. Wilkerson shows that long before her day, American academics from Northern schools have been willing to risk their lives by embedding themselves in the South’s day-to-day living in order to grasp as fully as possible, and document as accurately as possible, the strength of caste—rather than race—as a thoroughgoing feature of the Jim Crow South.

The author’s interesting explanations of the origin and development of such terms as “race,” “caste,” and “Caucasian” may help if they could be more widely known. Of the skull whose study gave the name “Caucasian” to a particular race, it has been said that “never has a single head done more harm to science” (pp. 64-67). “Race is a recent phenomenon in human history” (p. 64), dating to the start of the transatlantic slave trade. Geneticists and anthropologists, underwritten by the mapping of the human genome—and random families’ access to their DNA kits today—still labor to educate the world about the total lack of scientific basis for “race.” Yet it remains, for too much of the world, particularly the English world in America, an immovable and moral dogma. Race, the anti-phenomenon, hews closely to caste because of the enduring classification it imposes in the United States. And caste is readily distinguishable from class: the latter may shift; the former is fixed—like the cast on your broken arm, or the cast of characters in the play you love to watch. As athlete and entrepreneur extraordinaire LeBron James says, you may prosper wildly, you may attract worship, but “if you are an African-American man or African-American woman, you will always be that” (p. 108).

The idea of caste in America is not distinctly academic either. Before it was outlawed, the Indian classification system named four castes, from first-class Brahmin through Kshatriya and Vaishya to fourth-class Shudra, along with multiple subdivisions—jatis—within castes. Categories specified both location and function in society. Below the four castes thronged the untouchables—who preferred to call themselves Dalits—so despised that even contact with their shadow was held to be defiling.

Their relation to what America identifies as its racial segregation came awkwardly home to American civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr., during his first trip to India. Upon visiting a high school in the state of Kerala at the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent, King was peeved and enlightened by the introduction the school’s principal gave him. At the time, King had already led the Montgomery bus boycott sparked by the arrest of Rosa Parks. He had come to India at the invitation of the nation’s prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. He had dined with Prime Minister Nehru. He was famous. So he was stunned and unhappy to hear the principal introduce him to the students as “a fellow untouchable from the United States of America” (p. 22). He could not see the connection between such a personage as himself and the label “untouchable” applied to the lowest of India’s population. Offended at first, King came to agree that the attribution of “American untouchable” was appropriate.

Wilkerson’s scholarship gives attention to the role of the Bible in validating slavery. Interpreters of Scripture invoked both the curse of Ham (pp. 102, 103; and see Gen. 9) and the text of Leviticus 25:44 (“Both thy bondmen and thy bondmaids . . . shall be of the heathen” [KJV], in determining the way African slaves were categorized. And the 61 pages of the book’s third part, not numbered as part of any chapter, serve the distinct purpose of explicating the eight “pillars of caste,” pillars that mostly expose a strong religious grounding.

Examples of their names and bases include “divine will”—what God has ordained; “heredity”—the providence or fate of your birth; “endogamy”—the group beyond which God forbids you to marry; and “purity”—the responsibility of maintaining the integrity of your race/caste. Either confidence or ambivalence about the divine sanction itself was seen in the fact that society determined separate Bibles to be used for swearing oaths on: one for Whites and one for Blacks (p. 117). Other pillars make explicit the human capacity for cruelty, if only in the name of orderly and lawful living: “occupational hierarchy” dictates cooperative servility to an overlord; “dehumanization” enables masters’ torture of their no longer human objects; “terror as enforcement” is self-explanatory. Pillar 8, “inherent superiority,” in which the member of the lowest caste “must be held subject, like other domestic animals” (p. 160), may well be seen as pillar 1.

For students of Scripture and followers of Jesus Christ, such books as Wilkerson’s are both rebuke and warning. In the Hindu creation story the four castes issue, in descending order, from the mouth, arms, thighs, and feet of Manu. The Dalits are under his feet. Mesopotamians had a creation story in which the gods create humans to work so they themselves may rest. In the Bible story male and female are formed by the hands of the Lord God, to reflect their Creator’s image and likeness. This is noble truth.

That followers of God and students of the Scriptures could use the Bible for affirming the exploitation of fellow humans instead is its own tragic rebuke, an ineradicable stain on the history of Christianity. For despite slavers’ interpretations, the Bible’s teaching is that humanity is a single family and a part of God’s family, reflecting and basking in the spirit of His nature of love. The warning is that self-serving biblical interpretations, demeaning to any part of humanity, are demeaning and degrading to all of humanity.

Wilkerson speaks compelling and disturbing truth. Her voice deserves every reader’s ear.

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Isabel Wilkerson