The Moment Isabel Wilkerson Learned Caste Was an Oprah's Book Club Pick
Caste is a remarkable work of history, both a prayer for humanity and a way of seeing the evolution of inequality through an entirely new lens. It traces the roots of American racism back to another continent centuries ago, and uses the metaphor of an old house to describe how we can begin to take responsibility for something we didn't ourselves initiate.
Wilkerson's book also reveals that the Third Reich drew on Jim Crow era laws to inform its own reign of terror, and gives us insights into the role of endogamy in enforcing racist policies. Reading Caste, you may be astonished at what you didn't learn in high school or college about Reconstruction, Jim Crow, how and why "race" was invented—and much more.
Caste is a product of deep and meticulous historical detective work and a masterwork of storytelling, with the potential to forever change the way we think about inequality. So on the eve of the Oprah's Book Club announcement, I called Wilkerson for a conversation about why she believes Caste is a hopeful book—and, of course, what it was really like getting that surprising phone call from Oprah.
You say that the idea of race—even the term Caucasian—is a recently created construct. What do you mean by that?
Race as we now know it—the idea of dividing people and addressing them as being white or Black—is a fairly new language in human history. Before the exploration of the world by European explorers, there was no need to think of one's self on the basis of skin color or what one looked like. People were Italian, Spaniard, English, or Hungarian, but this wasn't connected to one’s color. African peoples didn't need to identify as being Black, because that was not the primary metric of distinction between people.
The idea of categorizing people by race grew out of the transatlantic slave trade and the arrival of different people from around the world, to what would eventually become the United States. It was the convergence of people who might have looked different from one another that created the impulse to define people on the basis of what they looked like. Before that, there was no concept of race as we now know it. Race is only a concept that dates back four hundred or five hundred years.
The idea of caste, however, is one that goes back many millennia. It predates race. Caste is an artificial hierarchy, a graded ranking of human value in society that determines the standing, the respect, the benefit of the doubt, access to resources, through no fault or action of one's own. You were born to a position in a hierarchy in a traditional caste system. The reason I have chosen to look at our country through a different lens—that of caste—is because, in this age of upheaval, we need new language and framework for these divisions. Seeing ourselves through the lens of caste allows us to see the X-ray of our country, to see our country through new eyes and allow ourselves to build a new framework for healing.
Why do you avoid the term "racism" in your writing?
View the full story here: Isabel Wilkerson Recalls the Moment She Learned Caste Was an Oprah's Book Club Pick.