Learn the key ideas of the book by Isabel Wilkerson


The caste system as an instrument to facilitate supremacy

Using an engaging narrative supported by historical research and real anecdotes, Isabel Wilkerson paints a portrait of the caste system that has shaped today's American society. The author draws a parallel between the caste system in America, India and Nazi Germany to demonstrate how the caste mechanism also has common roots in different cultures. Caste reveals the tension created when one group is pitched against another, generation after generation, and caste becomes an innate part of society. This central theme reveals how society continues to justify white supremacy, both morally and legally, even today. Finally, Isabel Wilkerson suggests a possible way out of this cold categorisation of human beings through empathy, listening and learning, in order to better understand other people.

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Racial tension in the United States is best explained through the lens of caste rather than race

A caste is a system of social order invented by man to classify groups of people. This order is based on the presumed supremacy of one group and the presumed inferiority of another, based on birth, individual traits and religious preferences or financial status.

The characteristics used to define groups of people are highly subjective. They become important when one group of people uses them to isolate certain other groups and to assign certain behavioural parameters to each of them.

Once a caste system is in place, the evidence supporting the apparent inferiority and superiority of some groups become increasingly entrenched, to the point at which they become the inherent beliefs of an entire culture. According to the author, when society accepts these beliefs, the laws and principles that guide them are no longer questioned. The dominant group becomes free to treat the lower groups as it sees fit, in order to preserve their subdivision. This treatment is often cruel, as it demeans and belittles the spirit of the lower castes.

The current American caste system is based on people’s differences in appearance, in particular, the colour of their skin. This arbitrary way of differentiating one group from another is what developed the concept of race. Without it, race would not have the importance it has today in the minds of so many people around the world.

Skin colour becomes a trigger for many stereotypes and deep-rooted assumptions on how different groups of people fit into society. As these beliefs intensify, so do the expectations about what a particular group is capable of, where they should live, what they can achieve, and what freedoms they should be allowed. These notions are passed on from generation to generation without ever being questioned, increasing social inequality and injustice for all future generations.

The word "race" and its derivatives "racism" and "racist" are so deeply rooted in our culture that we risk not understanding the true nature of those words. People who see a person’s race as biological, confuse the socially constructed concept of "race" with the real concept of geographical origin.

Race is often used as an excuse to separate people and justify different living standards: in the eyes of a dominant caste, perpetuating the idea that people of a certain race are "different" or "inferior" justifies treating them differently.

Caste and Race are two different concepts: race relates to physical differences and the set of meanings assigned to them; caste is the way such judgments are put in place to maintain division between groups. Race and caste are not synonymous, but they support each other within American culture. Race is the physical proof of difference, and the set of meanings assigned to that proof. Caste is how we organise this evidence to keep the groups separate from one another and assign the appropriate lifestyle to each. The definition of racism has changed over time; therefore, it is more accurate to refer to someone who discriminates against people of another race as a member of a caste, not as a racist.

Originally, "racism" meant a group that uses its social power to oppress another group based on race. Today, being a racist means hating people who are different from you and allowing or forgiving oppression.

In America there can only be true equality and justice when we stop looking for the red flags of racism, and focus on the attitudes and microaggressions that continue to prevent the lowest caste from rising to their place among their peers. Everyone unconsciously participates in the American caste system, even by quietly accepting things as the way they are. Everyone needs to stop thinking of the country's racial hierarchy as normal.


The key ideas of "Caste"

Racial tension in the United States is best explained through the lens of caste rather than race
There are three main examples of caste systems in history: the Southern United States, India, and Germany
To slave owners and traders, slaves were not people but property
The hierarchy of the castes based on skin colour was the nation’s guiding principle
The Indian caste system and the Nazi caste have a lot in common with the American system
The caste system is rooted in a system of beliefs that uphold and justify hierarchical division
When any society puts a caste system in place, the dominant caste has to work hard to maintain that system and guarantee that nobody questions their right to rule
The influence of the caste system on both individuals and on modern society, where racism has become explicit, turning white people’s discomfort into anger towards minority groups
The only way to dismantle the caste system of any society is for everyone to open their hearts and minds enough to see how we have all been manipulated into supporting this division
Take-home message
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