‘Caste’ Instead of ‘Race’: Isabel Wilkerson On America’s Man-Made Divisions

Wilkerson on writing what Oprah’s calling her “most important” book club selection ever

After publishing the acclaimed The Warmth of Other Suns, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson spent 10 years working on Caste: The Origins Of Our Discontents — which Oprah is calling “the most important” read she’s ever selected for her book club. (The T.V. legend also just announced she’s sending 500 copies of Caste out to CEOs and leaders.)

In Caste, Wilkerson looks at the U.S.’s divisions without once using the word “race.” She instead draws attention to America’s caste system, established by English colonizers that landed hundreds of years ago. Wilkerson offers a new roadmap for Americans to talk about race and more, below.

Wake-Up Call: The New York Times called your book an “Instant American classic,” and Oprah Winfrey has said, “All of humanity needs this book.” What do you hope readers gain from reading “Caste”?

Isabel Wilkerson: I really, truly hope that people will be able to see that the divisions we live with are artificial and man-made and that if they have been made by man, they can be dismantled by man. We can push through and transcend these divisions that have been created long before any of us were here.

Why did you decide to avoid the word “race” and focus on “caste” instead? How do you define a caste system?

Think of a society like a building, and the building has joints, beams, and pillars, but we don’t see those things as we walk into a building and go into a particular room. Caste is an artificial hierarchy with a graded ranking of human value in a society. You’re born into a position in the hierarchy that many societies build for themselves. That ranking determines standing, respect, access to resources, through no fault or action of one’s own.

In the same way that caste is the bones, race is the skin. Race is the metric that’s used to determine one’s place or assignment in the caste system. It’s the marker. It’s the signal of where an individual fits in the caste system that was created in the United States, which was based upon what we call race.

What are the origins of America’s “caste system”?

Caste can be an instructive term for us because it’s been around for so long as an idea. We know of it from India, of course, because that’s the classic originating caste system going back thousands of years. Race is a relatively new term that only dates back for 400 or 500 years, dating back to the exploration of the world by European explorers when they came upon people who looked different from themselves. It didn’t have meaning until the building of the new world and the arrival of people from all over the world, settling into what is now the United States and South America.

English colonists, in particular, chose to create a hierarchy with people who were brought over. Africans were at the absolute bottom of the hierarchy. The indigenous people who had been driven from their land were exiled outside the hierarchy and not even included in this hierarchy that was created.

You mention in the book that “race” is more flexible than “caste.” Americans have redefined race to maintain this system in certain periods of our history. Could you provide some examples?

Anyone entering into the hierarchy from outside had to then figure out — “Where did they fit in?” And that’s how the caste system began to adjust itself based upon the demographics of who entered into the society. What was interesting about that is that people who are now considered to be without question part of the dominant caste would not have been considered “white” at different times in American history. In the late 19th century, early 20th century, people who were Italian, Polish, Romanian, and Lithuanian, did not fall automatically in the category of being white.

Access to the dominant caste has shape-shifted as people arrived here and had to be put into a slot. It’s this putting people in slots that creates the hierarchy that we still live with today. Even now, anyone arriving new to the country has to figure out where they fit into this preexisting system. In some of the continuing debates over immigration, we see reflections of these enduring questions about who is American and who should qualify to be a citizen.

Why do you think caste is a term that’s not often applied to the U.S.?

It generally remains within the realm of scholarly writing. And it never went beyond that, because race became the central defining feature of group dynamics — and often also of politics and other ways of looking at disparities in our country. We’ve not had the benefit of this different kind of lens of looking at ourselves. It’s in some ways liberating because it lifts us up from the more familiar, often freighted terms that we have developed strong emotions. It takes the emotions out of a conversation because in itself, it’s describing a structure that we have inherited. It’s not about guilt or shame or blame or finger-pointing. It’s about the structure that we’ve inherited.

In writing this book, I view myself as having been a building inspector. I have returned with the report on the building. It’s an X-ray, you might say, of what’s underneath what we think we see. Our focus on race is important in getting us to where we are, but we see that it hasn’t taken us as far as we need to go. There’s still a long way to go. I think recent months have certainly shown us that. There’s no way to really cross these divides unless you can see them for what they are.

As America’s ‘building inspector,’ how would you say its structure compares to two other caste systems you look at in the book — Nazi Germany and India?

The focus of my research into the Indian caste system was necessary because that was the oldest and most recognizable caste system. I did not go to Germany in the same way. I began looking into Germany because of Charlottesville. At the Charlottesville rally, we could see the confluence of this imagery — the symbolism of the Confederacy and of the Nazi symbolism — all coming together in the people who were protesting the potential removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee. We could see that they themselves were making a connection.

I set out to try to understand how Germany had begun the work of reconciling with what had happened there. I discovered so much more than I ever could have imagined. I discovered that German eugenists actually were in dialogue with American eugenicists. American eugenicists’ books were very popular in Germany in the years leading up to the Third Reich. Clearly the Nazis needed no one to teach them how to hate, and yet they did look to the United States. They sent people to the United States to research the Jim Crow laws, as they were beginning to debate and contemplate the Nuremberg laws.

One thing all the systems have shared deeply is this sense of feeling the need to protect the purity of those things identified as dominant from pollutants. All three of these societies went to tremendous lengths in order to keep the groups separate. They would focus on things such as water, a sacred element that couldn’t be shared by both groups. In India, Dalits, who were known as untouchables, weren’t allowed to drink from the same cup or well. Even their shadows were viewed as polluting. In Nazi Germany, Jewish people couldn’t swim with those who identified as Aryan. And in the U.S., there were tremendous restrictions on access to pools and bodies of water for African-Americans.

These societies are very different in so many ways, but there are parallels in that they delineated and ranked people, according to who is considered most valuable.

How much time did you spend on this book? Where did you get the idea for it?

It began with the completion of The Warmth of Other Suns. In that book, I chose not to use the word racism because it did not seem comprehensive enough. It didn’t seem accurate actually in conveying the broad, multilayered restrictions.

In some ways, this is a continuation of that. And so you could say that it has been 10 years in the making. I began to really dive in earnestly after Charlottesville though. And worked nonstop.

A lot has changed in these 10 years. Bringing us to the present, what are the solutions to fixing these longstanding divisions in the U.S.’s infrastructure?

I describe myself as a building inspector and ultimately I’m presenting my findings. It is up to the owners of the building to then figure out what we must do in order to strengthen and repair the building that we are in. All of us have a stake in repairing the building that we’re born into. Everyone needs to open their hearts and minds to the history that we’ve inherited. And it will take all of us to find a way out of a system that has been in place for 400 years. This is not going to be one person, one law, one person, one election, one individual. All of us have a part to play in maintaining what happens to be here now, and I think that it will take all of us to find a way out of it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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This originally appeared on Medium