Caste (Adapted for Young Adults) by Isabel Wilkerson

Note: I occasionally accept review copies from the publisher. Posts written from review copies are labeled. All opinions are my own. Posts may contain affiliate links. I may receive compensation for any purchased items.

Note: I recieved a digital review copy of this book, an adaptation for young adults. Also, I haven’t read the original, so these are just my thoughts on this adaptation as a book for young adults.

I had only ever been familiar with the word caste in terms of the people who live in India, born into a place in the social order. I knew about the Brahmans, who were the people at the top. They were born into privilege and education. Then, I knew that there were “untouchables” at the bottom of society. They didn’t have any choices on what they can do in their life and were relegated to the most disgusting and low jobs. This, of course, I understood to be in the past, since civil rights have made such distinctions as these inappropriate today (or at least they should be, even in a poor country, right?).

It was astounding to me, then, to read Wilkerson’s argument in Caste — Adapted for Young Adults (Delacourt Press, 2022) that not only do caste systems still exist but that a unique caste system is alive and well in the United States right now. Caste, to Wilkerson, is about more than race and social class. It is about power and control. Wilkerson compares three types of caste systems through history: the caste system in India, the Nazi’s caste system rapidly created between the world wars, and the caste system in the United States.

To Wilkerson, a caste system is an “arbitrary construction of human divisions,” and she explains the pillars of caste to include these:

  • caste is a part of divine will (or laws of nature)
  • caste is inherited
  • caste is inforced by endogamy
  • caste dehumanizes
  • caste is enforced with terror
  • caste defines occupations
  • caste mixing can pollute
  • caste determines inherent superiority versus inferiority

I’m missing so many basics, but these concepts are most of the first half of the book. What struck me was how in the U.S., this caste system as defined here was (and is) so much more strict than that of Nazi Germany in many respects. Yet, Nazi Germany is widely recognized for its horridness.

Why Does Caste Matter Here and Now?

I think most people reading this list of “pillars” of caste can recognize the ways caste has played a significant role in the creation of the USA and the continued existence of our nation, at least until the civil rights movement fixed it, right?

But this book points out so many facts that many must either learn or recognize. Mixed-race marriage was still legally challenged until 1967, which is within our lifetimes or pretty close to it. When we consider how occupations were defined by caste until 50 years ago as well, are we surprised by the demographics of the ones most in need of social assistance? With media, as it is, we can all watch “terror as enforcement” of caste on a daily basis, recorded from a cell phone and showing police brutality.

Caste Is Not Just About Race

Wilkerson goes on to argue that with Barak Obama as the first African-American president, the people raised in the traditional caste system simply had enough. This frustration brought the Trump body to life, a group that wants to hearken back to caste-like ideals, with caste-defined occupations and caste-inherent superiority and inferiority. I’m not saying every Trumpist follows racist policies. But I do believe Wilkerson is spot-on in identifying one reason so many welcomed Trump: they were more comfortable in the “caste-ist” system, even when we don’t realize it. And racism is a part of caste.

One thing that helped me see that caste is not just about race was a comment about the difference in treatment between those that have immigrated to the USA and those who have always lived here. One Caribbean immigrant to the USA told an interviewer that he made a point never to lose his accent because he recognized it was a racist country: he wouldn’t lose his status in society if he kept his accent.

So, it’s not about race. But it should make us all think: how do we treat the people who come into our life?

It was painful to recognize some of my own assumptions and actions. No one reading this will ever claim they are caste-ist (racist). But even people of the “lowest caste” find themselves acting racist/caste-ist about themselves. As a white middle-class American with Norwegian heritage, I see clearly that I am one of the privileged Americans simply by my birth into a caste. They, and I, were born into it and it will take a lot of training to unlearn.

So What Can We Do?

Caste should be read by every young adult in the United States. It ties together some of the problems of our society into our past and shows how our own attitudes can make a difference. Wilkerson ends her book with a few personal anecdotes. The last is about how she helped make an uncomfortable situation (possibly racially motivated) into a comfortable one. It was by conversing, being personable, and simply talking. We are each a person and we have conversations.

If only 400 years of caste-ism (racism) were this easy to erase.

But every young adult will not read this book. We live in a very divided society. In fact, our society is so divided will most likely end up banning this book. It is a book that looks hard at the history of the United States and how that history impacts the minds and habits of everyone living in it today. It will offend people who feel comfortable with a Robert E. Lee statue representing the Civil War. It will make young people ask their parents questions.

Caste is heavy-hitting, but it is young adult appropriate (I’d suggest ages 16+). Younger readers may have a hard time getting into the beginning of the book, but the individual chapters are short and the many anecdotes round it out. Some content mentions include lynchings and other violent behavior, sexual relations between slaves and their masters, and Nazi Party leadership meetings to determine Jewish-ness (among other things). These things are disturbing. History is painful.

So, no. Not every young adult or adult will read this book. But maybe you, whoever you are reading this review, will give it a chance. Will you at least read it? Understanding race, class, and caste is not always black and white. And we can all, always, use another perspective.

A Sidenote: Countries with Racist Pasts

Why can’t the U.S. address racism like South Africa does?

Or like Germany does?

At New Yorker (limit per month, sorry!): What Can We Learn from The Germans About Confronting Our History?

At Slate: How do German students learn about the Holocaust?

Reviewed on November 30, 2022

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}