Posted on January 4, 2021


I’m reading Isabel Wilkerson’s book, Caste. It is less a book than an experience. It is like having been seated in a room in which my chair has been in the same place, facing the same way. I have gotten to know the room intimately from my optimal vantage point. I have come to conclusions and I have had insights. I have shared those conclusions and insights with others. Some have been impressed. I have believed that my knowledge of my room has served me well in life.

With her words, Isabel Wilkerson has changed the position of my chair. I am still seated in the same room, this room I have come to know intimately. My senses are the same, the senses I have relied upon throughout my life. My brain functioning is the same. My life experiences have not changed. Yet everything is now different. Seen from a different perspective, I experience the room in a new way. I am shocked, I am horrified, I am confused. I find myself arguing with what I see. And then comes the great ah-ha moment, the transformation, the awareness that my perceptions have been created by a reality that has been too narrow and, in some cases, based on something other than reality. That awareness changes the way I see my world, my country, myself.

I believed my country to be the the land of the free and the home of the brave. I may have experienced a dissonance when I thought about how our country treated Native Americans. I may have experienced a dissonance when I tried to equate slavery with democracy. I may have experienced a dissonance when I read about the McCarthy trials, the Japanese internment camps, the long history of voter suppression, the endless examples of this country being something other than the shining light on the hill. I put this knowledge somewhere and continued to believe that ultimately, this country, our country, is what I believed it to be. When Trump was elected, I and many of my friends said “I don’t recognize my country anymore.” I shake my head when I think of that now.

Wilkerson loves this country as much as I do. She simply sees it for what it is, a country as embedded in the caste system as is India or was Nazi Germany. A country that sanctioned atrocities, if not on the same scale or with the same organization as Nazi Germany, but with the same intent. A country whose caste system is so embedded into our national psyche that we would do anything, give up anything, to keep it in place. A people who would gladly support a person whose morals and ethics are in direct opposition to ours, because that person would seek to protect the caste system we hold so dear. Wilkerson makes a brilliant connection between the ills we are now grappling with as a country and the caste system we can’t let go of. She has done her research, and it is as fascinating as it is disturbing.

I pride myself as being an intelligent, thoughtful, perceptive, extremely well-read human. I have now been forced to confront my own misconceptions about slavery, about race relations, about our political and judicial system, about Trump supporters, about the opioid crisis, about any number of ills we grapple with. The data exists. It has simply been collected and presented in a fastidious and powerful way. No novel could be more compelling.

A word of caution: There is one section that details the documented physical mistreatment of slaves. Those of you who are squeamish about human brutality toward other humans should skip this part.

If you haven’t read Caste, please do. I suspect that, no matter how well-read you are, you will learn something valuable from this book. You will see through new eyes. Wilkerson, in her seductively well-researched, literate and soft-spoken way, will have firmly changed the position of your chair.

Posted in: book review