Oprah talks about Isabel Wilkerson's book | Instagram/oprah
Oprah talks about Isabel Wilkerson's book | Instagram/oprah
Text Size:

Oprah Winfrey’s book clubs are legendary. So, when Oprah sent out a new book to 100 American CEOs and 400 leaders soon after the transformative #BlackLivesMatters protest and called it the most important book club selection ever, the world had to pay attention. And when that book mentions ‘India’ 136 times, it becomes mandatory reading for us. And yet Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent by Pulitzer Prize-winning African-American author Isabel Wilkerson, a book that The New York Timecalls an ‘Instant American Classic’ is not stirring up Indian public debate or hitting our bookshelves.

Wilkerson is not the first Western scholar to focus on India’s caste system. She is the latest entrant in the list of Célestin Bouglé, Max Weber, Louis Dumont, Émile Senart, McKim Marriott, Nicholas Dirk, Gail Omvedt, Rosalind O’Hanlon, Susan Bayly, Joan P. Mencher, the Rudolfs and many more. But what sets Wilkerson apart is that she brings her lived Black identity to the understanding of caste as a pathology.

The Washington Post headline says that the author “knows that effective discussions about race require new language”. In The New Yorker, Sunil Khilnani writes that the author illuminates and collapses a complex history of White supremacy in the US and the caste system in India. In The Guardian, Fatima Bhutto writes, “It is a painfully resonant book and could not have come at a more urgent time.”

It’s strange that other than Mumbai Mirror and Swarajya, no Indian media platform has reviewed or published excerpts from the book yet. Similarly, no TV channel (we are actually hoping for too much) has discussed it yet. Let’s hope that this epistemic gap will be fulfilled sooner or later. Especially because the word ‘caste’, which is an Indian construct, finds as many as 1,469 mentions in Wilkerson’s book, including in the title. Our very own Manu, the famous or infamous author of Manusmriti, has been mentioned six times in the book. The book also mentions Jyotirao Phule, B.R. Ambedkar, M.K. Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and so on. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent notes how Martin Luther King Jr. was introduced to the students of a Kerala school as ‘fellow untouchables’ from the US.


Also read: Cisco case shows big corporates, market forces can’t fix caste bias. Govts must intervene


Combining life and text 

If it’s difficult to address caste in the US, it is even more so in Indian academic traditions. The study of caste in India often reduces the concept to a hermeneutic reading of ancient Sanskrit texts. If you do not know Sanskrit, you are not qualified enough to study caste and have to rely on translations of those texts considered ‘sacred’ by twice-born Hindus. So, almost all caste studies carry the burden of quoting from Purusha Sukta of Vedas, this or that smriti and some Puranas.

D.P. Mukerji argues that unless sociological training in India is grounded in Sanskrit, or any such language in which traditions have been embodied as symbols, social research in India will be a pale imitation of what others are doing. 

Sociologist Gail Omvedt has started a new tradition of studying caste by looking at the text produced by non-Brahmin authors such as Chokhamela, Janabai, Kabir, Ravidas, Tukaram, the Kartabhajas, Phule, Iyothee Thass, Pandita Ramabai, Periyar, and Ambedkar.

Wilkerson carries this tradition forward and quotes extensively from the works of Ambedkar and contemporary authors such as Suraj Yengde, Anand Teltumbde, Gurram Srinivas, V.T. Rajshekhar, Chandra Bhan Prasad, Kalpana Kannabiran, Yashica Dutt and Mohan Dass Namishray. You will probably not find such a socially diverse bibliography in any book on caste written by Indian masters of sociology.

Wilkerson’s work is also important because she does not depend too much on textual readings, but goes on to study the problem herself and carries out ethnographical work in India. This intersection of text, lived experience and ethnographic study gives her a perspective that makes her work stand out.


Also read: Lights, camera, caste – An Ambedkar photo made it to Bollywood after 38 yrs of independence


Studying caste as pathology

Wilkerson’s book situates caste here and now — and studies its roots and symptoms.

Unlike many Western authors who have looked at caste as an exotic oriental thing, or those sociologists who have seen caste as an ideology (Dumont describes caste as a binary system of pure and profane, Bouglé sees caste as a system based on separation, hierarchy and interdependence whereas Dirk defines caste more as a modern colonial construct), Wilkerson sees caste as pathology, a problem of gigantic proportion that has impacted and is still impacting millions of people and making their life miserable. At the same time, caste places millions of others in a privileged position.

While seeing caste as a pathology, Wilkerson provides a definition of casteism: “Any action or structure that seeks to limit, hold back, or put someone in a defined ranking, seeks to keep someone in their place by elevating or denigrating that person on the basis of their perceived category, can be seen as casteism.”

If we juxtapose this definition with what Nehru said in The Discovery of India on caste, then we can understand the contrast. Nehru wrote: “In the constructive schemes that we may make, we have to pay attention to the human material we have to deal with, to the background of its thought and urges, and to the environment in which we have to function. To ignore all this and to fashion some idealistic scheme in the air, or merely to think in terms of imitating what others have done elsewhere, would be folly. It becomes desirable therefore to examine and understand the old Indian social structure which has so powerfully influenced our people.”

While Nehru and Gandhi also emphasised on not harping too much on the idea of equality, because it is an alien idealistic scheme, they stressed on examining and understanding the caste system. This is exactly what all the masters of Indian sociology — from G.S. Ghurye to M.N. Srinivas and Andre Beteille — have done it all these years. They have analysed and studied caste not as a problem, but as a system.

What caste needed all along was a perspective from below — because it doesn’t exist in sociological petri dishes, it’s all around us.


Also read: Black Lives Matter must fire up India’s anti-caste movement to fight its central villain


Perspective from below

Wilkerson has a vantage point on the problem of caste because of her unique location. She gives numerous examples from the past and present to illustrate how she and other Black Americans are being viewed and treated differently, sometimes knowingly and most times, unknowingly. She asserts: “It’s [caste’s] invisibility is what gives it power and longevity.” Unlike Dumont or Bouglé and many other Western authors, Wilkerson has a better handle on the topic because she has a standpoint (the idea of standpoint in sociology has its root in feminism) of the oppressed.

That defines her focus and stock of knowledge, which translates into a narrative that is unique and powerful. She writes: “Casteism is the investment in keeping the hierarchy as it is in order to maintain your own ranking, advantage, privilege, or to elevate yourself above others or keep others beneath you….For this reason, many people—including those we might see as good and kind people—could be casteist, meaning invested in keeping the hierarchy as it is or content to do nothing to change it, but not racist in the classical sense, not active and openly hateful of this or that group.” No Ghurye or Srinivas or D.P. Mukerji could have written these lines — not because they did not have the knowledge of the caste system, but because they do not have the standpoint of a Black or a Dalit woman.

The author is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has written books on media and sociology. Views are personal.

Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it

India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.

But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.

ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.

Support Our Journalism

53 Comments Share Your Views

53 COMMENTS

  1. The word caste is a Portuguese construct not an Indian one. Please revise your history. If you picked that up from this book then the book is flawed as well on this fact

  2. AFRICAN AMERICAN POPULATION IS 13 PERCENT AND THE POPULATION IN JAIL IS 34 PERCENT. I THINK A BETTER STUDY OF HOW DIFFERENTLY WHITE CHRISTIANS ARE TREATED AS OPPOSED TO BLACK CHRISTIANS WILL BE AN INTERESTING STUDY.

  3. No. 1 Astrologer 9001805605 for Love Problem Solution
    If you are upset due to regular fights and arguments with your husband and it is affecting your mental peace. Get Love Problem Solution from our pandit ji i.e. N.K. Shastri ji. For more details, contact him at 9001805605

  4. “have to rely on translations of those texts considered ‘sacred’ by twice-born Hindus”
    Wow. Nevermind. I am just an intolerant Hindu.

  5. NOW IN INDIA WE HAVE ONLY COMMITTED NEWSPAPER AND T.V. MEDIA THEY ARE CONTROLLED BY RULING ELITES. SO THERE IS NO COMMENTS REGARDING THIS BOOK. BUT INDIA HAS DEMOCRATIC POPULATION RESIDING IN ABOUT 26 STATES. ALREADY THERE ARE STATES LIKE KEALA AND TAMILNADU. WHO FOLLOWS PRINCIPLE OF EQUALITY FOR ALL COMMUNITIES. INDIA IS A VIBRANT NATION HAVING
    WRITTEN CONSTITUTION. SO ONCE IN FIVE YEARS THERE SHALL BE CHANGE BECAUSE OF ELCTION.

  6. The book has create no ripples in India because caste system has been discussed threadbare for at least the last 200 years with a host of social reformers trying to eradicate it, measures like affirmative discrimination have been in place for at least 70 years. Caste system is more or less dead in urban India (but alive in pockets of rural India). Today caste system is most relevant to politicians, media and left wing intellectuals.

  7. Review is a classical piece. Makes the book a must read one. Such seminal work on caste has come out is news to me. Thank you for opening the window on an important work very relevant today.

  8. Please tell the Blacks in America to concentrate on improving their situation in USA and not waste precious time and resources on our country.What a sheer waste of such expertise on a country 20000 kms away when your own country is burning.Something wrong with American Blacks.

  9. Very well and perfectly defined as what is casteism and how it affects lives. And it’s very true that the educated and positioned individuals are casteist. Whoever says that caste pyramid is overturned is actually happy that it didn’t after this govn. Otherwise Mandal commission’s true implementation would had it turned. One can take any state particular Hindu heartlands and check which caste and hierarchy people are more into important positions of decision making and policy making in Government and big Corporate sector. Whoever says that person can grow in his/her own caste and category can check the number of astrocity cases if a person who even distributes sweets for his/her any small achievement, marriage, etc to any previldge individual of higher caste, how he/she is abused, manhandled and linched. Very very few marginally 1 or 2% of higher caste are liberal and extend hands of support or appreciation. And such are trolled and called urban nuxals nowadays. The live experience of the author is the true larger picture of our Great country who would turn poor if not improved.

  10. Why the hell Isabel Wilkerson compare Jati in India for reference for the cause of black lives in US. It wouldn’t work . See in US it’s about race in India it’s about labour system.
    Hope you guys understand and please don’t compare your sociology with ours it’s totally different.

  11. India/Bharatavarsha has Varna System and not Caste system.

    Varna system is based on skill and in some periods of time is interpreted as based on birth and that is clearly corrected by Shri Krishna, Annamayya, Adi Sankaracharya and many through the ancient history, who had respected and treated people based on skill

    Request you to please learn the true history and not that of British people forced classification of people in the name of caste and write dividing info in those lines

    Whoever did such misinterpretation in the history did a mistake, no exception about that

  12. The author of the book seems to have a very little knowledge of inside Indian cultural n social behavior n interaction patterns. The book is solely based on a work that has never been read by over 98% Indians and on some newspaper cuttings. No actual ground reality. Therefore, the book can be thrown into dustbin.

  13. It’s TRUE what she says is absolutely true.,,,,am an I Disney who is writing this……Indians are one rubbish ediots disgusting people who treat their own countrymen as outcasts.. doesrst not allow them in to temples…don’t guve them drinking water ..don’t allow marriages to happen because of caste…., we so called Indians are useless sht people who kill our own people because of caste…shame on our part that now everyone in the world knows about it..

  14. Stupid interpretation and why should it bother that this book has not been discussed in India;clearly the writer is either totally prejudiced or has not understood our texts; caste was alien to us and was introduced by the British, however there was discrimination and untouchability which has been condemned widely and it has nothing to do with caste system. Matter of fact other religions practice it more widely and less spoken about Oprah ‘Fake’ Winfrey the better

  15. Can anyone show me a society where everyone is treated as an equal? People have always been treated differently according to their status in the society. All religions have stratas in the society and people are treated differently according to their status. That’s the truth.

    • Is this a justification for inequality?

      All religions explicitly preach equality of all humans before God except Hinduism!

      Class exists everywhere. It is based on money and access to power. However caste is based on birth. In the scriptures it is clearly written that higher castes are dearer to God as compared to the lower castes. Note Untouchability is unique to India and it is not found elsewhere.

  16. Inequality, and hence hierarchy are the very laws of Nature. Call it caste or by any other name, it is a fact of life. The notion that all humans are created equal is incorrect. Denying this is like saying all numbers are equal.

    • Your comment is among the most shameful and disappointing defence of the caste system. It is sad that people in this age of science still remain invested in the imagined hierarchy and superiority of one human over the other. Would you, by your own supposition, accept that the British oppression over Indians for their coloured skins or racial discrimination in the US or Australia, was justified? This mentality is what keeps Hindusim and thus India from realizing her true potential as a world power. ALL HUMAN BEINGS ARE CREATED EQUAL AND IT IS US HUMANS WHO CREATED THE HIERARCHY.

    • Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs don’t think so.
      What makes Hinduism so special to know intimately about the laws of Nature ? It is only your mind that has been filled with static ideas and concepts that are 2000-3000 years old.

  17. The title of this book is ignorant, ridiculous, and LITERALLY WRONG. Caste in India is no longer a handicap. For at least two decades the previously oppressed Shudras have been given guaranteed 50 percent numerical quotas in college admissions, government jobs, and promotions. They also receive 90 percent reduction in tuition.
    Unbeknownst to Ms. Wilkerson, and to her readers being led to pasture, India has INVERTED the caste pyramid. One of the reasons Indian students who can afford it come to the US for UNDERGRADUATE study is that quotas have HALVED their opportunities in India.
    America DOES NOT FAVOR its lower “castes” (agreeing to use that loaded word for now) at all like India does. If Wilkerson if advocating an India-like solution in America, she needs to say it.

    • Mr Mishra, I can guarantee you that you completely misunderstood the fabric of caste system in India and the contexts that are been referred here in sociological terms. In some previous comment one gentleman even told that “considering all humans are born equal is like considering all numbers are equal”, “inequality and hierarchy are very laws of nature”, “can anyone show me the society where everyone are treated equal” etc. Seems to Subscribe to the idea that caste as its form is unavoidable and is justified. That is the level of thinking among the strata of Hindu community and so much imbued into the social fabric that people who converted to Christianity still maintain their caste inconspicuously like in Kerala. Going anywhere in this world won’t change this status among the Indians and still be observed on occasions at least they don’t have to struggle for yours since you got titled yourself Mr Mishra.

  18. Caste system is not about discrimination of human being. But a well planned system. It does not abuses any human being. But let them become what they want to be according to their level of understanding. I can explain it how and why it started.

    • So Ambedkar who was sagacious enough to write our constitution was tagged an ‘Untouchable’ for his level of understanding? Have you even bothered to read any of his books? That is what caste does to people. It keeps a vast majority of Indians away from education, prevents them from innovating and ultimately deprives India of all the intellectual might that might be at her disposal.

  19. I am currently reading this book. The author compares slavery, the jews under nazi rule & India as all having a fixed rigid caste system. The journalist above only talks about India . WHY?
    This book has defined what “Black Lives Matters” means to me & why it is so important we pay attention to hundreds of years of suppression by racist dominant white men. Trump is proliferating a confederate ideology by trying to keep minorities in their place as the Indian caste system also does. Even woman were defined as the weaker submissive caste as compared to men. This allowed men to treat woman as lesser of the two genders, & permitted men to run our lives.

    • The journalist talks only about India because he is Indian and he is probably a Dalit himself. Women were and still continue to be treated as lesser humans in India not just by Hindus but also among other religious groups. Societal Orthodoxy will never let India achieve her potential. We need to be critical of our past even as we defend our faith and culture. Hinduism and all other Dharmic belief systems encourage freedom of thought, unlike Islam and Christianity which seek to inhibit such critical thinking through the use of blasphemy laws and other restrictive means. We have every right to be proud of being a Hindu must also face up to the fact that in the name of our faith, people have peddled many supremacist theories to serve their own interests. Its about time we faced up to these to make India a better place for all her children.

  20. The ‘red Indians’ were decimated by the white population who thought they were superior. They used find against bows and arrows. The whites kept the blacks as slaves and said it is as per Bible. The Europeans decimated all the pagans Europe. Don’t forget Rwanda and other African countries. Shamelessly the white academicians and authors talk about human rights. Too deflect their crude behaviours of the past they now turn out on caste. And who introduced caste to India. The British and Portugese. Before the first census of 1870 or so there was nothing called caste. In fact many local people did not know what it was. The British forced it on Indians. Even now the whites think they are superior by denigrating others after what they have done world over, over the past 400 to 500 years.

    • And so, something that is not there since thousands of years in Indian system suddenly popped up because some English men came and created this and millions of people started subscribing to it. Right? Indians are so culpable inspite of having thousands of years of cultural Heritage and history. Great one!

  21. The author can title the book what they want, but this is clearly an attempt to conflate Western racism with the Indian system of jatis. Jatis are not castes as portrayed by the so called “eminent scholars”. They are a system of endogamy and exogamy with a fluid relationship to occupational and social status. The appropriate comparisons would need with class as it existed and exists, say, in Britain. That these barriers are now lowered is the result of two world wars. However, class still persists as a conversation with the less privileged classes in Britain would reveal.

    Caste is NOT an Indian construct but a colonial one. The social relationship between jatis became crystallised and ossified under colonial rule, while the traditional mobility was lost.

    To call African Americans as untouchables is an insult to both societies and an attempt by the same forces that were and are responsible for racism and caste constructs to deflect attention while furthering their agenda of destabilisation of the Indian state and its conversion to Abrahamic ideologies – I do not wish to glorify these as religions.

    Only deracinated products off the Macaulay system and their compradors would wish to honour such books with their attention.

    • Do you believe that people can migrate from one caste to another caste? If so, how? Can you please mention few provisions in ancient texts? not examples.

      Or do you think people must stick to the caste they are born in?

    • He will but when the right time come . I hope you are literate enough to read the news and watch the videos in which people of lower caste are beaten up badly only because they come from lower caste . As for the case of reservation even upper caste people are getting so called “EWS” reservation . I think some upper caste people are not able to prove themselves better than their own counterparts(“UPPER CASTE”) only they give excuses of reservation .

  22. I believe in my cast and I don’t think other casts are better or worse than my cast, I don’t want to marry someone beside cast and that is my personal which is to be respected. Now change the work cast to race and live happily. My life my preference, my freedom and my right.

  23. Castism is an evil system existed in India since ages, sufferers are continue to suffer from exploitation, discrimination, oppression and freedom in all walks of life while privileged people continue to enjoy all privileges freely without any discrimination. While majority Hindus of India continue to suffer under this system, a few minority group is enjoying all privileges. This is continuing and perpetuate since ages in Hinduism without any question. These privileged group carry caste system where ever they go and practice discrimination against fellow Indian Hindus without hesitation.
    Many politicians use caste as tool for their political mileage while low caste leaders have become stooges of Upper caste in order to enjoy political patronage. Until and unless the lower caste people rise their voice, fight for freedom and equality, there is no future for them except living without dignity and self-respect. For India, there is no meaning in celebration of Independance day in India unless otherwise, enforcing the law of land in true spirit to contain and eradicate this inhuman practice and prejudice.

  24. Go to any matrimonial site in India and you can see how the caste system is thriving and well established it is in India. But surprised why Americans or people outside Hinduism shedding crocodile tears about this. Just to score some more useless brownie points talking against India and Hinduism.

    As a change the authors can also write on meritocracy, abolishing reservations so that the playing field is equal for everyone. On the one hand everyone wants reservations but how is reservations possible without caste system. What a paradox , Just amazed!!

    • True. I often wonder why marriage is quoted in response to castism. People approve or reject marriage partners based on multiple parameters – looks, height, weight, complexion, sense of humour, extrovert, introvert, dressing sense – literally anything. Yet people project as if caste is the only criteria. Marriage is a personal choice. What is required is that in public life there is no discrimination. This cannot happen while entire sections of people claim concession at every step of the way and then demand to be treated as equal. Further, more and more sections of society agitating to be classified as ‘backward’ or most ‘backward’ or scheduled caste is evidence that there is no stigma associated with such castes. However, it must be acknowledged that there are large sections of society which are handicapped due to being socially and economically disadvantaged. Therefore, if these sections of society genuinely wish to claim to be at par with the so called ‘upper castes’, they need to do two things:- (1) There are some people in these castes who have achieved some amount of financial success and own and operate their own business. Can they promote employment of people belonging to their caste or other similar castes? Can the tables be turned where others ‘upper caste’ will claim exclusion of opportunities? (2) Can some people in these caste, who have overcome their socio economic barriers come forth and give up the reservation benefits for themselves and their future generations?

      Equality cannot be demanded. It needs to be claimed and it cannot be claimed by repeatedly asserting inability to compete.

      • While personal attributes may be looked at 99.99 % marriages happen within caste.
        Biologically looked at it is about preserving genes and through genes preserving behaviours.
        This genetic isolation in groupings of castes has been preserved through the millennia. It has created wide differences in capabilities. Now lower castes do not want to do just physical or menial jobs they also aspire to become scientists engineers doctors lawyers officers etc. So they need help in terms of reservations. Yes initially they will find it difficult to compete it may take many generations before a level playing field can be achieved.
        If this country does not give opportunities to large sections of population India will forever have a large mass of backward and uncivilized people. Just 5-10% of population cornering all academia and white collar jobs will not stabilize our society.

        If we had a truly mixed society like Japan or Korea or China we could have progressed faster economically because we would not have these social distractions and the ensuing debates and politics around it. Unfortunately this is the way our Hindu society has evolved.

    • Reservation is created to avoid economic exploitation of “privileged” people and bring up economic equality not social equality. Both are not equal. Meritocracy exists among equals. So what you said is not paradox but a narrow understanding of social constructs.

    • The book IS ON CASTE. See at the beginning of this column the picture of the cover of the book, reading, “Caste”,.

  25. Mr Mandal, Caste is a problem and it will take some time to be completely removed. But looks like, by that time most of people like you would have become stooges of the American politicians, who use these books as political tools. The best part of Hinduism is whoever feels it is not suiting him, he is free to be something else like Muslim, Christian, Buddhist etc which supposedly not have casteism. But alas, look at America, they are talking about having some kind of caste among Christians also. So instead of making it a habit to harm India by these kind of talk, do something worthwhile like helping the Dalits get more education and jobs, which will help solve this problem.

    A question to The Print, please find some intellectual who are honest and really interested in discussing solution to problems instead of people who want to flaunt how India is being treated as an outcast and how they love that.

  26. Why will Indians talk about it? Caste system has been in existence right from the birth of the nation. Did anyone say that the caste system needs to be abolished in this 50 years. Not one discussion. And instead Indians have taken the caste system abroad wherever they are settled. All this has also come up in many ways by electing a Hindu government at the centre. So why will Indians talks about the caste system?

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here