I’ve been reading a lot of books on culture and racism recently. The thing that surprises me the most is how much I still don’t know; in every book I’ve learned something that feels like a slap in the face with a wet haddock: something you know you’ll experience one day, and that you won’t enjoy it.
Sanghera’s book takes a slightly different approach to the likes of Caste as it focuses on the Asian experience, and is similar to Natives as it takes a long, hard, painful look at the British Empire and its contribution to the divisions we see in society today.
It’s a broad-ranging piece of writing too, covering the author’s own experiences growing up, but focussing mainly on the hidden history of Britain’s time in India and China, and its treatment of the population.
Okay, a confession: I thought about dropping the book, a couple of times. It’s not that it’s not well-written, because it is (one of the best I’ve read actually). It’s not because it isn’t relevant; it’s been relevant for the past three hundred years. No, the problem is that I’ve been reading a lot (and I do mean A LOT) about race over the past year, so when I started Akala’s book, I think I started with a few preconcieved notions about what I was getting into, and for the most part I wasn’t surprised: it’s a brilliantly-researched, honest, opinionated, and occasionally bitter read from someone who’s elevated himself out of a place where white privileged society told him he belonged. I think the problem was that I was expecting the kind of jaw-dropping revelations that Isabel Wilkerson came up with in Caste, and I’m sure that there would’ve been a few, if I’d read this one first.
Once in a lifetime, if you’re lucky, you’ll come across a book that will change your perspective on everything: everything you’ve seen, everything you’ve heard, everything that’s happened before, everything that’s happening now, everything that’ll happen in the future. Once in a lifetime, you’ll come across a book that doesn’t tell you about something you haven’t already seen, or experienced, or at the very least suspected, but puts into a context that’s like a massive strobe light firing off inside your head.
Once in a lifetime, you’ll finish a book that compels you to sit in a dark room for a few hours with a bottle of something strong and NWA playing on a loop, just to make sure you have fully understood what you’ve just read.
For me, Caste is that book.
Being black, I’ve experienced a fair share of overt racism over the years: more than some, certainly a lot less than others, probably an average amount now I think on it; so when a book or article comes along that explores racism, then I’ll take a look (know your enemy and all that). The thing is, Wilkerson isn’t actually talking about racism, she’s talking about caste: a system deliberately created to elevate one group of people while keeping a knee on the neck of another, usually by ascribing an imaginary inferiority of the subordinate group through nothing more than a trait they were born with and cannot change (the colour of their skin, their parentage, their sexual orientation). On the surface, this looks a lot like like common-or-garden racism (or homophobia), so Wilkerson dives straight in and explains the difference: