Isabel Wilkerson is a Pulitzer Prize–winning writer and recipient of the National Humanities Medal. She is the author of the adult bestsellers The Warmth of Other Suns and Caste. In the latter, Wilkerson investigates the underlying divisions based on race and class throughout history and the ways in which those systems of oppression are perpetuated today. We asked Wilkerson and her editor Beverly Horowitz, senior v-p and publisher of Random House Children’s Books’ Delacorte Press, to discuss the process of adapting Caste for young readers, and how high school is a microcosm of social hierarchies.
Beverly Horowitz: It’s been illuminating to work on our edition of Caste, Isabel, and it hit me that in some ways, young people, teenagers especially, totally understand the caste system just by sitting in the cafeteria. There is a high school caste system that is noticeable the minute you walk into a school. I do feel that every kid on earth, from the playground to school to beyond, gets it, even though they wouldn’t call it a caste system. Can you help readers understand—as complicated as it is—what caste is?
Isabel Wilkerson: In a broad sense, caste is a universal form of human division that could be applied to many societies, to many institutions, and to many circumstances in which human beings find themselves. It is the idea of hierarchy and dividing people up and attaching value to people within that hierarchy. It’s a desire to control, to rank, to dominate, by attaching value to some and devaluing others in that system, society, or structure.
The young adults reading this book are the inheritors of that which we are now living with. It will be up to succeeding generations to have to deal with this. And that is why it’s so urgent that we look very closely at what I’d call this old house that we’ve inherited—that we protect this old house, that we fix the things that are wrong with it so that it can stand for many, many generations beyond.
Horowitz: There are so many important issues to highlight. The history of caste in India, the system used by the Nazis in the Holocaust, and so many others. But let’s look at the section where you talk about immigrants coming to the United States—people who had not been living in environments where there were people of color and did not know that they should hate or feel “above” anyone. But when they got here, somehow, or other, they got that message. Why does the caste system keep happening?
Wilkerson: When you enter a new society, you want desperately to succeed. You want to learn what the customs and the rules and the protocols are, what’s necessary for you to fit in, what’s necessary for you to thrive in that society. And you enter it and you realize, “Oh, there’s a hierarchy here, and I don’t want to be at the bottom. I may not be at the top because I just arrived, but I certainly don’t want be at the bottom.” And people begin to learn the rules of who’s been assigned to the bottom.
Teenagers can identify with the need to belong. If you’re going to a new school, you have to learn who’s in and who’s out, and who are the popular people and who are the outsiders or the people who are free spirits. There are all kinds of people when you enter high school. Because we’re human, there may be some ranking in all of that. I think we are all accustomed to having to figure out how to find a place to belong. No one wants to be on the bottom. People are working very hard to be on top, and in order to be on top, there needs to be people underneath you. And if you’re feeling insecure and unsettled, you might build your entire sense of worth on the idea that you are superior or could be seen as superior to those who are perceived as being underneath you. You could be deeply invested in maintaining that sense of superiority, much of it growing out of insecurity.
This exists on an everyday level, but when you magnify that to a societal level, you can see the damage that can be done, especially when you have groups of people who then are born to inherited presumed superiority or inherited presumed inferiority. And you can see the ways that this can build over the course of generations and, in our country, even centuries.
Horowitz: I’m going to shift so that we can discuss your writing style. Your work is nonfiction, researched with so many layers of accurate notes, and is also so poetic and moving. The people you interview become characters on the page. I believe teens will really be absorbed with these stories. Can you share an interview that stayed with you?
Wilkerson: I write narrative nonfiction, where you’re pulling all these remnants and scraps of story together and weaving them into something that you hope will be art. One of the stories that stands out to me was of a teenage African American boy in 1940s Florida. He was an only child and the pride and joy of his family. He had a job as a stock boy, which in the Jim Crow South was seen as moving up quite a bit because he was surrounded by people working in fields or in citrus groves. For him to get a job in a store was a big deal. The boy had a teenage white girl as a coworker, and he developed a crush on her. He wanted to do so well at his job that he sent Christmas cards to everyone at the store, including the girl he had a crush on. Inside her card, he signed something along the lines of “I like you so very much, and I could view you as a sweetheart.” When she received it, and because she was aware of what I would call a caste system—the rules, protocols, and customs of what is acceptable and what’s not acceptable—she showed the card to her father. He gathered some men, because this boy had broken one of the cardinal rules of the Jim Crow South, and of the caste system that developed in our country. The girl’s father and the men first got the boy’s father from his job. Remember, in a caste system such as this, the people who are in the dominant caste have the license to do whatever they wish to those who are in the subordinated caste. Then they went to get the boy, and they took both of them to a high bluff above a river. They told this boy to jump, restraining the father from doing anything to protect his son. The father had to watch his only child being forced to jump to his death because of a breach of caste—that of not crossing lines from one caste to another in terms of romantic expression. That young man could have been alive today. He might have been in his 80s, but he could have been alive. There was no one held to account because in that formal caste system, there were no consequences for that kind of murder.
Horowitz: There are still horrific injustices happening in the world—injustices that teenagers can recognize. What was one of your goals of adapting Caste into an edition for young adults?
Wilkerson: One of the goals of this book is to show how we are all diminished when we live in a caste system. We may not recognize it, particularly if we are born to the group that has the luxury of not having to think about this on a daily basis. People may not be aware of the ways in which we’re all harmed by it.
Those who are the targets have to live with it every day and have to be vigilant in a way that is actually damaging to their health. But those who are in the dominant group also experience consequences as a result of divisions that can breed fear and a sense of disconnect with one’s fellow citizens. We are a divided country, in part because we inherited these artificial divisions that have become so embedded in our society that we just take them for granted. We think that this is the way things are and always have to be because this is what we’ve inherited. I hope both editions of the book bring a recognition of what we’re all losing as a result of these divisions and how we can find a way to transcend and overcome them so that we can be a fair society for every single one of us.
Horowitz: I thank you, Isabel, for letting us work with you to bring Caste to young adults.
Caste (Adapted for Young Adults) by Isabel Wilkerson. Delacorte, $18.99 Nov. ISBN 978-0-593-42794-1