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“We all know in our bones that things are harder than they have to be.”

That’s just one insight in Krista Tippett’s rich and expansive live conversation with author and historian Isabel Wilkerson, of the many that hit home for me. Things are harder than they have to be, and the impediment to a better world for everyone is so deeply ingrained, like the grammar of our spoken language, that we are not fully aware of it. Just as we conjugate the verb to be by ear, or by heart, to I am, you are, he is, we sort our fellow humans according to unspoken markers of power and worth, of which we may be only barely conscious.

But there’s reason for hope: if we become aware of that underlying grammar, which Wilkerson identifies as caste, we can change the world. We can lay down this painful burden, if we can bring ourselves to acknowledge that it is there. Race is a big part of caste, but not the entirety of it; it’s illuminating to consider the role caste has played in one’s own life. I can certainly make more sense of some incidents that confounded me at the time, when I see them through the lens of caste.

I highly recommend listening to the Wilkerson/Tippett conversation on the On Being podcast. You can find it here.

The podcast brought me back to Isabel Wilkerson’s books. I’m listening to The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration on audiobook right now, and it’s answering so many questions I had about changes in my midwestern city when I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. I knew something big was happening, but it had no name and was not on the nightly news; in the perpetual present tense of childhood, I had no context for it. The writing is riveting, the historical research and individual narratives are compelling. Next up on my audiobook queue is Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.

I am so grateful for Isabel Wilkerson’s frank, measured, and compassionate voice, and her matter-of-fact reporting of history that for too long has been ignored or swept away.

Although Wilkerson’s books are scholarly, they are also full of excellent storytelling, and I actually am knitting as I listen. Both books are bestsellers and award winners, and can be accessed from libraries and booksellers everywhere.


  • The Warmth of Other Suns is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It helped me understand many things about our nation and its history as well. Thank you for this recommendation. I look forward to listening to this podcast.

    • Ditto!

  • Just added to my reading list. Thank you!

    • Isabel’s writing is exquisite!! Her writing captivates you. I have read both of her books and will listen to the podcast.

  • Thank you for this; two more books added to my reading list.

  • Caste: the Origins of Our Discontent was one of the most significant books I have ever read. Isabel Wilkerson writes about important, difficult truths in an eminently readable way.

    • I agree. It was a very difficult read in a few sections. Will be adding Kay’s recommendations to my reading list.

  • ….and your writing gets me there. Thanks, Kay.

  • Thanks for this.

  • The Color of Law is another book that explains a LOT re: the realm of historical housing policy- blew my socks off!

  • I have always been struck by how people think that the shameful idea of a caste system was exclusive to my native India. It may be called different things but a system of discrimination based on a certain “grammar” has existed all over the old. And exists today. Each of us must work daily to tear it down.

    My parents did it in the 1960s by marrying each other – a Christian (lower than the lowest caste) and a Hindu Brahmin. I wouldn’t be me without those quietly revolutionary parents. I always think how marvelous it is that Loving triumphed in 1967 in the US. Awareness is the first step.

  • I just purchased The Warmth and Caste became available on Libby. I am so shocked at what I am learning. The Nazi’s studied the US to see how they kept the”races” separate??!! Isabel Wilkerson is a gift to our world.

  • These books have been on my TBR pile (or at least in my Libby queue) for too long. I appreciate you reminding me of them — and saying you’re listening while you knit. I need to get started.

  • The Warmth of Other Suns is the book I tell everyone to read or listen to. It changed the way I see everything.

  • I recently finished The Warmth of Other Suns and totally agree with this! Will add Caste to my list.

  • Thanks for sharing this, Kay. I very much enjoyed The Warmth of Other Suns, so I know a little about Wilkerson’ work.
    I also liked your phrase, “the perpetual present tense of childhood”—that explains a lot too.

  • I have read both books, and highly recommend them. Warmth of other Suns tells personal stories along with historical events that really help you to understand the depth of racism in our nation. Caste helps you to understand how racism has become embedded into our society and what we can do to change that. I look forward to listening to the podcast.

  • Thank you for this. I read both of her books and really appreciate the chance to hear Ms Wilkerson speak with Krista Tippet.

  • I recently finished the book too. Fascinating and so well done.

  • Unfortunately, Wilkerson’s book “Caste” may not be accessible from all libraries, and it certainly remains at risk for removal from others as the First Amendment gets kicked around. The book was banned in 2021 at the Llano, Texas public library, which removed it and other books from the shelves and its public catalog. Just last Thursday (March 30, 2023) a federal judge in West Texas ordered “Caste” and other books to be made available to the public again at the Llano library. Llano County has filed an appeal of the federal judge’s ruling with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. Meanwhile, book banning campaigns continue in various places in our country. It’s not just a Texas thing.

    • I am a resident of Llano TX. I am quite FAMILIAR with this lawsuit. In fact, I use to use the library a lot. Notice past tense. There is no other word than clusterfu*k. It is more than just books. But books is just the tip of the iceberg as a societal whole there are issues; of religion, caste, growing a tax/income base, lack of funds for just about everything, changing social norms, income driven enterprises, it is the whole nine yards.

      Each side has valid concerns but between the lawsuit, he said/she said conversations and basically stubbornness and inability to look at many facets off this issue. I fear the library system in Llano is going to shut down. The judge is just saying to put the books on the shelves, this is not the end of the discourse because the case hasn’t gone to the Judge. The case doesn’t hit the courts until October. This means for those of the community, no new books for over a year, no dvds, no magazines, or upgrade in technology. No new series books, no Tom Clancy, no Nora Roberts, no Dr. Seuss. There will be no new reading, listening, viewing materials for the foreseeable future. Let that sink in.

      I would caution readers to take posted articles about Llano library with a grain of salt, or in many cases a good stiff drink. The issue is far more complex than you can believe.

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