Over the last few months, the IDF team read and met several times to discuss Caste by Isabel Wilkerson. Here we share some of our personal thoughts, learnings, and what stuck with us.


Wilkerson’s deep, specific, critical analysis of how our country was designed pushes us to think really hard about who, what and how we want to collectively be as a country. We can’t shed our bones. So how do we choose to exist as a multiracial, caste based, democratic, capitalist society and ensure dignity for all of us despite our bones? — Lisa Jackson, Managing Partner

I was taught in grade school that slavery was a “sad dark chapter” in U.S. history. I understood in reading Caste that it is the foundational basis of our economic and social order and realized that my knowledge of the origins of our country was woefully inadequate and incomplete. Isabelle Wilkerson writes that we can’t diagnose America’s race problems of today without knowing a full, honest, and complete history of our country. Going back to the beginning and connecting the dots to see how this “unseen skeleton” or caste hierarchy came into being is helping me see my role to deconstruct and dismantle the whole insidious system. — Jennifer Oakley, Program Partner

In the epilogue of Caste, Wilkerson asks, “Will the United States adhere to its belief in majority rule if the majority does not look as it has throughout history?” This question has been reverberating loudly in my mind over the last weeks and months as the United States experiences just the latest in a long and shameful history of voter suppression. Wilkerson also reminds White Americans that “[you] can be born to the dominant caste but choose not to dominate.” For me, Caste has served as powerful continuation of my learning that anti-racism work happens at many levels—individual, community, workplace—and that civic engagement is a necessary place where White Americans must step out of the complacency of their whiteness and “choose not to dominate” by actively and intentionally using their voice, their vote, and their resources to protect BIPOC voters. So in response to Wilkerson’s question, I’m asking myself whether I’ve done enough to ensure that people who don’t look like me or have the access that I do are able to fully participate in our democratic process. — Katinka Hakuta, Grants Manager

Isabel Wilkerson aptly names caste as “more than a rank, it is a state of mind that holds everyone captive, the dominant imprisoned in an illusion of their own entitlement, the subordinate trapped in the purgatory of someone else’s definition of who they are and who they should be.” As a woman of color in the U.S., a daughter of immigrants, a proud member of the AAPI community, my lived experiences are shaped by complicated and often contradictory legacies of coercive systems of power upheld by generations of people who’ve benefited from my subjugation. I’m well aware of the sociopolitical positioning of East Asians in particular in this country, casting a monolithic perception of Asian Americans as “the model minority,” fixed beneath the white racial hierarchy, pitted against Black and Brown communities, all to distract from the white supremacist scaffolding holding up this illusory power. Stolen power. When one understands the real history of how this country came to be – not the sanitized versions of history pumped into our collective consciousness through white dominated institutions and spaces – one begins to realize the pathology of whiteness, the insanity of whiteness, the irreparable harm cast upon generations of peoples of colors, how whiteness fuels disconnection from humanity, thus, inhibits any empathy from those who are plagued by it. In the wake of this past year, mourning the murders of our Black and Asian brothers and sisters, killed by state-sanctioned violence, perpetrated by those infected by the dehumanizing effects of whiteness, we must remain steadfast in unearthing our humanity through the dis-ease, hold one another’s pain as our own, work to unlearn the internalized hatred of the “Other,” and ask ourselves, beyond the false and meaningless associations and adjacency to power, who are we? — Leah Hong, Program Partner

I read Caste over the course of a month. It was something I needed to sit with and truly absorb. The book and discussions about it have had a profound effect on my understanding of race, whiteness, anti-blackness, privilege, systems of oppression and all their combined implications. As a white woman, I had some understanding of the privilege that flows to me and my family based on the color of our skin. Caste deepened that understanding and allowed me to see more clearly how our country’s history and culture have been shaped by this dehumanizing system. I find myself looking at everything through the lens of caste. It has caused me to examine so many assumptions and more importantly to look for ways to help weaken the systems that hold this hierarchy in place. — Sheila Leddy, Program Partner

I listened to the audiobook and somehow felt and imagined that the author, Isabel Wilkerson, was speaking directly to me. It was a powerful experience reading the book as a team and being able to process together. As a white person reading the book, I found myself so saddened by how much I have been oblivious to both the savagely inhumane realities of slavery that our history books have so sanitized and whitewashed as well as the more subtle forms of racism that Wilkerson so vividly describes from her own personal experience. Her sociological and intersectional lens on how caste operates in the past and the present has stamped my psyche deeply and motivates me personally to want to do more to repair the deeper roots and branches of the caste-based racism that persists in American society. I am still very much on the journey and am grateful for all or our partners and friends, our team, and the larger community in and around the Imago Dei Fund which is working to repair the harm of caste-based oppression and lean into this moment of racial reckoning to do what is each of ours uniquely to do. — Emily Nielsen Jones, Founding Partner

As someone raised believing we are all created in God’s image, I spent much of my life naively trusting that “a rising tide lifts all boats”, that kindness, respect, and true love alone could make the world a better place for everyone. Isabel Wilkerson helped me understand, though, that some boats are still unjustly anchored to the bottom, and while there is much to be done, we are obligated to untether them. — Kristie O’Brien Oberlies, Director of Technology

Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste was extraordinarily impactful for me – it challenged and expanded my understanding of our country’s history and through her storytelling awakened deep empathy for those who have had to struggle and fight so hard to make their way and fulfill their God given potential in our own country. This last year has driven home for me the need to listen carefully and resist quick, sometimes protective reactions. This book has been more helpful than any other single thing in this endeavor. — Ross Jones, Founding Partner

This is not Eden. For too long, too many people have (un)intentionally not seen or understood how each of us plays a part in what we now are as a society. Caste is a book that uncovers the everyday words and actions that we use to place our fellow human beings onto a certain rung on the ladder of society. When I first heard the book title, I (as many others) thought of other societies – times and places; the connections to our U.S. lived experience was quickly established and it was disturbing to read how much is done in service to this artificial construct of caste and furthermore, to realize how much has been experienced by me and those that I love growing up in the Deep South. How much more heartbreaking it must be for God to see creation stripped of its dignity and hate instead of love shown to one another? We can’t create Eden, but we can and must do better. Otherwise, what future are we accepting or building for the next generation? — Sonya van der Meer, Project Associate