Casteism: Meaning and Societal Implications

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What is the meaning of casteism and how is it different from classism? What are the consequences of the caste mentality?

The casteism meaning is often confused with the classism definition. Casteism is the practice of singling out and discriminating against a group of people on the grounds of their inherent characteristics. Classism, on the other hand, is prejudice against people belonging to a certain socioeconomic class.

Read on to learn more about the casteism meaning and societal implications.

What Is the Meaning of Casteism?

The casteism meaning derives from the Spanish and Portuguese word casta which means lineage, tribe, or breed. It refers to the worldview where certain characteristics are used to segregate people and assign parameters for the appropriate behaviors of each group.  More often than not, the characteristics used to delineate groups are arbitrary and benign in other contexts.

There are three main examples of caste systems in history—Nazi Germany, India, and the American South. Each caste society was upheld through systemic stigmatization of those in the lowest group to legitimize the dominant group’s oppressive behaviors.

Once a caste system is in place, the supporting evidence is enforced until it becomes the inherent beliefs of a culture. When society buys into these beliefs, the laws and principles guiding them are no longer questioned.

Casteism vs Classism

Some argue that a subordinate caste member can improve their circumstances and rise above their caste, but this idea relates to class, which is different. Class is a socioeconomic distinction. A rich man can lose everything and become lower class overnight. Likewise, a poor man can win the lottery and start moving in high-class society. But caste position never changes.

The difference between class vs caste is evident in American society. Many members of the subordinate class are able to elevate their status by becoming famous, wealthy, or people of distinction. These factors help them live a better life, but they do not insulate them from the beliefs about and treatment of members of their caste. 

The Consequences of Caste Mentality

The more people believe in the inferiority of the lowest caste, the greater the likelihood that others will follow their lead to fit in. The following example shows how social pressure and ingrained beliefs can lead to mob mentality. 

In the small town of Sachsenhausen north of Berlin, a coat of ash from the local crematorium covered playgrounds and backyards. Everyone knew the ash was the byproduct of horrific acts against the Jews, but no one said anything. Not everyone in the town was a Nazi, but the propaganda had infiltrated their homes nonetheless. Good people bought into the party lines that Jews were subhuman, so they lacked an urgency to act. Besides, the Nazi party was so big, there was little one person could do. They told themselves they weren’t complicit as they swept the ash from their sidewalks and doorsteps. But in saying and doing nothing, everyone was complicit. 

Casteism: Meaning and Societal Implications

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Here's what you'll find in our full Caste summary:

  • How a racial caste system exists in America today
  • How caste systems around the world are detrimental to everyone
  • How the infrastructure of the racial hierarchy can be traced back hundreds of years

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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