Published September 15, 2014
© The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
“Black people can be racist, too. Just look at Africa. It was Africans who sold other Africans into slavery.”
This is a not-uncommon response to my preaching and teaching on race and racism.
Obviously, I disagree. Here is why:
Yes, oppressed people can be prejudiced. They can carry judgments about other oppressed people in their hearts and act them out in their lives.
But they cannot be racist. Or classist, or heterosexist, or any other -ist, at least not by the definition I use. The -ist connotes the power to actually act on prejudice.
Power + prejudice = -ism
It would not matter if I, as a lesbian, were prejudicial against straight people. Why? Because I would not have the power to act on that prejudice. We live in a heteronormative and heterosexist society. Despite gains in gay rights, it would be terribly difficult for me to leverage any ill will into marginalization.
But if I, as a white person, were prejudicial against Latin@s, I would have ample venues to act, particularly where I live in Southern California.
(For the record, I am just fine with straight people and know that Latin@s have, until very recently, been ignored in the American debate on race and civil rights.)
So here are my working definitions:
Power + prejudice against people of color = racism
Power + prejudice against poor people = classism
Power + prejudice against women = sexism
Power + prejudice against queer people = heterosexism
Power + prejudice against people with “disabilities” = ableism
And so on.
But my real response to such statements is this: So what? So what if Africans are prejudicial against other Africans? That does not excuse any one of us from addressing the biases we have been schooled in so well in this nation.