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.


  1. I also adopted the definition of the various “isms” as an act against a person when we prejudge him or her. However, I feel two points deserve some analysis:
    1- I feel we do have an extraordinary power to cause pain and anxiety in another individual with our limited resources… our words and gestures for instance.
    2- I also feel the key word in this definition should be “against” and not “prejudge” or even “act”. I think prejudge is actually a very useful survival mechanism. We benefit from our ability to prejudge areas of town, colors, drinks, foods, hours of the day, gestures on faces, articles in hands, etc.
    The word does have a negative connotation in now a days but it’s not the only meaning of the word in the dictionary. In Wikipedia one can read: “feeling, favorable or unfavorable, toward a person or thing, prior to, or not based on, actual experience”.*
    Interestingly, when we prefer a young girl to babysit our kids we are prejudging her in a positive way and rewarding her with a job. This act is not an “ism”. Furthermore, when we don’t give the job to an old man, we are being sexist and ageist, but it’s a sin we all are willing to commit and thankfully enough, I don’t think it’s an act that would hurt any old man.

    1. Thank you, Enrique!

      I appreciate your example of food and physical space as important items to assess before engaging. It is a very good thing we can know that mold may equal trouble.

      However, there has been a lot written about the negative effects of “positive prejudgment,” specifically for Asian Americans, who are often called the “model minority.” Essentially it creates pressure for and negates the actual experience of people of Asian origin or descent in the U.S.

      Here’s an article about it: http://thinkprogress.org/immigration/2015/07/18/3680412/model-minority-myth/

      I hope we continue this conversation for many years to come!


      1. Hi there Eileen! Thanks for replying. I just learned today how to follow up this comments.
        I read the article you recommended and I felt sad to learn Asian women suicide rate is that high, and that this population undergoes such pressure to conform to a preconceived notion we have of them. However, I fail to see the actions that the surrounding society is doing AGAINST them by holding such preconceived notion.
        I understand when people think I must be good in soccer, or that I might cook awesome fried beans for burritos (I’m bad at both) They are using a library of information gathered throughout their lives. I can understand better why black people got offended when they were offered fried chicken in an event at Drake University few years ago, after all it’s only a few years ago that to be called black was rather a reminder of legally underprivileged position in society at that time. Hispanics don’t have that past experience so to be identified as such doesn’t trigger any generational trauma.
        I feel that perhaps, “positive prejudice” , as negative as it can be, is yet another semantic twist that complicates the understanding of our human nature and encourage our social hypersensitivity, which by the way, I feel it renders us unable to engage in healing and constructive communication.
        If you have a minute watch this video: http://www.ted.com/paul_bloom_can_prejudice_ever_be_a_good_thing

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