Prejudice comes in many forms. Racism, caste and class discrimination, and cultural prejudice are all widespread. These different forms of prejudice are all, to some extent, intertwined, and it is not always easy to distinguish them one from another. Fundamentally, however, most forms of prejudice can be traced to two underlying factors: ancestry and culture, which, although intertwined, are nevertheless distinct.

Forms of Ancestralism

I have coined the term "ancestralism" to mean any policy of discrimination, whether public or private, against groups or individuals on the basis of their race, color, caste, or hereditary social class. Although different, these forms of prejudice all have ancestry as the common factor. It is not by any means the only factor, but it is the common one.

"Race" is obviously ancestral, as such characteristics as skin and hair color, facial shapes, and other physical features are genetically inherited. Racism means the deliberate policy of excluding people, either socially or from one's personal life, of those who can clearly be seen by their physical appearance to have a different ancestry from one's own. There are problems with this definition, of course. Many Black Americans have, for example, inherited some white ancestry from the slave masters who regularly raped their slavegirls. The ancestral principle is still valid, however, because the policy of exclusion is not based on the ancestors that the two groups of people have in common, but on those ancestors who are different.

"Class" and "Caste" are also ancestral concepts. The British class hierarchy is an ancestral system, for the most part, although it admittedly allows for a limited degree of social mobility based on merit, and the Indian caste system is one of the most rigidly closed ancestral systems in the world. Once again, the systems are structured so as to exclude from positions of prestige, influence, and power, people who do not have the "right" ancestors.

Forms of Cultural Prejudice

The second form of prejudice is based on "culture". By "culture", I mean values, religious beliefs, customs, and languages, shared by communities of people who regard themselves, or who are regarded by others, as having a distinct identity. To a large extent, culture is intertwined with ancestry; most people speak the same language, follow the same religion, and, broadly speaking, practice the same customs as their parents or grandparents. There are exceptions, however, as many people do convert to other religions, and, if migrating from one country to another, adopt another language and alien customs. Therefore, culture should be seen as distinct from ancestry, although prejudice based on culture is very often inextricably intertwined with prejudice based on ancestry.


Reducing the many forms of discrimination to the two basic concepts of ancestralism and cultural prejudice simplifies the task of classifying the different kinds of social bigotry. In some cases, the distinction is more clear-cut than in others. In Britain, for example, society is organized along hierarchical lines in a "class" system; this is not complicated by other considerations, as the different "classes" in Britain cannot be distinguished by race, color, or religion. The American social division is also fairly straight forward; the main cleavage is on the basis of "race", and the different races cannot be, for the most part, distinguished by their language or religion. But the racial distinction is not foolproof: there are olive-skinned Americans of Italian descent regarded as "White", and one occasionally hears of light-skinned, blue-eyed Americans who are still legally "Black" merely because they had some African slave as an ancestor in the distant past. In spite of that, there is a fairly straight-forward division in American society between "Blacks" and "Whites", although the green line that divides them might be somewhat more fuzzy than is generally supposed. Many cases are less clear-cut, however. Brazilian society is highly stratified, with a huge gap between rich and poor. It is often said that there is no color-bar in Brazil, and, to be sure, people from all races are to be found at every level of Brazilian society. It cannot be denied, however, that darker-skinned Brazilians tend to be disproportionately poor, and that the élite is mostly white. From that point of view, it is not easy to say whether the social division in Brazil is based on race, or class, or both. But there is no doubt that the division is mostly ancestral: with rare exceptions, the élite comes from families that have been at the top of the social pyramid for a very long time. The Nazi persecution of Jews is another grey area. Is antisemitism in general, and Nazi antisemitism in particular, fundamentally racial, or religious, or both? There are problems with all three views. The cultural/religious argument is weak, because a high proportion of German and Polish, and Russian Jews were secular and there was little in their way of life to distinguish them from their fellow countrymen; moreover, large numbers of Catholics and Protestants in Germany ended up in the gaschamber because of some distant Jewish ancestor. The race theory is also weak, because, popular myths aside, most Jews are not easily distinguishable from other peoples of Central and Eastern Europe. But ancestry was the vital factor: a single Jewish ancestor, however distant, could mean a death warrant.

Classifying the many forms of prejudice and discrimination is much simpler if one reduces them to the two parallel concepts of ancestralism and cultural prejudice.

©Copyright David Cannon