Racism, sexism and the pyramid of discrimination

Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri reading the sermon at a WCC prayer service in Thailand. Photo: CCA

On 24th December 2018 I was on a long queue to the pay point in a supermarket in Malawi. It was a hot day. The lights went off.

Everything was now processed manually. Being a day before Christmas holiday, the shop was full of people. I had been on the queue for 20 minutes.

In front of me was a black Malawian man. The teller was also a black Malawian man. After the person in front of me was served, I put my items on the counter for payment. In a flash a young Indian girl cut the line in front of me and the teller served her. I felt disrespected because I was on the queue for a long time and I was not even asked by the young woman or the teller if it was ok for the girl to cut the line. The teller went ahead and served the young woman. Needless to say that I gave both the teller and the young women my piece of mind.

Three days later I was in a bigger town in a shopping mall with a long-time friend. We joined a restroom queue. When it was my friend’s time to go in, a white woman cut the queue and went in front of the queue to use the facility without asking to be excused.

Both incidents raised the issue of race and gender for me. I saw that in a predominantly black African country, black women are disrespected by those who feel that because of their skin colour they do not have to stand on the queue just like everyone else. It comes from a sense of internalized superiority that when you have a light skin you deserve to be served first and you do not need to ask for permission from those who are patiently waiting.

Internalized inferiority is also displayed by black African men who are quick to serve a woman with a white skin even if it is at the expense of showing disrespect to a black African woman.

I have seen the same in some of our African churches where a white ordained woman is accepted as a leader but a black woman is told that her testimony of being called by God to ordained ministry cannot be validated by the church because God does not allow women to exercise leadership over men. What they are indirectly saying is that it is a black woman that God does not accept, but God is ok with a white woman. This confirms to me that when it comes to gender and race, the poor black African woman is at the bottom of the pyramid of oppression and discrimination.

Unfortunately, black women who speak out against experiences of racism and sexism also become further discriminated against for making privileged people feel uncomfortable. One is criticized for seeing racism and sexism where the privileged feel that it does not exist.

What this may mean is that there are many well-meaning people who act in a racist and sexist way because they are not conscious that what they are doing or saying is actually racist and sexist.

Organisations and institutions that aspire to do the right thing should have racism and sexism awareness education regularly. Willingness to be made aware of these issues is one step forward to transforming racial and sexist injustices.

About the author :

Prof. Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri serves the World Council of Churches as deputy general secretary. Before joining WCC in 2012, she was a professor of African theology, dean and head of the School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics, and director of the Centre for Constructive Theology at the University of KwaZulu Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. She also served as editor of the Journal of Gender and Religion in Africa.

A Malawian by nationality, Apawo Phiri holds a masters degree in religious education from the University of Lancaster, England, and a doctorate in religious studies from University of Cape Town, South Africa.

From 2002 to 2007 she served as general coordinator of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians.

Apawo Phiri's research and teaching interests span the fields of systematic theology with a focus on ecclesiology, mission history, studies in African-instituted churches, and African theology with a focus on African women's theology.

In 1995, she was voted Woman of the Year by the Nation Newspaper for breaking the silence on sexual harassment and rape in Malawi and bringing gender justice into public debate.


The impressions expressed in the blog posts are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the World Council of Churches.