Prejudice and racism are often used interchangeably, however, they are not the same. Although racism is the form of prejudice that gets the most attention, there are other forms of discrimination that are equally insidious and pervasive. In Willa Cather's novel, My Antonia, Cather creates several groups with distinct characteristics and values in Black Hawk, Nebraska- the town in which most of the story takes place. Citizens of Black Hawk discriminate against other groups by criteria other than skin tone, holding them in contempt and less deserving of basic respect due to their differences. The behavior of the well-established groups toward those they considered inferior reflected the levels and types of bias and prejudice they practiced. By focusing on the behavior of the citizens in Black Hawk, Cather drives home the notion that there are other forms of prejudice beyond racism that need to be understood.
The primary form of intolerance depicted throughout My Antonia can be best described as classism or elitism- discrimination based on a person's position on the social ladder. Respect is derived from a person's background, wealth, and upbringing. Earlier in the story, Antonia's father, Mr. Shimerda, tells the Burden family about life back in Bohemia. "He wanted us to know that they were not beggars in the old country; he made good wages, and his family was respected there," (Cather 50). Mr. Burden knows that he, a poor immigrant, will encounter social discrimination in America. He is attempting to deflect the discrimination he anticipates his family will face. As the Shimerda family is depending on help from their neighbors, he feels as though his family will be treated as inferior to the rest of society. He wants to let people know that at one point even he was high in social standing, and that his position in the lower class does not diminish him as a person in society. Mr.