What is racism?

Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels

This is not an intellectual exercise. Racism Kills.

Racism manifests as pain. As emotional hurt. Even as death. I never want to lose sight of that, whether it is when I’m writing on the page or conducting a workshop or book study. As a privileged white male (especially as a privileged white male), intellectualizing race, treating it as an academic subject, is an easy trap to fall into.

While I’m pontificating on the sociological underpinnings and psychological mechanisms of racism, it’s important for me to remember: racism kills people. It is a life or death struggle for so many people, every minute of their lives. As I present (what is a very intellectual reading of racism below), it’s a moral imperative for me to mention that, and to remind us that life and death is the context in which we engage in this work.

Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels

What is Racism?

We’ve likely heard the general definition that racism is the assigning of value to one “race” over another. In recent years a more complete (and welcome) definition has made it to the mainstream and grounds racism in its proper historical context. Newer definitions of racism stress that race, as opposed to ethnicity, has always been linked to white supremacy. The concept of race was developed only in the last few hundred years. It always assigned more value to some races over others, but what the previous definition failed to highlight is that the race with the highest “value” was always the “white” race. In that sense, a more complete definition would state, “racism is a system of placing value on people’s ethnic differences and assigning value to them relative to their proximity to whiteness. Furthermore, this system of placing more value on some humans’ lives due to their proximity to whiteness was the underlying justification for colonial expansion, exploitation, and slavery.”

As valuable as this more nuanced understanding of race is, anyone who has dug a little deeper is likely to run into additional variations and “types” of racism, e.g. overt vs. covert, explicit vs. implicit, interpersonal, internalized, etc. . . . It can be overwhelming if you don’t have an advanced degree in sociology, race studies, or have not participated in multiple diversity, equity, and inclusion workshops. So this article attempts to provide some further clarity.

Overt vs. Covert Racism

Overt and covert: too often our efforts to identify racism focus on overt, socially unacceptable forms of racism, such as using the N-word, waving a confederate flag, or burning crosses. But there are many versions of covert, or socially acceptable, racism. Examples include “All Lives Matter,” “Colorism,” “Being Colorblind,” “Tokenism,” Eurocentric school curricula, and more.

A helpful graphic on overt vs. covert racism shows up in any Google search. I’ve pasted it below.

Explicit vs. Implicit Racism

Then there is explicit vs. implicit. Explicit racism shows up essentially as overt racism. It refers to obvious and conscious acts of racism. Implicit racism does not necessarily show up as acts of covert racism, and that is where the parallel breaks down (although implicit racism may result in covert racism . . . there is overlap here, but don’t hurt your brain trying too hard, yet).

Implicit racism refers to processes and reactions on our part which are unconscious. It’s the white lady who grabs her purse (without realizing it) when a black man walks past. Or the white guy (ahem . . . me) who locks all the car doors when a black man crosses in front of the car (yeah, I did that, with two of my black friends in the car with me no less).

The doll test was a measure of implicit racism in white and black children. When white and black children, who without intending to make a racist choice, still chose a white doll as “better” than the black doll, they demonstrated implicit racism. They were too young to even understand much of why they made the choice, however, they already had been conditioned to.

Researches have begun to untangle how images in media shape our perceptions and implicit racist biases without us even knowing it (as was the case with the children in the doll study or me reaching for the auto lock). Harvard has an online implicit bias test which everyone should take. You might be surprised by what you find out about some of your unconscious associations.

Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels

Levels and Layers of Racism

No doubt you’ve heard the terms “institutional racism” and “structural racism” thrown about in the news recently, perhaps adding to your confusion. Unfortunately, these terms are needed because over the four centuries since “race” was conceptualized, it has grown and evolved into different variations, all of which interact and reinforce one another. To dismantle racism at large, we need to understand its variations and how they layer upon one another. As a resource for many of the following definitions I used The Society for Health Psychology and Racial Equity Tools Glossary. I’ve added some of my own interpretations. I warn you I am not a social scientist, only a writer, activist, and occasional diversity and inclusion workshop leader. That said, I’ve found these working definitions and distinctions useful for my own understanding and others’.

1. Interpersonal racism: directly perceived discriminatory interactions between individuals whether in their institutional roles or as public and private individuals. Interpersonal racism includes maltreatment that the targeted individual attributes, at least in part, to conscious or unconscious racial/ethnic bias on the part of the perpetrator of the maltreatment.

Interpersonal racism can occur in a wide variety of venues and can be communicated through a range of attitudes and actions. These actions and attitudes can include acts of social exclusion, stigmatization, unfair treatment, and/or threats and harassment

2. Internalized Racism: the acceptance, by marginalized racial populations, of the negative societal beliefs and stereotypes about themselves. Individuals may or may not be aware of their own acceptance of these negative beliefs. Internalized racism can also be expressed via a rejection of the cultural practices of one’s own ethnic or racial group.

Components that have been considered part of racial identity, including racial self-hatred, may also be considered part of the construct of internalized racism.

When the negative stereotypes are absorbed into the self-concept of a stigmatized individual, the process is referred to as self-stereotyping.

3. Institutionalized Racism: Policies which result in unequal outcomes for individuals of different races are institutional racism. Evidence for this type of racism emerges when the procedures/codes/norms of an institution (e.g., a government agency, a business, a school, a church, perhaps a whole industry) consistently result in unequal treatment for particular groups. Traditional examples of explicit and intentional institutional racism include the practice of Red Lining, a restaurant in the Jim Crow South with a “Whites Only” sign, a poll tax or other forms of voter suppression/intimidation.

It is important to recognize that institutional policies do not have to be explicitly racist to still produce racial injustices. For example, the disproportionate prison terms for small amounts of crack-cocaine vs. more lenient sentences for larger and more expensive amounts of powder cocaine never explicitly targeted Black Americans, but the outcome was many more people of color incarcerated for longer periods of time than whites. Recent requirements for felons (who are predominantly people of color) to pay all fines and fees related to their convictions before their right to vote is restored also qualifies.

4. Structural Racism: is when separate institutions (e.g., government agencies, companies, organizations, multiple industries) that suffer from institutional racism combine to produce racial injustice. A prime example of this would be the school-to-prison pipeline, which represents the failure of multiple social, private, and public sectors. These unequal outcomes still represent racism even if individual policy-makers and institutional agents are not motivated by deliberate racial prejudice. They may or may not be less aware of or responsive to the consequences of these policies for minority stakeholders.

5. Cultural Racism: can be defined as societal beliefs and customs that promote the assumption that the products of a given culture, including the language and traditions of that culture, are superior to those of other cultures. Cultural racism exists when there is a widespread acceptance of stereotypes concerning different ethnic or racial groups. It emerges from internalized often implicit beliefs that individuals might not be consciously aware of.

Cultural racism manifests in policies, cultural trends/preferences/fashions, media stories and even scientific data, e.g., the US government collects data on missing women of every demographic background except Native American women, although non-profits estimate that hundreds go missing each year.

This type of racism is also demonstrated through school curricula, icons and observances (e.g., holidays, festivals, etc.), and mass media presentations (e.g., widely used forms of communication including film, television, advertisements, newspapers and magazines, and the internet). Its ultimate product is the placement/associations of privilege and power.

So there are five “layers” of racism. I don’t claim to be an expert, or claim that there is consensus among scholars as to these layers (some collapse institutional and structural into one another, some use cultural and structural interchangeably). These are distinctions I find helpful.

One last consideration I have found valuable in workshops and conversation is the additional step of visualizing how the layers of racism map to the earlier graph of overt and covert racism. As with the comparison with overt/covert to explicit/implicit, it is not a perfect parallel, but I’ve found placing the definitions in the arrangement below provides a picture of how these concepts hang together.

The final insight that this arrangement provides is the additional labeled axis of resistance and accountability. Moving downward on the graph, as you’re moving in the direction of larger and more faceless institutions, the defensiveness of individuals will reduce (some folks find it easier to talk about structural racism than their own interpersonal) while the effort to find individuals to be accountable is harder, since responsibility becomes more diffused. The answer is not that no one is responsible. It’s the opposite: we all are.

Moving in the opposite direction, we have the opposite problem. While identifying individual acts and people which we can label as racist, the resistance and defensiveness increases.

Racism represents the worst of us, the worst of our justifications, our rationalizations, our practice of prejudice and promotion of pseudoscience. Dismantling it will require the best of us, drawing on compassion and courage, insight and intellect. Hopefully this piece can serve as a starter for your own journey to deeper understanding.


Ted Neill, MPH, is a writer based in Seattle. He has written extensively on HIV/AIDS in Africa and the Greatest Generation. His recent novel, Reaper Moon, examines the intersection of faith, politics, and racism during a global viral pandemic. His YA novel, Zombies, Frat Boys, Monster Flash Mobs does the same . . . except with zombies, frat boys, nerds, and ninjas — something for everyone, right?

I’m a writer because I’m terrible at math and would make a lousy astrophysicist. I cover social/racial justice, politics, mental health, and global health.

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Ted Neill

Ted Neill

I’m a writer because I’m terrible at math and would make a lousy astrophysicist. I cover social/racial justice, politics, mental health, and global health.

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