Do You REALLY Know What Constitutes Racism?

By Rebbecca Hemmings

It is imperative that, when talking about racism, we start by defining it. Far too often, I find that people have a very narrow and misinformed definition of racism. This is very unhelpful when trying to discuss how organisations can work towards becoming antiracist. Therefore, this blog aims to help readers understand the different types of racism and, thereby, better position individuals and organisations to make positive change.

Individual Racism

Individual racism is based on racial stereotypes and prejudiced attitudes that can lead to discrimination. It can be conscious or unconscious and include name calling, ignoring, general poor treatment and violent action.

This is, by far, the most common definition of racism. However, it does not paint the full picture of a person’s experience. It only tells part of the story. If the extent to which I experienced racism was based on name calling or being followed around the shop, under suspicion of stealing because I am black, for example, I could easily avoid environments where those things happen and continue to live my life – merrily!

Institutional racism

Defined as discrimination or unequal treatment based on membership of a particular ethnic group (typically one that is a minority or marginalised), arising from systems, structures, or expectations that have become established within an institution or organisation.

This is where we start to see how ingrained racism is within society. What does it look like? Let’s say I work in a university. There are a variety of ways institutional racism might affect me as a black person, based on many unchallenged views of people who look like me. Before I open my mouth or put pen to paper, I am put into an unfavourable and unfair category. This leads to a plethora of ways I am open to be disadvantaged.

Racially discriminatory thinking has been passed down from many generations and theorists who have attempted – and failed – to prove that racially marginalised people are genetically inferior to white people. The Degeneration Theory is just one example. Popularised in the 19th century, it theorised that black and brown people and other people of a lower social class were inferior due to mental illnesses and social degradation. They needed to be managed and taught how to live by white Christian Europeans.

“… proponents of this approach believed that these degenerates could be remediated by giving them benefits of European education and “culture”, especially by missionising them to Christianity.”

The Myth of Race, Robert Wald Sussman

Though such theories have been disproved many times over, the legacy of the original belief still prevails. Furthermore, as many are reluctant to engage in dialogue about race, these ways of thinking often go unrecognised and unchallenged and have become a part of the norm. Most people would not dream of consciously harbouring these thoughts, but such is the nature of the silence of racism.

Therefore, this and many other theories such as the Taxonomy of Race (the belief the European skull is most beautiful), though disproved, linger in their effect. When people in power hold such beliefs, it often leads to creating more unequal treatment of ethnic minorities. That might mean  employers only hiring people who reflect their likeness, lecturers having lower expectations of ethnic minority students and, when complaints of racism are made, they are often downplayed, dismissed or swept under the carpet.

Examples of systemic and institutional racism in universities include:

1.     The ethnic minority attainment gap. The disparity between the top degrees achieved by white and black students.

2.     Higher dropout rates by ethnic minorities. The U.K. government is now holding universities to account by implementing an ‘explain or change’ policy.

3.     The Ethnicity Pay Gap. Ethnic minority university staff on a whole get paid less than white males.


So what is Systemic racism?

This is a system that leads to unequal opportunities, outcomes and treatment of ethnic minorities (black brown and white ethnic minorities) which consequently benefit the ethnic majority (white people). National policy, institutional procedures, societal attitudes, behaviours and norms act in ways to perpetuate racial discrimination.

“…It identifies dimensions of our history and culture that have allowed privileges associated with whiteness” and disadvantages associated with colour” to endure and adapt over time. Structural racism is not something that a few people or institutions choose to practice. Instead, it has been a feature of the social, economic and political systems in which we all exist.”

The Aspen Institute

Think of institutional racism on a global scale. Systemic racism is how the world on a whole creates inequitable treatment for the global majority (black and brown people)

Many people in power (particularly those who are white) have a strong belief in meritocracy and individualism and, therefore, can find it very difficult to accept that systemic racism and structural racial advantage is likely to have been a contributory factor in their success. Also, realising racial discrimination happens on a systemic level as a consequence of racial advantage (being white) can be quite difficult to believe and accept. Upon discovery, some people are paralysed by guilt and shame. Others feel anger and deny the reality.

Whites have the power to oppress people of colour in this country, but people of colour do not have the power to oppress whites.”

Judith Katz

This is not an easy education and I applaud you for accepting the challenge. As always, we are here to help. Get in touch to discuss your antiracism training needs on whatever level is needed.

You may wish to sample our FREE online antiracism training here. Sign up today!