What Is Racism?
"Racism is racial prejudice and discrimination that are supported by institutional power and authority. The critical element that differentiates racism from prejudice and discrimination is the use of institutional power and authority to support prejudices and enforce discriminatory behaviors in systematic ways with far-reaching outcomes and effects. In the United States, racism is based on the ideology of White (European) supremacy and is used to the advantage of white people and the disadvantage of people of color."
Enid Lee, Deborah Menkart and Margo Okazawa-Rey (eds.)
Beyond Heroes and Holidays: A Practical Guide to K-12 Anti-Racist, Multicultural Education and Staff Development
ON THIS PAGE
What is Racism?
What is a Marginalized Group?
What is a Dominant Group?
What is White Supremacy?
But I'm Just Part of the Human Race!
On Reverse Racism
But I'm just a person! I'm a part of the Same human race just like everyone else.
While you decide what your individual identity is, your belonging to one group or the other is also defined by the outside: your peers, your family, your community, your nation, and institutions like schools, healthcare, courts, workplaces, etc. Because of this nation's complicated history many marginalized groups in our country do not have the privilege of identifying themselves based on their individual merits, their talents, and their passions. In many cases, these groups were explicitly treated as less than human and even classified as such in our old laws and policies. These perceptions persist today and have been passed down through generations.
Our society reduces marginalized groups by creating stereotypes and generalizing perceptions (whether good or bad) that come to define individuals and the groups they belong to. These perceptions feed individual behaviors and institutional practices that affect housing, community development, career opportunities, income, educational achievement, policing, criminal justice outcomes, etc. Yes, we are all part of one beautiful and incredibly diverse human race. But, until every single member of that human family's life is valued in the same way, we must get rid of the barriers that keeps us unequal.
If Race is Not Real, Why Can't we all Just Be Colorblind?
Remember, race is a "social construct", meaning: there is no real biological basis for the existence of different races as we know them. What keeps race such a central part of American life, is that our social, economic, political, cultural, and legal systems and institutions ALL continue to support the idea of a racial difference and a racial hierarchy. So while race might not be "biologically real", it is definitely socially real and racism is a social reality. Systems of power work to create a hierarchy based on an idea of racial difference. This heirarchy is built into our institutions, societal structures, cultural beliefs, and systems and forms the building blocks of racism and racial injustice.
The solution, however, is not a cold-turkey colorblind approach. Pretending that race and racial hierarchy don't exist will not stop racial injustice. This is because the racial system is as much a part of our American culture as a hamburger and fries. We eat it, we buy it, we raise and grow the ingredients for it, we promote it, we celebrate with it, we love it. So it's not as easy as saying hamburgers don't exist.
We would have to put an end to all the processes and systems that make burgers and fried possible-- like farming and argriculture, government support and subsidies, fast food corporations, and popular demand for burgers (which would require a whole rewiring of our food culture over generations). It may seem like a silly example, but it helps us understand that what we're reacting to: race and racism, is actually just the product of, or the tip of a much larger and deeper iceberg that gives it its power.
In addition, colorblind policies have been proven to not get rid of racial bias and racism in practice. Colorblindness also fails to acknowledge that due to historic inequalities, whole generations of people of color are actually already "behind" and continue to require additional support to even catch up to the access and opportunities of the white majority over generations.
I've been Discriminated Against Because I'm White. Isn't that Reverse Racism?
Our experiences shape who we are. It is likely that all of us have experienced some form of discrimination at the hands of a group we don't belong to. All of us can have prejudices against a different racial group and we can even act on these prejudices through individual acts of discrimination. But because racism, as we discussed above, is always about power and institutional authority, these moments of discrimination against a white person are not acts of racism. They can be products of bigotry, intolerance, ignorance, etc. But they cannot be racism. Remember, racism is not personal, it's structural.
Some further reading:
What is White Supremacy?
In the U.S., we have a race-based hierarchy where the white population is at the top of our societal order (remember the ladder!) This hierarchy is known as "white supremacy". Now, before we all clutch our pearls in horror imagining Klansmen and Nazis, remember that these are more obvious cases of white supremacy in our recent history. But the reason these extreme cases were even able to emerge is because they could easily insert themselves and exploit existing ideologies about racial superiority, validated by a social system of racial hierarchy and reflected in a history marked by racial violence (ex: conquest, colonialism, displacement, slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, etc.). These events were backed up institutionally by laws, public policy, science, theology, and cultural norms and belief systems of leaders and everyday people.
White supremacy today can be seen in disparities in our education system, healthcare, housing, wages, criminal justice, standards of beauty and value, and representation in mainstream American culture. In all of these disparities, the wider white populaton benefits-- thus establishing white superiority... or white supremacy.
Now, this does NOT mean every single white person in American benefits from white supremacy in the same exact way. White people may carry other historically marginalized identities that do not change their white privilege, but can certainly negatively impact their access and opportunities through lack of class privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege, cisgender privilege, able-bodied privilege, citizenship privilege, or mainstream Christian privilege. Indeed, poor white communities continue to struggle in our forgotten rural areas and urban centers today. White women and white members of the LGBTQIA community still experience staggering systemic sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. Non-Christian white people still experience not having their holy days officially recognized, or face historical and ongoing faith-based discrimination, including Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism ( which are often racialized). Mentally and physically disabled people face severe obstacles and are deeply marginalized in our society.
Who Is A "Marginalized Group Of People"?
This refers to a group or an individual who belongs to a group that currently faces a system of oppression (like racism, sexism/misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, etc.) at the hand of a dominant group with power in our society.
So, what does it mean to be a "dominant group with power"?
This is a group that benefits most from different systems in our society that ensure it receives access to basic rights and well-being while other groups have unequal opportunities or no access to the same benefits. These benefits (also known as privileges) are commonly supported through laws, the implementation of laws (which may be different from the original letter or intent of the law), mainstream culture which reflects the values of the dominant group, and everyday behaviors and interactions with ordinary people that validate these benefits. This validation of benefits from all these levels of society is considered the dominant group's "power".
Imagine a ladder, representing a heirarchy. The dominant group is at the top of the ladder and a marginalized group is on the lower rungs of that same ladder.
Dominant groups look different across the globe because each culture and society has its own histories and values that impact their current social reality. Yet, it should be noted that colonization, and more recent globalization and global economics have established similar dominant and marginalized groups in different parts of the world. You are born into a dominant group or in some cases, you may move into or out of a dominant group in your society.
This moving or "mobility" from a marginalized group to a dominant group is most often seen in the U.S. when we talk about socioeconomic class and acquiring higher education. Mobility may rarely involve race (ie: multiracial or "white-appearing/passing" people of color). Many argue, however, that this kind of mobility is inconsistent and can never truly grant the same benefits of being born into the dominant group unless systems and institutions start to fully validate it. You can find more resources for multiracial people and people of color here.
Remember, race is a "construct", meaning: there is no real biological basis for the existence of different races as we know them. What keeps race such a central part of American life, is that our social, economic, political, cultural, and legal systems and institutions ALL continue to support the idea of racial difference and a racial hierarchy.
What is the dominant group in the U.S.?
In the U.S. the dominant group is commonly defined as a white, upper class, straight, able-bodied, Christian male born in the U.S. The genius of racism, however, is that through different systems of assimilation and redrawing the lines of difference, groups like low-income whites and ethnic European migrants have been awarded this dominant group status at different points in our history. National and international events like wars and economic crisis have also worked to include and exclude different groups from the white majority throughout U.S. history.
Difference and diversity are a beautiful part of our world and our societies. Yet race and ideas of racial difference were created to support idea of a race-based heirarchy where whiteness sits at the very top. This was the case in both the U.S. and much of the colonial projects of Western Europe. The ideas of racial heirarchy allowed the U.S. and Western Europe to reconcile and even advocate for the killing, displacement, and enslavement of human beings who looked different than the land-owning elite. There's great resources here about the history of how the "white race" emerged in the U.S.