What is racism?
A complex set of attitudes and behaviour towards people because of their ethnicity, skin colour or nationality.
Often this is based on:
- a belief or ideology that differences in physical/cultural characteristics (skin colour, language, dress, religious practices etc.) dictate differences in personality, intelligence or ability, which lead to assumptions about racial superiority and inferiority.
- the social or economic power of members of one ethnic group to promote, enforce or ‘act out’ such attitudes.
(Adapted definition from Toolkit for Tackling Racism by Stella Dadzie)
Racism comes in many forms and is not just about hate crimes or individual acts of discrimination; the most powerful forms of racism are those that are part of societal structures and influence our everyday assumptions, even appearing normal and unremarkable.
Racism includes a range of things we think (prejudices, assumptions, stereotyping, fears, beliefs etc) and we do or say (discrimination, hate crimes, jokes, slurs, extremism).
Racism is not always obvious and something we may view as inoffensive can be significantly offensive to someone else because their experience of or association with that language or behaviour is different. If that happens, it’s always important to try to understand the other person’s perspective rather than seeking to impose views or becoming defensive.
Below are some of the forms of racism along with some suggestions of what can be considered to challenge them constructively.
This is the belief that someone’s behaviours, abilities or lack of ability are ‘naturally’ linked to skin colour, ethnicity or nationality. This has been used historically, along with Scientific Racism/biological racism to support and legitimise significant acts of racism and dehumanisation like the Transatlantic slave trade, the Holocaust and, discredited, views that there is a hierarchy of ‘races’.
Racialisation includes the stereotypical belief that Black people are naturally good at short distance running. This belief suggests that our skin colour dictates our abilities and ignores the more significant impacts of environment and culture. For example, since 1968 most black 100m Olympic medallists have been from either the USA or Caribbean countries (53) compared with 2 medals for African nations (Namibia). This suggests that this success is less about the medallists being black and more about other social factors.
This is prejudice and discrimination towards darker skinned Black or Asian people. It can be perpetrated by Black and Asian people towards other Black and Asian people but is part of a broader more pervasive prejudice that lighter skin and European features are more beautiful than darker skin, and that these features even relate to intelligence and character.
This prejudice has led to discrimination towards Black and Asian people with darker skin tone whilst comparatively privileging lighter skinned people. This prejudice and discrimination can have very real impacts on self-esteem and self-image and is often reinforced by advertising, music videos and many other forms of media.
There is even a substantial global market for skin lightening products that was valued at $8.3 billion in 2018. Some of the major cosmetic companies that produce skin lightening products are reviewing these products in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and protests.
This relates to perceptions of ourselves and others based on stereotypes and misinformation that have often been building up in our unconscious minds for many years developing into prejudices we aren’t aware we hold. We can often identify our conscious biases but must work harder to find and tackle prejudices we form unconsciously.
Unconscious prejudices are often developed from early childhood due to a variety of influences, i.e parents, peers, experiences etc, and impact on how we view ourselves and others, and how we behave. As they are unconscious, these biases often go unchallenged and are viewed as fact. If unchecked, unconscious biases can lead to us treating others in discriminatory and harmful ways, in an overt manner or through subtle microaggressions.
A microaggression is often used to describe both intended and unintended regular language, behaviour or environments that attack, undermine or insult aspects of people’s identities in a prejudicial way. They are often subtle and are most powerful when normalised as part of everyday behaviour, they can even appear seemingly positive.
Common microaggression include statements like:
- ‘I don’t see colour when I look at people’ which suggests that ignoring something we should be proud of is a positive response to diversity.
- Asking a BAME person 'but where are you really from?' even though they have already told you.
- Anglicising, repeatedly mispronouncing or not even trying to pronounce, someone’s name.
- ‘I think people are too sensitive these days’ in response to concerns raised about racism.
- ‘You don’t sound Black’ suggests a stereotypical view that Black people all speak in a certain way.
Internalised racism is often the product of societal and institutionalised racism and its impact on minority ethnic populations. When people experience racism regularly whether it is overt or subtle the effects accumulate and can lead to low self-esteem or a belief that the stereotypes associated with our ethnicity are true. Internalised racism can lead to self-hatred or hatred of others who share our ethnicity, and some may attempt to distance themselves from people with the same ethnicity.
This describes the privileges that white people receive, whether wanted or not, that are not available to Black, Asian and minority Ethnic (BAME) people. These benefits are historic and institutionalised, appearing normal and unseen but not unfelt. White privilege does not suggest that white people do not face barriers or do not deserve individually what they have worked for, but instead identifies that skin colour can be an extra barrier to resources and opportunities, on top of other aspects of life that can restrict opportunities and maintain inequalities.
Institutionalised racism happens when a range of racist practices and behaviours within an organisation exist that benefit some people and disadvantage others based on their skin colour or ethnicity. Often this happens for so long and is so ingrained, encouraged, allowed and protected that it affects the attitudes and prejudices of all who work within the organisation and how they treat minority ethnic people both within and outside. This can mean that minority ethnic people are not offered the same opportunities or support as white people and are, in fact, disadvantaged and discriminated against. It’s so powerful that people within see it as normal. This means that it is much harder to challenge than individual acts of racism, for example, racist name-calling, discrimination or physical attacks, which are often illegal.
What can we do?
We can learn more about the complex ways in which racism exists and permeates social norms and is bigger and more pervasive than overt racial slurs or hate crimes. Within the organisations we are in, we can check their equality policies and find out about any processes to report discrimination. What do our organisations do to create an anti-discriminatory environment? How inclusive is the organisation we work in? Is there more work to be done?
We can challenge prejudices, unconscious biases and microaggressions in ourselves and others and encourage others to do the same. We can use critical thinking skills to explore what has influenced how we see the world and what sources of information we value, pay attention to and why. We can check whether our news sources are neutral or biased. Have we checked the facts behind news stories and have we checked the same story from different sources?
If we use a term, behaviour or statement that offends others we can listen to why the person is offended and better understand, rather than be defensive. It may be unintentional, and often we are unaware of why something is viewed as offensive but if we can take the time to understand why we will be less likely to unwittingly offend again. None of this is easy but the aim of this page and the links within is to support us all to at least begin having these conversations with ourselves, our families, our communities and work colleagues.
Videos, articles and websites that could aid discussions: