Claire Walsh | February 17, 2021

What is Racism?

Table of Contents

A tiny word with a seemingly obvious meaning – one based on a belief that people are inferior due to their skin colour. Black people.

It’s unlikely this is your belief. 

Yet a lot of people (white people in particular) freeze in horror if accused of racism, ‘…but I’m not racist, I don’t think I’m superior’ being the familiar knee-jerk response. For a white person to be thought racist, carries unwanted baggage beyond dictionary meaning. Even the thought of it is like relegation to a special category of evil, created specifically for the worst offenders against humanity. 

And this reaction is not because we are overtly racist per se and have somehow been ‘found out’: rather the assertion is received as a personal attack on our individual character or nature. But we can be racist and play roles within racist systems without our individual character and actions being intentionally and consciously racist. Racism goes beyond that of individual (or overt) belief.

So to backtrack, yes the obvious meaning does define a form of racism, but racism isn’t just an outcome from personal views. 

It’s a term that has evolved to become, and have meaning as, a social process.

Systemic Racism

This is known as systemic (institutional and structural) racism. Covert racism. It’s about how our society and the institutions within it are structured and replicated. And it’s about the ways people act and interact within them. It can include criminal justice systems, political power, social support and health care, but also unquestioned social systems. 

And it’s in those social systems where systemic racism is harder for white people to identify as these systems assume white superiority individually, ideologically and institutionally. Yes it can be conscious, but it is also unconscious. So, we may not see ourselves as overtly racist, but we still benefit from a social system that privileges white faces, voices and names. 

For us to recognise and acknowledge this truth, that our entire societal structure maintains an oppressive system that privileges us and oppresses Black people carries great weight. 

It requires white people to see a large part of society in painful terms. It questions our humanity and our ingrained belief that our society is fair, tolerant and equitable. And it forces us to recognise the undeniable reality of white privilege.

White Privilege

Understanding white privilege is fundamental to understanding systemic racism.

Consider the following: 

  • I can turn on the television and see people of my race widely represented
  • I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race
  • I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking
  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group
  • I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race
  • I can speak in public without putting my race on trial
  • I can go home from most meetings of organisations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared
  • If a police officer pulls me over I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race
  • I can take a job without having co-workers suspect that I got it because of my race
  • If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.

These 10 challenges are from an original group of 26 (McIntosh, 1988) collated to question the daily effects of white privilege. They were conceived to give white people some understanding about white privilege as it’s hard to see. For white people it’s the equivalent of a fish being asked to notice water. The privilege is normal. And it’s got nothing to do with being ‘good’ or ‘bad’, white privilege is a given, bestowed on us by a systemically racist society, solely because of our race. Not because we deserve it.

And due to systemic racism’s pervasiveness throughout society, we have always been taught to recognise racism as individual acts of meanness (overt racism) and not this unsought racial dominance (covert racism).  Remember the familiar knee-jerk response ‘…but I’m not racist, I don’t think I’m superior’? It is the society we’ve created and live in that is organised specifically to ensure our superiority. Whether we like it or not. There is no opt out. 

And to think otherwise is both a privilege and a denial.

So what next?

In all of this white people have the privilege of a choice: do we keep our normality and our advantaging systems or do we move to dissociate ourselves from them, look to undermine systemic racism rather than reinforce it? 

To actively disassociate ourselves is to make antiracist choices. One antiracist choice, and then another, and then another…and it doesn’t come naturally, mistakes are made and lessons learnt, but over time it becomes habit forming. 

Our other option is to, either intentionally or incidentally, keep our normality. 

To do nothing. 

This would be racism.

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