The Definition of Racism

A System of Power, Privilege, and Oppression

Critics of diversity express racism in their protests.
Members of the Arkansas based white pride organization 'White Revolution' meet with locals to protest illegal immigration on May 21, 2005 in Danville, Arkansas. avid S. Holloway/Getty Images

Racism refers to a variety of practices, beliefs, social relations, and phenomena that work to reproduce a racial hierarchy and social structure that yield superiority, power, and privilege for some, and discrimination and oppression for others. It can take several forms, including representational, ideological, discursive, interactional, institutional, structural, and systemic.

Racism exists when ideas and assumptions about racial categories are used to justify and reproduce a racial hierarchy and racially structured society that unjustly limits access to resources, rights, and privileges on the basis of race.

Racism also occurs when this kind of unjust social structure is produced by the failure to account for race and its historical and contemporary roles in society.

Contrary to a dictionary definition, racism, as defined based on social science research and theory, is about much more than race-based prejudice—it exists when an imbalance in power and social status is generated by how we understand and act upon race.

The Seven Forms of Racism

Racism takes seven main forms, according to social science. Rarely does any one exist on its own. Instead, racism typically operates as a combination of at least two forms working together, simultaneously. Independently and together, these seven forms of racism work to reproduce racist ideas, racist interactions and behavior, racist practices and policies, and an overall racist social structure.

Representational Racism

Depictions of racial stereotypes are common in popular culture and media, like the historical tendency to cast people of color as criminals and as victims of crime rather than in other roles, or as background characters rather than as leads in film and television.

Also common are racial caricatures that are racist in their representations, like “mascots” for the Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, and the Washington R******* (name redacted because it is a racial slur). The power of representational racism—or racism expressed in how racial groups are represented within popular culture—is that it encapsulates a whole range of racist ideas that imply inferiority, and often stupidity and untrustworthiness, in images that circulate society and permeate our culture.

While those not directly harmed by representational racism might not take it seriously, the presence of such images and our interaction with them on a near-constant basis helps to keep alive the racist ideas attached to them.

Ideological Racism

Ideology is a word that sociologists use to refer to the world views, beliefs, and common sense ways of thinking that are normal in a society or culture. So, ideological racism is a kind of racism that colors and manifests in those things. It refers to world views, beliefs, and common sense ideas that are rooted in racial stereotypes and biases. A troubling example is the fact that many people in American society, regardless of their race, believe that white and light skinned people are more intelligent than dark-skinned people and superior in a variety of other ways.

Historically, this particular form of ideological racism supported and justified the building of European colonial empires and US imperialism through the unjust acquisition of land, people, and resources around the world. Today, some common ideological forms of racism include the belief that Black women are sexually promiscuous, that Latina women are “fiery” or “hot tempered,” and that Black men and boys are criminally oriented.

This form of racism has a negative impact on people of color as a whole because it works to deny them access to and/or success within education and the professional world, and subjects them to heightened police surveillance, harassment, and violence, among other negative outcomes.

Discursive Racism

Racism is often expressed linguistically, in the "discourse" we use to talk about the world and people in it. This kind of racism is expressed as racial slurs and hate speech, but also as code words that have racialized meanings embedded in them, like “ghetto,” “thug,” or “gangsta.” Just as representational racism communicates racist ideas through images, discursive racism communicates them through the actual words we use to describe people and places. Using words that rely on stereotypical racial differences to communicate explicit or implicit hierarchies perpetuates the racist inequalities that exist in society.

Interactional Racism

Racism often takes an interactional form, which means it is expressed in how we interact with each other. For example, a white or Asian woman walking on a sidewalk may cross the street to avoid passing closely by a Black or Latino man because she is implicitly biased to see these men as potential threats. When a person of color is verbally or physically assaulted because of their race, this is interactional racism. When a neighbor calls the police to report a break-in because they do not recognize their Black neighbor, or when someone automatically assumes that a person of color is a low-level employee or an assistant, though they might be a manager, executive, or owner of a business, this is interactional racism. Hate crimes are the most extreme manifestation of this form of racism. Interactional racism causes stress, anxiety, and emotional and physical harm to people of color on a daily basis.

Institutional Racism

Racism takes institutional form in the ways that policies and laws are crafted and put into practice through society's institutions, such as the decades-long set of policing and legal policies known as “The War on Drugs,” which has disproportionately targeted neighborhoods and communities that are composed predominantly of people of color. Other examples include New York City’s Stop-N-Frisk policy that overwhelmingly targets Black and Latino males, the practice among real estate agents and mortgage lenders of not allowing people of color to own property in certain neighborhoods and that force them to accept less desirable mortgage rates, and educational tracking policies that funnel children of color into remedial classes and trades programs.

Institutional racism preserves and fuels the racial gaps in wealth, education, and social status, and serves to perpetuate white supremacy and privilege.

Structural Racism

Structural racism refers to the ongoing, historical, and long-term reproduction of the racialized structure of our society through a combination of all of the above forms. Structural racism manifests in widespread racial segregation and stratification on the basis of education, income, and wealth, the recurrent displacement of people of color from neighborhoods that go through processes of gentrification, and the overwhelming burden of environmental pollution borne by people of color given its proximity to their communities. Structural racism results in large-scale, society-wide inequalities on the basis of race.

Systemic Racism

Many sociologists describe racism in the US as "systemic" because the country was founded on racist beliefs that created racist policies and practices, and because that legacy lives today in the racism that courses throughout the entirety of our social system. This means that racism was built into the very foundation of our society, and because of this, it has influenced the development of social institutions, laws, policies, beliefs, media representations, and behaviors and interactions, among many other things. By this definition, the system itself is racist, so effectively addressing racism requires a system-wide approach that leaves nothing unexamined.

Racism in Sum

Sociologists observe a variety of styles or types of racism within these seven different forms.

Some may be overtly racist, like the use of racial slurs or hate speech, or policies that intentionally discriminate against people on the basis of race. Others may be covert, kept to oneself, hidden from public view, or obscured by color-blind policies that purport to be race-neutral, though they have racist impacts. While something may not appear obviously racist at first glance, it may, in fact, prove to be racist when one examines the implications of it through a sociological lens. If it relies on stereotypical notions of race and reproduces a racially structured society, then it is racist.

Due to the sensitive nature of race as a topic of conversation in American society, some have come to think that simply noticing race, or identifying or describing someone using race, is racist. Sociologists do not agree with this. In fact, many sociologists, race scholars, and anti-racist activists emphasize the importance of recognizing and accounting for race and racism as necessary in the pursuit of social, economic, and political justice.

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Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "The Definition of Racism." ThoughtCo, Jul. 24, 2017, thoughtco.com/racism-definition-3026511. Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2017, July 24). The Definition of Racism. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/racism-definition-3026511 Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "The Definition of Racism." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/racism-definition-3026511 (accessed December 13, 2017).