What Is Racism: Definition and Examples

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What is racism, really? The use of the term racism has become so popular that it’s spun off related terms such as reverse racism, horizontal racism, and internalized racism.

Dictionary Definition of Racism

Let’s start by examining the most basic definition of racism—the dictionary meaning. According to the American Heritage College Dictionary, racism has two meanings. This resource first defines racism as, “The belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others” and secondly as, “Discrimination or prejudice based on race.”

Examples of the first definition abound throughout history. When enslavement was practiced in the United States, Black people were not only considered inferior to White people but also regarded as property rather than human beings. During the 1787 Philadelphia Convention, lawmakers agreed that enslaved individuals were to be considered three-fifths people for the purposes of taxation and representation. Generally speaking, during the era of enslavement, Black people were deemed intellectually inferior to White people as well. Some Americans believe this still today.

In 1994, a book called "The Bell Curve" posited that genetics were to blame for Black people traditionally scoring lower than White people on intelligence tests. The book was attacked by many including New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, who argued that social factors were responsible for the differential, and Stephen Jay Gould, who argued that the authors made conclusions unsupported by scientific research.

However, this pushback has done little to stifle racism, even in academia. In 2007, Nobel Prize-winning geneticist James Watson ignited similar controversy when he suggested that Black people were less intelligent than White people.

Sociological Definition of Racism

The sociological definition of racism is much more complex. In sociology, racism is defined as an ideology that prescribes statuses to racial groups based on perceived differences. Though races are not inherently unequal, racism forces this narrative. Genetics and biology do not support or even suggest racial inequality, contrary to what many people—often even scholars—believe. Racial discrimination, based on manufactured inequalities, is a direct product of racism that brings these notions of difference into reality. Institutional racism permits inequality in legislation, education, public health, and more. Racism is allowed to spread further through the racialization of systems that affect nearly every aspect of life, and this combined with widespread discrimination results in racism that is systemic—allowed to exist by society as a whole and internalized by a majority to some extent.

Racism creates power dynamics that follow these patterns of perceived imbalance, which are exploited in order to preserve feelings of superiority in the "dominant" race and inferiority in the "subservient" race, even to blame the victims of oppression for their own situations. Unfortunately, these victims often unwittingly play a role in the continuation of racism. Scholar Karen Pyke points out that "all systems of inequality are maintained and reproduced, in part, through their internalization by the oppressed." Even though racial groups are equal at the most basic level, groups assigned lesser statuses are oppressed and treated as though they are not equal because they are perceived not to be. Even when subconsciously held, these beliefs serve to further divide racial groups from one another. Radical versions of racism such as white supremacy make overt the unspoken ideologies within racism: that certain races are superior to others and should be allowed to hold more societal power.

Discrimination Today

Racism persists in modern society, often taking the form of discrimination. Case in point: Black unemployment has consistently soared above White unemployment for decades. Why? Numerous studies indicate that racism advantaging White people at the expense of Black people contributes to unemployment gaps between races.

For example, in 2003, researchers at the University of Chicago and MIT released a study involving 5,000 fake resumes, finding that 10% of resumes featuring “Caucasian-sounding” names were called back compared to just 6.7% of resumes featuring “Black-sounding” names. Moreover, resumes featuring names such as Tamika and Aisha were called back just 5% and 2% of the time. The skill level of the faux Black candidates made no impact on callback rates.

Internalized Racism and Horizontal Racism

Internalized racism is not always or even usually seen as a person from a racial group in power believing subconsciously that they are better than people of other races. It can often be seen as a person from a marginalized group believing, perhaps unconsciously, that White people are superior.

A highly publicized example of this is a 1940 study devised by Dr. Kenneth and Mamie to pinpoint the negative psychological effects of segregation on young Black children. Given the choice between dolls completely identical in every way except for their color, Black children disproportionately chose dolls with white skin, often even going so far as to refer to the dark-skinned dolls with derision and epithets.

In 2005, teen filmmaker Kiri Davis conducted a similar study, finding that 64% of Black girls interviewed preferred White dolls. The girls attributed physical traits associated with White people, such as straighter hair, with being more desirable than traits associated with Black people.

Horizontal racism occurs when members of minority groups adopt racist attitudes toward other minority groups. An example of this would be if a Japanese American prejudged a Mexican American based on the racist stereotypes of Latinos found in mainstream culture.

Reverse Racism

“Reverse racism” refers to supposed anti-White discrimination. This term is often used in conjunction with practices designed to help people of color, such as affirmative action.

To be clear, reverse racism does not exist. It’s also worth noting that in response to living in a racially stratified society, Black people sometimes complain about White people. Typically, such complaints are used as coping mechanisms for withstanding racism, not as a means of placing White people into the subservient position Black people have been forced to occupy. And even when people of color express or practice prejudice against White people, they lack the institutional power to adversely affect the lives of White people.


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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "What Is Racism: Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Mar. 13, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-racism-2834955. Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2021, March 13). What Is Racism: Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-racism-2834955 Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "What Is Racism: Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-racism-2834955 (accessed April 13, 2021).