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Racism is such a challenging concept to define in one sentence. It is often simplified to discrimination against a person or group of people based on their race. Many still think, and certainly the law in many countries still defends this notion, that racism only matters when it is intentional. This is very limiting.  

It is often forgotten that racism does not only disadvantage some people based on race, it also privileges people based on race. Racism cannot be limited to racial prejudice; racism takes place when a group of people with power are able to act on their racial prejudice in a harmful way.

It can be helpful to break it down into different categories (by no means the only possible categories and a lot of them will intersect):

  • Interpersonal racism – prejudices and discriminatory behaviours where one group makes assumptions about the abilities, motives, and intents of other groups based on race. This set of prejudices leads to cruel intentional or unintentional actions towards other groups.

  • Internalised racism – when members of stigmatised groups are bombarded with negative messages about their own abilities and intrinsic worth, they may internalise those negative messages. It holds people back from achieving their fullest potential.

  • Institutional racism – when organisations, businesses, or institutions like schools and police departments discriminate, either deliberately or indirectly, against certain groups of people to limit their rights. The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry defined it as "The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people" (Macpherson, 1999).

  • Systemic racism - a web of economic, political, social, and cultural structures, actions, and beliefs that systemise an unequal distribution of privilege, resources, safety and power in favour of the dominant racial group at the expense of all other racial groups.

  • Theological racism - racism that uses religion to justify the unequal distribution of power. This can be seen when colonisers such as Christopher Columbus used Christianity as an excuse to exploit Indigenous people and their land.

  • Scientific racism - also known as biological racism or race science. This type of racism uses pseudoscience (eugenics) to justify the unequal distribution of power. This can be seen when the English scholar, Francis Galton (Darwin's cousin) coined the term "eugenics" to describe the betterment of the human race by selectively breeding the "best" kind of people (white, rich and able-bodied people). See Angela Saini's Superior: The Return of Race Science for more information.

  • Cultural racism - racism that uses cultural differences to justify the unequal distribution of power. This can be seen with the idea that some cultures (especially white Western cultures, as a result of colonialism) are deemed more sophisticated and advanced while other cultures are deemed to be primitive, backward and uncivilised.

  • Racial capitalism - the way in which capitalism relies upon the elaboration, reproduction and exploitation of notions of racial differences. This can be seen globally with the unequal division of wealth and labour. The term was coined by African American scholar Cedric Robinson in his book Black Marxism: The Making of Black Radical Tradition.

  • Environmental racism - the environmental injustice that occurs along the lines of racial differences both in policy and practice. In other words, the destruction of land with the adverse effects on health and livelihoods targeting primarily Black, Indigenous, people of colour and poorer people. Locally, "Cancer Ally" in Louisiana, USA, disproportionately affected poorer African Americans. Globally, the global waste trade is an example of environmental racism as countries in the Global North export their waste to countries in the Global South who subsequently experience all the environmental and health damage. also provides an interesting breakdown of racism that links it more simply to privilege and social oppression:

  • Racism = race prejudice + social and institutional power

  • Racism = a system of advantage based on race

  • Racism = a system of oppression based on race

  • Racism = a white supremacy system

Racism is different from racial prejudice, hatred, or discrimination. Racism involves one group having the power to carry out systematic discrimination through the institutional policies and practices of the society and by shaping the cultural beliefs and values that support those racist policies and practices.

A Historical Perspective:

The illustration below is extracted from Pravini Baboeram's music documentary "The Uprising" that explores the historical evolution of racism and offers a decolonial perspective on anti-racist movements in Europe.

The Uprising breakdown of racisms.png
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