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The Many Types of Racism: 5 Terms to Know

“I’m not racist!”

No one wants to be called racist. However, few people truly understand what “racism” means. Most believe that racism is one thing and one thing only. But in reality, racism is a complex system. Therefore, it is better to think of racism as an umbrella term that describes many types of biased behaviors and systems.  Below, we’ll define and discuss five types of racism that culturally competent leaders should know.

Individual Racism

Individual racism, also called personal racism, is the type of racism that most people think of when they think of “racism.” Individual racism occurs when a person’s beliefs, attitudes, and actions are based on biases, stereotypes, or prejudices against another race.  A belief that whites are biologically superior to people of color is an example of individual racism. If Joe, a white man, is sitting on his porch demeaning people of color, he is engaging in individual racism.

When a person says, “I’m not racist,” what she usually means is that she does not consciously believe or think that whites are superior. In fact, she may take great pains to prevent such thoughts. While avoiding racist thoughts is a good start, this approach assumes that racism only occurs in the conscious mind. In reality, racism can be conscious or unconscious.

Unconscious racism – also known as implicit bias – can be a difficult concept to understand. Researchers at Harvard explain implicit bias as follows: because our unconscious brains must work very quickly to make decisions, they look for shortcuts. Grouping people together based on their appearance is one such shortcut. Generally, these mental shortcuts are not a problem. However, because American history, media, and institutions have consistently produced negative images of people of color, Americans have been exposed to harmful ideas about people of color for generations. Over time, exposure to these images corrupts the unconscious brain so thoroughly that it becomes trained to connect people of color with negative traits. So, if Joe’s wife, Jane, a white woman, reflexively becomes afraid when a man of color enters the elevator she is riding, she too has engaged in individual racism.

Interpersonal Racism

Interpersonal racism is racism between individuals. In other words, it is when a white person actively or passively employs their personal racism against a person of color.

A few decades ago, interpersonal racism was much more overt. Before the Civil Rights Movement, whites often used racial slurs and engaged in physical violence against people of color. Today, such actions – known as overt racism – are less tolerated as acceptable in society, but still prevalent. While name-calling and physical threats are frowned upon today, interpersonal racism can still take a variety of forms. Now, racism is more covert. The ideas remain the same, but today, they are expressed differently. A person who would not dare use a racial slur might still engage in any number of acts that demonstrate a preference for whiteness and white people.

To return to our example, let’s assume Joe – our friend on the porch – sees a group of people of color having a picnic in the park across the street from his home.  If he calls the police to report them and uses racial slurs during the conversation, he has engaged in overt racism. If his wife, Jane, clutches her purse after the man of color enters the elevator, her behavior is covertly racist.


Institutional Racism

In America, most conservations about racism focus on the actions of individuals. Sadly, this limited thinking prevents discussion of one of the most important types of racism: institutional racism. When racism occurs in organizations, it can be much harder to combat. Institutions often have more history, money, power, and prestige than individuals. So, while we certainly want individuals to be free of bias, if institutions are biased, a few unbiased individuals will not be enough to overcome the bias.

Institutional racism refers to an institution making choices that intentionally single out or harm people of color. Jim Crow segregation laws are good examples of institutional racism. While explicit institutional racism is rarer today, it still exists.

To return to our example, after Joe calls the police, the officer arrives.  Police department policy directs officers to stop young Black and Latino males.  This policy is institutional racism. (This example is not far-fetched. A federal judge recently found that the New York City Police Department had unconstitutionally directed its officers to stop to Black and Latino males between the ages of 14 and 20.)

Cultural Racism

Cultural racism has several meanings. In the larger sense, it is the authority to create and define the culture in a society.  In America, the standards of art, beauty, and other forms of culture have historically been decided by straight, white, Christian men. As a result, the dominant American culture often reflects the needs of that group while excluding or devaluing the contributions of people of color. Therefore, in America, the holidays we celebrate, the statues in our parks, the stories in our history books and other markers of culture generally honor white men to the exclusion of other groups.

Cultural racism also uses “culture” as the explanation for policies generated by racism and white supremacy. A few generations ago, racial differences were explained by biology (“their brains are smaller”) or even religion (“God has cursed them to be enslaved”). As overt racism declined, cultural racism took its place. According to a cultural racist, African Americans lack wealth because “their culture” doesn’t value education, marriage, hard work, or thrift. This “explanation” overlooks the fact that African Americans endured hundreds of years of unpaid slavery, many generations of segregation, and could not vote in many areas until 1965. Rather than exploring some of the actual causes of the current situation, cultural racists claim, “That’s just the way they are.”

To return to our example, if Joe called the police on the people of color in the park because they were “too loud,” it would be an example of cultural racism. Though white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture generally values quiet gatherings, other cultures’ expressions of joy may be considered “too loud” by the dominant culture.

Structural Racism

Structural racism, also known as systemic racism, is perhaps the most harmful and least discussed form of racism. Structural racism codifies individual, cultural, and other types of racism in perpetual systems. Like institutional racism, structural racism focuses on organizations rather than people. But while institutional racism may purposefully try to single out a particular group, structural racism is neutral on its face. This neutrality makes structural racism difficult to measure and even more difficult to end.

For example, an organization may establish an early career pipeline program to recruit new, diverse professionals. Despite this commitment to diversity, the program’s requirements may limit the number of diverse applicants. The program may require a college degree and letters of recommendation from faculty members.   While a college education may seem like a standard qualification, requiring a college degree for non-specialized positions inadvertently disadvantages people of color.  Institutional practices such as school segregation prevented people of color from attending college for years.  Current structural practices such as school financing laws continue to limit the education options available to people of color.  Moreover, historical and present structural practices such as predatory lending make it more difficult for people of color to afford college.

Other aspects of the organization’s plan may create an internal structure that prevents full participation by people of color.  Cultural and structural racism may combine to give preference to those from “prestigious,” predominantly white institutions (PWI) over graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) or Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSI).  Moreover, programs that prioritize unpaid internships and volunteer experiences disadvantage people of color.  Communities of color ere less able to invest in unpaid experiences due to historical, structural practices that deprived them of wealth.   For the same reasons, requiring an in-person interview for distant candidates can put an unequal burden on candidates of color.

Returning to our example, let’s assume that Joe calls the police.  Cultural racism justifies the officers’ belief that the young man of color is “suspicious.”  If the young man is arrested, structural racism will make it difficult for him to afford bail or an attorney. If the police harm the young man while he is detained, structural racism makes it nearly impossible for him to prove his case. Structural racism also makes it difficult to create systems of oversight for police officers.  Most significantly, if the young man is convicted of a crime, structural racism will limit his options for shelter and employment after his release. In many states, structural racism will prevent him from voting as well.

Racism is a problem that has plagued America for centuries. And yet, we have made progress. Today, more and more people and organizations want to work to end racism in America.  To learn more about the types of racism, enroll in the Equity Toolkit e-courses. The Equity Toolkit is an interactive, four-course online series containing essential, research-based concepts on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.

DeEtta Jones

DeEtta Jones is an invited speaker, equity, diversity and inclusion strategy consultant and author with more than twenty years of experience working with people from around the world to on personal effectiveness and building workforce capacity.

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