Racism goes beyond what we typically view as the conventional definition of the term. Per Oxford Dictionary, racism is: “The inability or refusal to recognize the rights, needs, dignity, or value of people of particular races or geographical origins. “

Merriam-Webster updated their definition in 2020 to better define the multiple facets of racism:

1: a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
2a: a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles
b: a political or social system founded on racism
3: racial prejudice or discrimination

The reality is, racism is a complex system. It goes beyond the things people say, do, or believe. It also encompasses the barriers that prevent marginalized people from equality because of their race.

The Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre defines racism as “racial prejudice + power”. Racism can only be understood by understanding the cultural role of power (authority granted through social structures and conventions) that reinforce racial prejudice (discriminatory/derogatory attitudes based on assumptions from perceptions about race/skin color).

Dismantling Racism explains that “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.”

The ACLRC further defines racism as the following:

  • occurs when an expression of Racial Prejudice emerges from a more powerful/privileged location in the hierarchy, and is directed at an individual/group in a less powerful/privileged location;
  • occurs where the target of the prejudice has less power than the perpetrator;
  • is top-down;
  • is an exercise of power;
  • refers not only to social attitudes towards non-dominant ethnic and racial groups but also to social structures and actions which oppress, exclude, limit and discriminate against such individuals and groups. Such social attitudes originate in and rationalize discriminatory treatment;
  • can be seen in discriminatory laws, residential segregation, poor health care, inferior education, and unequal economic opportunity
  • refers to “a system in which one group of people exercises power over another on the basis of skin color; an implicit or explicit set of beliefs, erroneous assumptions, and actions based on an ideology of the inherent superiority of one racial group over another, and evident in organizational or institutional structures and programs as well as in individual thought or behavior patterns (Henry & Tator, 2006, p. 352).

Institutional racism and individual racism are deeply tied, but fortunately it’s possible to be an anti-racist within institutions that are systematically racist.

Ready to learn more? Check out the following resources:

CRER (Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights)
Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre
Race Forward
Racial Equity Tools