Understanding racism is the first step toward fighting against it. This guide outlines seven key concepts concerning racism and racial inequality.
This guide uses real-life examples to explain the following key concepts and often-used terms:
- individual racism
- white privilege
- unconscious bias
- systemic racism
- ‘reverse racism’
You don’t need to use these terms yourself to discuss and fight racism and in fact, using your own words can sometimes be more helpful. For example, someone might react defensively if they hear what they think are just buzzwords (like 'white privilege’). But, knowledge is power, and the key to preventing these words from becoming buzzwords is to understand what they mean.
Individual racism refers to racist beliefs, assumptions, or behaviours held or performed by a person. It’s a very common use of the word ‘racism’, but it is only one of the forms that racism takes.
Examples of individual racist behaviour include:
- calling someone racist names
- not employing someone because of their race
- believing that some races are superior to others
- believing or joking about stereotypes
A stereotype is an assumption that everyone within a certain group shares the same characteristics, regardless of individual differences. Many stereotypes are negative, like assuming groups of people are lazy or criminal. Even seemingly positive stereotypes, like believing that certain groups of people are good at maths or sport, can also be problematic.
The phrase ‘white privilege’ refers to the social and economic benefits that white people have just by being white. Some people find it upsetting to be told they have white privilege because they may have grown up in poverty, know people of colour with easier lives than theirs, or feel that this concept ignores their hard work.
However, the term ‘white privilege’ doesn't mean that white people don’t experience challenges or that things a white person accomplishes are unearned. It simply means that the hardships white people might experience aren’t because of their race, and that there are certain barriers that white people simply don’t have to face.
This is mostly down to the fact that historically, white people have always been in positions of power over non-white people (known as ‘power dynamics). So even if a white person isn’t in a position of power themselves, they are being represented - and even protected - more than non-white people.
Some examples of white privilege include:
- being represented in popular media, advertisements, children’s toys, or even birthday cards
- being able to easily find makeup or plasters (band-aids) which match their skin tone
- being less likely to be followed or searched by police for looking ‘suspicious’
- being more likely to get a job or even an interview than someone who isn’t white
Unconscious biases are stereotypes that people believe about another person or group without actively thinking about it. Almost everyone has unconscious biases, and to get rid of them you need to actively confront them.
Unconscious biases can influence the decisions we make without us even realising it. For example, a 2019 study by the University of Oxford found that applicants with minority ethnic-sounding names had to send 60% more applications to get a positive response from an employer than a white person of British origin, despite being equally qualified.
Microaggressions are acts that can seem hostile or make someone feel uncomfortable. They can be intentional or unintentional, and can even include comments intended as a compliment.
We are all different and feel things differently, so a comment that one person has no issue with can be hurtful to someone else. If you say something that upsets someone, try to understand the reason – it might be one you hadn’t thought of before!
Here are some examples (related to race, ethnicity, and religion), with an explanation of why the interaction could be upsetting in each case:
- expressing surprise if a Muslim woman wears/doesn’t wear a hijab implies that Muslim women are a homogenous group without individual opinions
- asking a person of colour where they are really from implies that they don’t truly belong in their country because of their skin colour
- not including discrimination against Jewish people in discussions around prejudice implies that discrimination against Jews is less important than that against other groups
- asking a Black person whether you can touch their hair can make them feel like a display object, especially since this is not something which would usually be asked of a non-Black person with straight hair
Systemic racism describes forms of racism that are embedded within an organisation or in society as a whole. This can be evident in policies and practices which result in a continuation of unfair or discriminatory treatment of groups and individuals.
One example of systemic racism is how Black people are treated in criminal justice systems in the US and UK. Although Black people make up a fairly small percentage of the general population, they are hugely over-represented in prisons. This is due to the racism in the justice system where Black people, along with other minority groups, aren’t treated fairly and equally. This often leads to police brutality, mass imprisonment, and wrongful convictions.
Because systemic racism is not due to any one person, and it often has many different causes that are all working together, it can be hard to unpick and fight against. (See our guide to systemic racism to learn more.)
This term has grown in popularity on social media, however many people argue that it dilutes the problems that non-white people face every day as it doesn't really fit the definition of racism. Racist acts - whether they're individual, unconscious, systemic, or microaggressions - contribute to the oppression of a whole race and prevent people of that race from achieving or even living their everyday lives.
While acts of racial prejudice directed at white people do happen, they don't contribute to the oppression of white people as a group. Similarly, because most positions of power are held by white people, there is still protection for them when they are attacked, whereas this doesn't always exist for non-white people.