What is Racism?


Defining "RACISM":  The Power Factor 

In our experience, anti-racism education is a (rewarding and transformative) process that involves integrating an analysis of history and systemic/institutional processes with personal and particular, and often-emotional experience.

As you introduce ways of understanding racism, for example, you are likely to be asked a number of questions based on participants' particular experiences, incidents, locations, and perspectives; you are very likely to find that white participants will be very anxious to show that they are not racist, or do not "mean" to be. (See our sections on Intentionality and Individual and Systemic Racism; See our definition of Systemic Racism). You may be asked questions such as the following:

  • "If I notice someone's skin colour is different from mine, is that racist?"

  • "Can people of colour and Indigenous people be racist towards white people?"

  • "What if I didn't mean to be racist? Is it still racism?"

Understanding that power is the primary feature of racism is key.

 An effective, brief definition of racism that works very well as a visual aid, and focal point for discussion, is this:

Racism = Racial Prejudice + Power     

By Racial Prejudice we mean: a set of discriminatory or derogatory attitudes based on assumptions deriving from perceptions about race/skin colour.

Despite discourses to the contrary—we live in a society that is structured as a hierarchy. (See our definitions of Colour-Blindness/ Colour Evasion and Democratic/Liberal Racism). An expression of racial prejudice (in words and/or actions) always originates from somewhere on this hierarchy, and is directed at someone/a group in another location on the hierarchy.

By Power we mean: the authority granted through social structures and conventions—possibly supported by force or the threat of force—and access to means of communications and resources, to reinforce racial prejudice, regardless of the falsity of the underlying prejudiced assumption. Basically, all power is relational, and the different relationships either reinforce or disrupt one another.

The importance of the concept of power to anti-racism is clear: racism cannot be understood without understanding that power is not only an individual relationship but a cultural one, and that power relationships are shifting constantly. Regardless of the type of power, including socially-imbued power, all can be used malignantly and intentionally. However, this need not be the case as individuals within a culture may benefit from power of which they are unaware. 

Racism:

  • 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, unequal economic opportunity and the exclusion and distortion of the perspectives of non-dominant Canadians in cultural institutions (Thomas, 1987);

  • refers to “a system in which one group of people exercises power over another on the basis of skin colour; 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 behaviour patterns (Henry & Tator, 2006, p. 352).

Racism = Racial Prejudice + Power

In our experience, the above definition elicits a number of comments, frequently revolving around specific incidents and sorting through whether or not a specific act constitutes "racial prejudice" or "racism." Often, white people will want to argue that they too can be the victims of racism, or that a specific action was not racist (or even prejudiced) because it was not intended to be racist or prejudiced. Below are some questions/comments that can arise relating to Racism = Racial Prejudice + Power: