What Is Racism?

What Is Racism?

Racism is a form of oppression in which one racial group dominates over others. In the United States and Canada, Whites are the dominant group and peoples of Color are the minoritized group; therefore, racism here is White racial and cultural prejudice and discrimination, supported intentionally or unintentionally by institutional power and authority, used to the advantage of Whites and the disadvantage of peoples of Color (Hilliard, 1992). In other nations the dominant and minoritized racial groups will not be the same because of the difference in their social and political histories. From here forward, we will be speaking of racism only as it plays out in the United States and Canada.

STOP: Remember, we are addressing racism at the group, not individual, level. At the group level, all of us navigate the current of dominant culture. In the United States and Canada, if we are White, we swim with that current, and if we are a person of Color, we must swim against it. While this is the racial reality at the group level, how we respond individually may vary.

Racism is not fluid in that it does not move back and forth, one day benefiting Whites and another day (or even era) benefiting peoples of


Color. The direction of power between Whites and peoples of Color is historic, traditional, normalized, and deeply embedded in the fabric of U.S. and Canadian societies (Henry & Tator, 2006; James, 2007; Wise, 2005). The critical element that differentiates racism from racial prejudice and discrimination is the historical accumulation and ongoing use of institutional power and authority that supports discriminatory behaviors in systemic and far-reaching ways. Peoples of Color may hold prejudices and discriminate against Whites, but do not have the social and institutional power backing their prejudice and discrimination that transforms it into racism; the impact of their prejudice on Whites is temporary and contextual. Peoples of Color may also hold prejudices and discriminate against their own and other groups of Color, but the impact of their prejudice and discrimination ultimately serves to hold them down and in this way, reinforces the system of racism and serves White interests. From a critical social justice perspective, the term racism refers to this system of collective social and institutional White power and privilege.

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