What is racism?

It’s fair to say that many people today think racism is a thing of the past.

It would be nice if this were true. But it isn’t.

Everyone in society has prejudices ingrained in us. We learn stereotypes subconsciously through constant exposure to media. None of us is immune. (For more on this, see the Implicit Association Test from Harvard University.)

Racism is when those with power in society use it to discriminate on the basis of race against those without, intentionally or not.

In the past, overt racial discrimination was legal, in the form of separate schools for Black and White students, for example.

Today, racism is often more subtle – making it harder to identify and call out. It can involve subtle comments, or unchecked, subconscious assumptions. At its core, racism is about differential treatment.

Some say anyone can be a victim of racism, but this isn’t quite accurate. Throughout our history, people in positions of power – politicians, business leaders, lawyers, police officers etc – have overwhelmingly been white (and usually men).

This is still the case today. And while anyone can hold prejudices against members of another group, the power to act upon those prejudices is the defining feature of racism.

Systemic racism is even more important than individual behaviour. This is the way in which society’s rules have been set up to discriminate – intentionally or not – against marginalized groups. Examples include the factors within the criminal justice system that result in the over-representation of Black youth in prison, or the disproportionate rates of Black students put on special education plans.

For racism to be addressed, it first has to be acknowledged and understood. The following resources can help you learn about this poorly understood topic.