Forms of Racism

Individual and Systemic Racism

"It was just a personal opinion."
"I was just doing my job, and following procedure."
"Anyone can apply for that job."
"Anyone can play hockey or take music lessons in this city."     

Racism occurs between individuals, on an interpersonal level, and is embedded in organizations and institutions through their policies, procedures and practices. In general, it may seem easier to recognize individual or interpersonal acts of racism: a slur made, a person ignored in a social or work setting, an act of violence. However, "individual" racism is not created in a vacuum but instead emerges from a society's foundational beliefs and "ways" of seeing/doing things, and is manifested in organizations, institutions, and systems (including education). Below are some useful definitions:

Individual Racism refers to an individual's racist assumptions, beliefs or behaviours and is "a form of racial discrimination that stems from conscious and unconscious, personal prejudice" (Henry & Tator, 2006, p. 329). Individual Racism is connected to/learned from broader socio-economic histories and processes and is supported and reinforced by systemic racism. 

Because we live in such a culture of individualism (and with the privilege of freedom of speech), some people argue that their statements/ideas are not racist because they are just "personal opinion." Here, it is important to point out how individualism functions to erase hierarchies of power, and to connect unrecognized personal ideologies to larger racial or systemic ones. (That is, individualism can be used as a defensive reaction.) This is why it is crucial to understand systemic racism and how it operates.

Systemic Racism includes the policies and practices entrenched in established institutions, which result in the exclusion or promotion of designated groups. It differs from overt discrimination in that no individual intent is necessary. (Toronto Mayor's Committee on Community and Race Relations. Race Relations: Myths and Facts)

It manifests itself in two ways:

  1. institutional racism: racial discrimination that derives from individuals carrying out the dictates of others who are prejudiced or of a prejudiced society

  2. structural racism: inequalities rooted in the system-wide operation of a society that excludes substantial numbers of members of particular groups from significant participation in major social institutions. (Henry & Tator, 2006, p. 352)

Some forms of systemic racism may be more explicit or easier (for some) to identify than others: the Indian Residential School System in Canada; Jim Crow Laws in the US; the exclusion of African-American golfers from elite, private golf courses in the US; the way that "universal suffrage" did not include Indigenous North American women (nor did Indigenous men receive the vote until 1960, unless they gave up their status/identity as Indigenous).

Some Canadian examples of systemic racism include: the 1885 Head Tax, the 1923 Exclusion Act, the 1897 Female Refugee Act, passed in Ontario, which criminalized 'immoral' and 'incorrigible' acts conducted by women if they were found to be pregnant out of wedlock or drunk in public. 

Other forms or manifestations of systemic racism may not be as readily obvious to some, usually those privileged by the system. Click here to see three more examples of systemic racism.

Fortunately, individuals can be anti-racist within, and despite, systems and institutions that are systemically racist.