Racism in Everyday Life: Understanding the Roles of Power and Privilege in Shaping Inequality

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In the wake of George Floyd’s horrifying murder and the resulting protests decrying both police brutality and the institutional racism that has paved the way for that brutality to persist, now more than ever it’s important to understand what racism looks like and how it affects the everyday lives of people of color. Racism isn’t limited to the overtly bigoted actions that we notice people taking or see in news headlines. It exists in covert forms that affect every aspect of people of color’s lives — and go largely unnoticed by the privileged groups that benefit.

Racism is insidious. It poisons every level of society and harms people of color on a daily basis. It dictates how various organizations and structures operate and how we treat one another. This is unacceptable, and it needs to change. Understanding what racism looks like and how it impacts people in everyday life, whether it’s coming from individuals or institutions, is an important first step in working to dismantle the systems that perpetuate racial inequality.

What Racism Is — and What It Isn’t

To learn how racism affects people, it’s essential to know what it is. Racism isn’t just prejudice — having a discriminatory attitude based on incorrect assumptions about different races. Racism also involves power — the ability to dictate and control outcomes. It comes from privileged groups and institutions that uphold their own social, political and economic advantages while actively harming people of color and limiting their access to opportunities. When a privileged group of people exercises power over another group based on skin color and perceived differences between races, that’s racism.

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Particularly in the Western world, white people hold this privilege and power, and institutions systematically favor whiteness. When someone makes negative assumptions about white people and treats them differently based on their whiteness, though, it’s an example of racial prejudice; it is not racism. This is because there’s an underlying power structure in the United States that perpetuates the privileges of whiteness on a widespread, systemic level. “Expressions of racial prejudice directed at white people…do not have the power or authority to affect the white person’s social/economic/political location and privileges,” according to the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre — but white people’s expressions of racial prejudice do have the power to affect other races’ privileges. Power is a defining element of racism, and without it, an individual or group cannot be racist.

Individual, Interpersonal and Internalized Racism: People’s Thoughts and Actions

Racism is embedded in a variety of levels throughout society. One of the most recognizable is in person-to-person interactions. Individual racism refers to one person’s racist beliefs and behaviors and their own personal prejudices. When someone from a privileged group expresses those personal racist beliefs to a person of color or bases their actions toward a person of color on that person’s race, they’re demonstrating interpersonal racism — racist actions that occur between individuals.

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This might look like using a slur, avoiding a person of color in a social setting or even committing an act of violence against the person, such as vandalizing their home. Or, it might look like a landlord refusing to rent to someone because of their race. It might be as overt as a hate crime or as subtle as a comment during a dinner party. Any time an individual with privilege treats an individual of another race differently based on negative assumptions they hold about that person’s race, they’re expressing interpersonal racism.

When people of color are exposed to and victimized by racism, they may begin to internalize it. This means they “develop ideas, beliefs, actions and behaviors that support or collude with racism,” explains author Donna K. Bivens. Consciously or unconsciously, people in marginalized groups begin to accept the negative stereotypes and beliefs society as a whole holds about them because those ideas are so pervasive — and because people of color may, as Bivens elaborates, be “habitually rewarded for supporting white privilege.” This punishment-reward cycle can reinforce racist beliefs a person of color holds about themselves and their race while also causing them to believe that white privilege is deserved.

These types of racism don’t form in a vacuum. They’re reflections of the fact that society as a whole, and the institutions operating within it, have been designed to produce racially inequitable outcomes that favor white people.

Institutional Racism: Organizational Policies and Practices

Racism doesn’t only come from individuals. It’s been codified into policies, procedures and practices of various institutions in American society — institutions like the healthcare system, housing markets, the criminal justice system and education systems. These institutions don’t require individual racist acts to take place in order to produce racist outcomes. Instead, the institutions have policies in place that, when followed, result in discriminatory treatment of people of color or remove people of color’s access to opportunities.

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The act of following and enforcing these policies and rules is what results in racism — the person carrying them out doesn’t have to explicitly hold racist ideas. That’s because the rules themselves are written in ways that are directly harmful to people of color. They’re also carried out in ways that disproportionately harm some racial groups while helping others. When institutions, organizations and workplaces have policies in place that favor white people or reinforce racist standards, and when white people dictate and enforce those policies, it’s institutional racism.

Institutional racism has existed in the United States for centuries because of the racist laws and rules that allowed it to develop and spread. Slavery, the creation of Native American reservations, segregation and Jim Crow laws, Japanese internment camps and the War on Drugs are all examples of historical institutional racism because they targeted, punished and harmed people of color based on race. As policies and laws, they also prevented people of color from accessing the same opportunities in society that white people were afforded. These institutions resulted in the racial stratification that caused (and still causes) major inequality and disparities in people of color’s ability, as a group, to obtain or maintain the same quality of life as white people.

Institutional racism persists today, despite the passage of various laws that made discrimination illegal. Policies still exist that create different outcomes for different racial groups instead of similar outcomes for everyone. But what does everyday institutional racism look like now?

It looks like the disproportionate criminalizing and policing of Black communities — like the Minneapolis police using force against Black people at seven times the rate they use force against white people.

It looks like not hiring people of color who are qualified for jobs — like only 10% of Black candidates getting called in for job interviews, and then 25% of those candidates later being called in after removing references to their race from their resumes.

It looks like failing to ensure minority groups have equal access to high-quality healthcare — like Black people in some areas of the United States dying of COVID-19 at much higher rates than white people.

It looks like people of color, and Black people in particular, being prevented from gaining political power — like systematically turning Black voters away from state polling places for decades. When multiple institutions collectively maintain racist policies and practices in this way, it leads to systemic racism.

Structural or Systemic Racism: Culture and Society as a Whole

When institutional racism is ongoing, when it persists for decades among many organizations and eventually becomes ingrained in society, systemic racism results. As institutional racism persists, people of color are deprived of opportunities repeatedly. This can cause them to fall into generational poverty and find it difficult or impossible to seek and obtain opportunities because their access is intentionally limited.

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As these conditions endure, society’s narrative about these racial groups shifts. Society as a whole begins framing people of color as responsible for their circumstances instead of acknowledging that the racist policies of the institutions that exploit those groups are responsible. Members of a society may begin to accept as fact the idea that cultural deficits within Black and other communities are the cause of poverty and related circumstances. They blame the victims of a society that was set up to deprive those victims of rights, opportunities and access to resources from the beginning, when institutions are really to blame. When this racism becomes ingrained in multiple aspects of society and culture, it’s systemic racism.

Systemic racism is especially insidious because it touches almost every aspect of a society, from culture to politics to economics to history; it’s so widespread that it’s inescapable. One of the defining features of systemic racism is that the notion of white superiority becomes so normalized and entrenched on so many levels of society that people may hardly notice it. It is so deeply woven into the social fabric and has persisted so long that people think “that’s just how it is.” Systemic racism involves a combination of a historical foundation of racism, institutions and policies that reinforce racism, and a culture that allows racist ideas to replicate — in effect legitimizing that racism.

In everyday life, systemic racism looks like blaming victims of oppression for their oppression. It looks like valuing white lives more than other lives. It looks like generations of different life outcomes for people of color and white people based on inequalities in their access to power, their treatment and their access to opportunities. And it looks like not questioning any of this, like accepting it because we’ve never known anything different — because this racism is so chronic and pervasive. In everyday life, systemic racism looks like the United States.

As long as systemic racism is allowed to continue, to exist unfettered in a shadow world without our active efforts to acknowledge it and work to reverse it, marginalized groups will continue to suffer. Racist individuals are a symptom of systemic racism, and it is systemic racism that needs to be actively demolished for us to make progress and to deliver justice. It will take years. It will take major policy shifts. It will take change on every single level of society. And it will be so incredibly worth the fight.