The country, perhaps even the world, is currently engaged in an unprecedented moment of political upheaval, which has spurred a moment of long overdue social reflection. People are awakening to and acknowledging—some for the first time—the extent to which racism is real. They see the images of Black bodies lying prostrate on top of asphalt while blue knees bear heavy upon Black necks. They see Black women and girls being shot and murdered by police officers while doing nothing more than sitting, standing, or sleeping in their own homes. They see the tragic scenes of disparity play out on every feasible stage of American life from jobs to housing, trends that pattern almost every aspect of American life from education to health care. Still for many, racism feels episodic and isolated—what one person does to another as opposed to something more pervasive and complex. Racism itself is often reduced in the global consciousness to an uncomfortable or inconvenient set of diminishing beliefs that fall prey too easily to guilt, refusal, apathy, and amnesia. As the world pauses, reflects upon, and comes to terms with the reality of racism, it’s important, however, to struggle to understand what racism really is, how complex it is, and how it is far more pervasive than some may think.
There are at least seven different expressions of racism—what I call the seven “I’s,” building on the work of race scholars who have sought to define racism in greater complexity to interrupt monolithic notions that predominate mainstream understandings of the concept. The point of pulling racism apart in this way is not to overly simplify it. Indeed, many if not all of the “I’s” are constantly working together, flattening on top of and living fluidly within each other in ways that make it nearly impossible to distinguish one expression of racism from another. Still, it is important to name the differences, to operationalize the ways that racism as a complex system functions at multiple levels. So what is racism?
Racism is interpersonal. Interpersonal racism is racism’s most recognizable expression. It is the acts of racism that we see between people. But so often when we think of racism, we think of interpersonal racism only. What is conjured is the lone racist individual who hurls their racial biases onto others, inflicting injury (e.g., racially motivated violent acts), insult (e.g., racial slurs), or other inclinations (e.g., racially motivated low expectations or doubts). Interpersonal racism occurs in typically obvious ways: individuals refusing to do business with, socialize with, or share resources with people of a certain race. It often involves violence (physical force and otherwise), which tends to be hyper visible and fairly evident. Interpersonal racism also tends to be reduced or simplified using unhelpful, judgmental, and dichotomous terms—e.g., bad, evil, malicious—as Robin DiAngelo points out in her book White Fragility. It is often the case that “good” people can and usually do commit interpersonally racist acts. As such, interpersonal racism isn’t an expression of extreme positions, as such extremes disregard human complexity and motivate people to conceal their racial biases instead of confronting them. Interpersonal racism is, thus, best understood not in terms of good or bad people but in terms of biased or unbiased acts that have devastating, immediate, and lasting societal and individual implications.
Racism isn’t limited to its interpersonal expression. Institutionalized racism is another expression of racism reflected in disparities regarding wealth, income, criminal justice, employment, housing, marriage, healthcare, political power, and education. It is racism that is institutionalized—that is, accepted as part of everyday life, everyday systems and structures, and our common habits, thoughts, and policies. It is also, if not more so, expressed through social entities that are designed upon foundations of white supremacy and anti-Blackness. White supremacy is a system of valuation, the ways in which almost every aspect of society has been shaped by, for, and to further people who have positioned themselves as white (and generally with the support of others) to affirm, value, maintain, and even glorify the myths of whiteness. Anti-Blackness, a partner to white supremacy, is a system that devalues all aspects of Blackness—Black bodies, Black lives, and Black life (which includes Black languages, Black rituals, Black spaces, Black time, Black foods, and so on.). When these systems become the stitching of our institutions, our institutions themselves become an acute mechanism for reinforcing racist ideas and outcomes. Racist ideas and outcomes both attend to the logics of white supremacy and anti-Blackness and yield to the social processes and practices that erect and maintain racial hierarchy. (Racial hierarchy is the stratification and valuation of things based solely on their proximity to whiteness—i.e., white supremacy—and distance from Blackness—i.e., anti-Blackness.) By understanding institutionalized racism, we acknowledge the ways that racism is historical, systemic, structural, and does not require interpersonal interactions or individual actors to exist.
Internalized racism speaks to the extent to which white supremacy and anti-Blackness are part of the schema that people use to see themselves, their positions in the world, and their abilities to act upon that world. Part of this “I” is what W.E.B. DuBois saw as seeing oneself and the world through the eyes of another “who looks on in bemused pity and contempt.” Internalize racism is the white gaze, peering inward. It is achieved through what Antonio Gramsci calls cultural hegemony, the success of the dominant culture in projecting itself upon the masses whereby we the masses consent to and self-inflict our own racial oppression. Building upon these ideas, Steve Biko suggests that internalized racism is “the most potent weapon of the oppressor”—that is, “the minds of the oppressed.” In his book The Miseducation of the Negro, Carter G. Woodson would put it this way (and I am paraphrasing): If you control a person’s thinking you don’t have to worry about that person’s actions. You don’t have to tell that person to go out the back door; they’ll go without being told. And if there is no back door, they will cut one out for their special benefit. Their education makes it necessary.
Internalized racism is, thus, a kind of social conditioning or mind control. It is the kind of mind control that tells people positioned as white that they are better (a form of internalized racism that stems from white supremacy) and Black people that they are worse (a form of internalized racism that stems from anti-Blackness). These messages can live beyond the mind and inhabit the body. They become lenses not just for seeing others similar to or different from the Self, but lenses for seeing the Self, for valuing and loving or devaluing and despising the Self. When that self is white, internalized racism sends a message to over-value the white self. When the self is Black, internalized racism sends a message to undervalue—thus, devalue—the Black self. For non-white people, the concept often implies a practice of self-hatred. It also implies the ways that all groups come to (over) love whiteness and white ways of being above more intragroup expressions of life (which in turn are usually loathed, especially when those intragroup expressions emanate from Black life).
Ideological racism is an ecological paradigm concerned with the ways that racism is nested in our natural social environments. This expression of racism lives in our belief structures and is, thus, one of the most powerful expressions of racism because it informs and is informed by all the other expressions. Ideological racism exists in what Pierre Bourdieu calls “habitus,” or our socially engrained skills, habits, and dispositions. For Bourdieu, habitus speaks to the way that individuals perceive the social world around them and react to it. Thus, ideological racism is not just a system of beliefs, it is also a pattern of practices that stems from belief systems—assumptions, interests, and other motivating drives/factors—that condition the ways individuals think, behave, and function in a given social environment.
Indifferent racism is an expression of abstinence toward race and racism. Ibram X. Kendi explains that this abstinence is itself a racist act. For Kendi, one cannot be a non-racist. A non-racist is someone who doesn’t actively participate in racism but who also doesn’t actively participate in ending it—thus helping to reinforce racism through their silence. Racism doesn’t have a neutral position. Either you are for or against it. Thus, silence on racism is a racist act, for according to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, “Wait on time.”
Since it is an expression of racism that is far more prevalent than more blatant expressions, indifferent racism is seen by some scholars such as Michelle Alexander as the fuel that allows racial oppression to persist. Such oppression, Alexander explains, lives in our denials, which are violent and extreme, particularly for people whose racial victimization has been ignored or dismissed. To choose not to see race is to give racism unbridled permission to act.
Further, indifference erases, evades, denies, dismisses, declares victory prematurely, but never offers solutions. The impetus for indifferent racism is typically an impatience mixed with an impotence grounded in guilt, arrogance, or other selfish drives that allow people to align their justifications for not acting or wanting to act with the excuses of impossibility, implausibility, or ignorance. Indifferent racism depends upon these fictions, mobilized out of a desire to move beyond an issue before it is dealt with or to reduce the importance or meaning of an issue so long as that issue both/either presents benefits and/or prevents harm to people who position themselves as white. In his much celebrated novel Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison puts indifferent racism this way:
I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.
As suggested here, racism can be expressed in a number of ways, both legible and illegible. However, one of most virulent expressions of racism resides in racist symbols such as flags, signs, statutes, hand signals, body art, etc. These symbolic representations of racism give expression to the iconography of racism. This is what I call iconographical racism, which is an expression of racism that allows for subtlety, indirectness, and implication. According to Smitherman and van djik, iconographical racism may, paradoxically, be expressed by the unsaid, or conveyed by apparent “tolerance” and egalitarian liberalism. It is capable of veiling racist acts through image and emblem, through caricature or other symbolic representations that express the logics and legacies of white supremacy and anti-Blackness at once. For example, real sentiments are both expressed and felt through the confederate iconography that sweep through the U.S. (not just the U.S. South). The same intense emotions rise when seeing commemorated the physical edifices of chattel slavery—such as the actual slave auction block in Fredericksburg, VA. These icons conjure scenes, as well, of Black people with exaggerated lips eating watermelon and other minstrel depictions that mock Black life, landscapes of cotton and other symbols that work as reminders of our nation’s dark past, reminders that decree that some lives are to be valued less, that Black lives do not matter or worst mattered only insomuch as they were the property of another. Such icons are typically (re)traumatizing for people, but worse they help to normalize racists ideas for everyone.
Invisible racism is just that, racism that is unseen. The majority of racist acts in the U.S. if not the globe is invisible because so much of racism is lodged inside things that don’t easily or simply present themselves. Invisible racism is the part of the iceberg hidden underwater. It is often coded, implicit, and engrained; it is the water floating around the fish—the very air we breathe. Because it is so ubiquitous, it is often taken as natural and, thus, difficult to see. It is a substructure of each of the other I’s, as interpersonal, institutionalized, internalized, ideological, indifferent, and iconographical expressions of racism are often, themselves, invisible. Of course, there are expressions of racism more explicitly designed to not be seen; these expressions of invisible racism are covert—disguised and subtle as oppose to being obvious. They work subliminally, at the level of the unconscious, or politically, as a form of manipulation. Regardless the function, invisible racism is filtered through a set of master narratives and social scripts maintained and only made manifest by the grand social portraits of a society and, indeed, a globe in peril.
So What is Racism?
Racism, ultimately, is an expression of power linked to a complex system of human subjugation that has a basis in a perverse and incendiary science, history, and politics of race. But racism itself is born from the illicit marriage between white supremacy and anti-Blackness. It is never just an expression of one of the I’s. It is all of them together all the time, for the I’s flatten on top of each other and move in directions, converging and diverging at moments, but always folding back to some center. That center is the core—a nucleus—where white supremacy and anti-Blackness meet.
David E. Kirkland is a professor of urban education at New York University. He serves as the executive director of The Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.