Racial oppression is painful to experience, and challenging to discuss. Discussions are difficult even when people respect and understand each other; they are harder when people use the same words to convey different ideas.  So, for purposes of this site, we want users to know we are using the term “racism” specifically to refer to individual, cultural, institutional and systemic ways by which differential consequences are created for different racial groups.  The group historically or currently defined as white is being advantaged, and groups historically or currently defined as non-white (African, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, etc.) are being disadvantaged.

That idea aligns with those who define racism as prejudice plus power, a common phrase in the field. Combining the concepts of prejudice and power points out the mechanisms by which racism leads to different consequences for different groups. Resources in this section offer different ways to understand individual, cultural and institutional racism; structural racism is described in the next section.

The relationship and behavior of these interdependent elements has allowed racism to recreate itself generation after generation, such that systems that perpetuate racial inequity no longer need racist actors or to explicitly promote racial differences in opportunities, outcomes and consequences to maintain those differences. 


Individual racism refers to the beliefs, attitudes, and actions of individuals that support or perpetuate racism in conscious and unconscious ways. Examples include telling a racist joke, believing in the inherent superiority of white people over other racial groups, or not hiring a person of color because “something doesn’t feel right.” The U.S. cultural narrative about racism typically focuses on individual racism and fails to recognize systemic racism.


Cultural racism refers to representations, messages and stories conveying the idea that behaviors and values associated with white people or “whiteness” are automatically “better” or more “normal” than those associated with other racially defined groups. Cultural racism shows up in advertising, movies, history books, definitions of patriotism, and in policies and laws. It helps justify laws and policies, such as racial profiling (an action by an authority based on the assumption that every person in a particular racial group is sufficiently likely to be a criminal that they can be stopped, searched and/or questioned). The fact of racial profiling thus creates the stereotype that people use to further justify the policy. Cultural racism is also a powerful force in maintaining systems of internalized supremacy and internalized racism. It does that by influencing collective beliefs about what constitutes appropriate behavior, what is seen as beautiful, and the value placed on various kinds of music, art, poetry, speech and other forms of expression. All of these cultural norms and values in the U.S. have explicitly or implicitly racialized ideals and assumptions (for example, what “nude” means as a color, which facial features and body types are considered beautiful, which child-rearing practices are considered appropriate.)


Institutional racism refers specifically to the ways in which policies and practices of organizations or parts of systems (schools, courts, transportation authorities, etc.) create different outcomes for different racial groups – for example, by how various kinds of assets or sources of income are considered in credit worthiness, or how the number of bedrooms or bathrooms in a dwelling are considered by child welfare agencies in determining whether or not a child may remain in the home, when those agencies are investigating abuse and neglect allegations. The institutional policies may never mention any racial group, but their effect is to create, maintain or fail to remedy accumulated advantages for white people and accumulated disadvantages for people from other racial groups.

Also in this section: