What is Racism?

A System
Racism is not simply individual acts of meanness or hatred, or even negative thoughts about someone based on their perceived racial identity.  Racism in the United States is a system in which white people as a whole are dominant and have the dominant share of wealth, power, social prestige, access, and entitlement.  People of color as a whole (people of African, Asian, Latino and Native heritages) are subordinated and on average have less wealth, power, social prestige, access and entitlement.  The fact that a relatively small number of people of color have achieved high levels of fame, power, etc (ex. Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey) does not change the fact that on the whole people of color have less wealth, power, etc than white people.  This is the systemic reality of racism in the United States today.  (For instance, average white family wealth is almost 20 times the average wealth of African American families today.)

False Stories
Racism also has cultural and individual/personal dimensions in the United States today.  As our country developed, various stories and ideas were created to justify the genocide of the native peoples, and enslavement of millions of people of African heritage.  These stories all communicated white superiority and the inferiority of native and African heritage peoples (which over time were extended to other groups of people of color).  These stories included completely false notions that each group of people of color has inferior qualities.  While these ideas have differed some with regard to different groups, they have included false notions of inferior intelligence, a deficient work ethic, excessive sexuality, lack of reliability or honesty, violence, and a general sense of being “uncivilized” and/or not fully human.

They Persist
These false ideas have persisted in our culture in various forms right up through our time.  They can be seen in, and are perpetuated by the way the news media and the entertainment industries emphasize or make up stories that might reinforce these false ideas, and de-emphasize or ignore those that might contradict them or help us unlearn them.  Various other practices in the society also serve to reinforce false notions of racial differences.  For instance, the research is clear that white people and black people use illegal drugs in equal percentages, yet black and brown people are incarcerated at 10 times the rate of white people for drug offenses.  This is one of the most blatant examples of racist discrimination today and has a huge impact on black and brown communities.  In addition to being incredibly unjust, it also serves to perpetuate the falsehood of greater criminality among dark-skinned peoples.

They Affect Us
These false ideas of white superiority and the inferiority of people of color are in the culture of society and affect individuals.  Some white people embrace them and espouse them explicitly.  (Think skinheads, white people who use the N-word derogatorily, etc.)  Many white people today hide any agreement with these ideas while they are in public, but share them openly in private settings where they think other whites will agree with them.  Many other whites disagree with these ideas and are committed to not expressing them or acting on them, and may even believe they are free of them.  However, the research is quite clear that virtually every person in this society has been affected by them, carries them in their unconscious mind (and perhaps also consciously from time to time), and has their behavior affected by them.

Like Smog
This is true even for very well-intentioned people who try actively to be non-racist.  Beverly Daniel Tatum says that racial stereotypes and false ideas related to race are like “smog in the air”.  We don’t breathe it because we want to; we breathe it because it’s the only air available.  Even people of color inevitably, against their will, take in these ideas as internalized racism.  As Tatum says, “We’re all breathing in misinformation. We’re all being exposed to stereotypes, … we can’t help but have our thinking shaped by it somehow. As a consequence, we all have work to do. Whether you identify as a person of color, whether you identify as a white person, it doesn’t matter.”

Racism in Amherst
In the Amherst area people of color share with each other that these things show up in white people’s behavior all the time here, even when white people are unaware that it’s happening.  White people regularly disregard the thinking of people of  color, are more responsive to the needs and requests of white people, prioritize projects that will benefit white people, fail to form close relationships or really get to know very many people of color, are more likely to hire white people, seek to maintain the status quo that benefits white people, and treat people of color as “other” in myriad ways.

This is Life-long Work
This is not because white people want to be racist or don’t care about people of color.   This is because the racism in the society has affected us all and simply trying to be non-racist is not enough.  For white people to not manifest racism, they will need to learn more about racism and about people of color, build relationships with people of color, reflect on their own experiences and mis-education around race, and likely feel the painful feelings that go with this sensitive area and with facing the impact all this has on their brothers and sisters who are people of color.  There is no quick fix or inoculation for racism.  There is no destination of non-racism at which any of us as individuals can arrive (in the current society). There is only the ongoing work, individually and in collaboration with others, to counter the insidious and persistent effects of living in a society that continues to reflect false notions of white superiority and dominance and the inferiority of people of color in so many ways.


Many other oppressions, including those based on gender, class, sexual orientation, religious heritage, language, age, disability, etc., affect us as well.  The intersections of all these oppression with racism, and with each other, need attention.  Any person of color, for instance, may be in a dominant position with regard to a white person, on the basis of their respective class, gender, and other identities.  In such a situation, the white person may experience being in a subordinate role to the person of color based on these other identities.  At the same time, their relationship also exists in the context of a system of white people as a whole, being in a dominant position with regard to people of color as a whole.

So-called Reverse Racism
We define “racism” in the United States as system of inequality based on people’s perceived racial identities; and the beliefs, mistreatment, and other practices that support or manifest the dominance of white people vis a vis people of color.  In order to emphasize the systemic nature of racism, we prefer to use a different term for situations in which people of color discriminate against or mistreat white people.  These situations certainly do occur, although with vastly less frequency than racism.  These we term “racial discrimination” or “racial bias” toward white people.  For a discussion of so-called “reverse racism”, please see the video clip by comic/educator Aamer Rahman on this website.