equality race

The four levels of racism

When I started reading more about racism, one of the most useful things I learned is how racism operates at multiple levels. It ought to be taught in schools and perhaps it is now, but it was never taught to me. As I talk more about racism and climate change, I get the impression that I wasn’t the only one who never got the memo.

So while this will be entry level for some readers, I’m going to write about it for everybody else. It’s important, because understanding the multiple levels of racism can help to overcome many of the misconceptions about race and anti-racism.

At the bottom of the pyramid we have personal racism, sometimes called internalized racism. That’s the collection of prejudices and beliefs that every human being has, whether they are aware of it or not. It includes the feelings of superiority or inferiority, entitlement or exclusion, that are handed to each of us through our culture, upbringing and experience.

At the next level is interpersonal racism, which is the words and deeds of racist individuals. This is where that personal racism bubbles into the world in the form of bias, bigotry, or deliberate abuse. When racism is discussed, especially in the media, it is almost always at this level. When people say they aren’t racist, they usually mean interpersonal racism. This is racism at its most visible, so it’s not surprising that it gets the most attention – but if this is as far as our understanding goes, it won’t get anywhere near solving the problem.

Moving outwards, we come to institutional racism. This is where racial inequality gets locked into the processes of institutions, such as the police, schools or healthcare. It’s not expressed in words and actions here, but in policies or practices that treat people differently, even if that’s entirely unintentional. Racism at this level is more visible in statistics than in words or actions. We can point to a statistical fact and see a racial inequality, but we can’t necessarily point to a racist and blame them. It’s more about outcomes than intent.

Finally, all these inequalities, building up over time, result in structural racism or systemic racism. This is deeply embedded and multi-generational, patterns of exclusion that echo through society and reinforce disadvantage. Again, the racist intent of racists is far away in the background.

This is where it gets complicated, so let’s look at a specific example. Across multiple studies around the world, it has been observed that children from ethnic minorities are more likely to be injured in car accidents while walking or playing – twice as likely in Britain. There is a racial inequality to the risk that children face while walking to school.

If a person’s understanding of racism goes no further than interpersonal racism, they cannot engage usefully with this fact. They will look for intent. When no deliberate racism can be found, they will have to either reject the fact (“that can’t possibly be true”) or jump to an incorrect assumption about what is being implied (“are you saying that car drivers are racist?”) I see conversations about race going astray along these lines every day.

When I argue that climate change is racist, it is structural racism that I am talking about. Understanding the multiple levels of racism is foundational to any further discussion of climate and race.

This broader understanding of racism is also why race educators and activists talk about ‘anti-racism’ and why it is different to simply ‘not being racist’. Not being racist only addresses level two. It leaves institutional and structural racism intact. To police one’s own actions and words, but never act on wider racist structures is to be a bystander to injustice – and that’s the challenge to all of us. How do I remain alert to racism in its full complexity, and use what power I have to confront it?


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