Chapter 1: Understanding Racism and Anti-Black Racism

Understanding Racism

Racism is based on the belief that some groups of people are inferior or less human than others. This belief emerged from the erroneous idea that people are biologically different, which continues to be perpetuated. As a result, people have been classified into social groups called races, with racialized groups having less access to power, resources, and opportunities in society, than the dominant racial group (Williams et al., 2019). Stereotypes and prejudicial attitudes toward racialized groups also result in such groups being stigmatized and experiencing discriminatory treatment (Williams et al., 2019). One example is the stereotype that certain racial groups tend to engage in more criminal activity than others, which might result in these groups having less access to legal resources or fair legal processes or might be denied housing or employment. This kind of stereotype is often perpetuated by the media and other social systems (Allen et al., 2021).

Historically, race has often referred to a person or a group’s physical traits (e.g., skin colour) (Yudell et al., 2016), but it can also refer to characteristics such as nationality, ethnicity, or religion (Williams et al., 2019). In short, race is based on social categorization rather than scientific evidence (Yudell et al., 2016). Why do social categorizations continue to exist? Consider what purposes they serve. The social categorization of race promotes the idea that white people are superior and thereby excuses or justifies the oppression of those who are not considered white. As a result, white people inevitably benefit socially, economically, and politically – simply by being white.

Have you ever heard the term ? Believe it or not, the term has been foundational to the colonization of large areas of the world and to the systematic destruction, exploitation, and enslavement of vast numbers of non-white people over many centuries (Bonds & Inwood, 2016). Canada, for example, utilized notions of white supremacy to systematically:

  • Exploit Indigenous peoples by displacing them from their lands and subjecting them to forced assimilation. 
  • Enslave, racially segregate, and discriminate against Black people of African descent.
  • Mistreat Chinese, Japanese, and South Asian Canadians (Allen et al., 2021).

To really understand racism, we need to understand how it manifests at different levels: individual, institutional/structural, cultural/ideological, and internalized levels (Jones, 2000; Williams et al., 2019).

  • Individual racism refers to the racist/discriminatory attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours of individuals.
  • Institutional/structural racism refers to laws, policies, and practices that serve to advantage white dominant groups while racialized groups are disadvantaged.
  • Cultural/ideological racism refers to how racism is embedded in societal norms, values, imagery, language, and assumptions. This sustains racism and ideologies of inferiority toward racialized groups.
  • Internalized racism refers to a racially oppressed person or group accepting the negative stereotypes attributed to them through dominant beliefs/cultural racism (Williams et al., 2019).

The term microaggression is used to describe the everyday and subtle forms of racism that racialized people experience. These can include glances, gestures, manner of speech or tone of voice, jokes, slurs, etc., which are often automatic and unconscious but are nevertheless harmful to the victims. For example, a cashier may avoid touching a Black person’s hand by putting the change on the counter, or people may avoid sitting in an empty seat beside a Black person (Allen et al., 2021; Williams, 2020).

Activity: Check Your Understanding


Allen, U., Collins, T., Dei, G. J., Henry, F., Ibrahim, A., James, C., Jean-Pierre, J., Kobayashi, A., Lewis, K., Mawani, R., McKenzie, K., Owusu-Bempah, A., Walcott, R., & Wane, N. N. (2021, May). Impacts of COVID-19 in racialized communities. Royal Society of Canada.

Bonds, A., & Inwood, J. (2016). Beyond white privilege: Geographies of white supremacy and settler colonialism. Progress in Human Geography, 40(6), 715–733.

Jones C. P. (2000). Levels of racism: a theoretic framework and a gardener’s tale. American journal of public health, 90(8), 1212–1215.

Williams, D. R., Lawrence, J. A., & Davis, B. A. (2019). Racism and health: Evidence and needed research. Annual Review of Public Health, 40, 105–125.

Williams, M. T. (2020). Microaggressions: Clarification, evidence, and impact. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 15(1), 3–26.

Yudell, M., Roberts, D., DeSalle, R., & Tishkoff, S. (2016). Taking race out of human genetics. Science, 351(6273), 564–565.