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About essay feminism Margaret atwood poems

Racism is the belief in the superiority of one race over another, which often results in discrimination and prejudice towards people based on their race or ethnicity. Today, the use of the term "racism" does not easily fall under a single definition.[1]

The ideology underlying racist practices often includes the idea that humans can be subdivided into distinct groups that are different due to their social behavior and their innate capacities as well as the idea that they can be ranked as inferior or superior.[2] The Holocaust which led to the genocide of many millions of people based on an ideology of racial hierarchy is a well-known historical example of institutionalized racism, and so is the apartheid regime in South Africa, as well as slavery and segregation in the United States. Racism was also an aspect of the social organization of many colonial states and empires.

While the concepts of race and ethnicity are considered to be separate in contemporary social science, the two terms have a long history of equivalence in both popular usage and older social science literature. "Ethnicity" is often used in a sense close to one traditionally attributed to "race": the division of human groups based on qualities assumed to be essential or innate to the group (e.g. shared ancestry or shared behavior). Therefore, racism and racial discrimination are often used to describe discrimination on an ethnic or cultural basis, independent of whether these differences are described as racial. According to a United Nationsconvention on racial discrimination, there is no distinction between the terms "racial" and "ethnic" discrimination. The UN convention further concludes that superiority based on racial differentiation is scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous, and there is no justification for racial discrimination, anywhere, in theory or in practice.[3]

Racist ideology can become manifest in many aspects of social life. Racism can be present in social actions, practices, or political systems (e.g., apartheid) that support the expression of prejudice or aversion in discriminatory practices. Associated social actions may include nativism, xenophobia, otherness, segregation, hierarchical ranking, supremacism, and related social phenomena.

Etymology, definition and usage

In the 19th century, many scientists subscribed to the belief that the human population can be divided into races. The term racism is a noun describing the state of being racist, i.e., subscribing to the belief that the human population can or should be classified into races with differential abilities and dispositions, which in turn may motivate a political ideology in which rights and privileges are differentially distributed based on racial categories. The origin of the root word "race" is not clear. Linguists generally agree that it came to the English language from Middle French, but there is no such agreement on how it came into Latin-based languages, generally. A recent proposal is that it derives from the Arabicra's, which means "head, beginning, origin" or the Hebrewrosh, which has a similar meaning.[4] Early race theorists generally held the view that some races were inferior to others and they consequently believed that the differential treatment of races was fully justified.[1][5][6][7] These early theories guided pseudo-scientific research assumptions; the collective endeavors to adequately define and form hypotheses about racial differences are generally termed scientific racism, though this term is a misnomer due to the lack of any actual science backing the claims.

Today, most biologists, anthropologists, and sociologists reject a taxonomy of races in favor of more specific and/or empirically verifiable criteria, such as geography, ethnicity or a history of endogamy.[8] To date, there is little evidence in human genome research which indicates that race can be defined in such a way as to be useful in determining a genetic classification of humans.[9][10][11]

An entry in the Oxford English Dictionary (2008) simply defines racialism as "An earlier term than racism, but now largely superseded by it," and cites it in a 1902 quote.[12] The revised Oxford English Dictionary cites the shortened term "racism" in a quote from the following year, 1903.[13][14] It was first defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition, 1989) as "[t]he theory that distinctive human characteristics and abilities are determined by race"; the same dictionary termed racism a synonym of racialism: "belief in the superiority of a particular race". By the end of World War II, racism had acquired the same supremacist connotations formerly associated with racialism: racism now implied racial discrimination, racial supremacism and a harmful intent. (The term "race hatred" had also been used by sociologist Frederick Hertz in the late 1920s.)

As its history indicates, the popular use of the word racism is relatively recent. The word came into widespread usage in the Western world in the 1930s, when it was used to describe the social and political ideology of Nazism, which saw "race" as a naturally given political unit.[15] It is commonly agreed that racism existed before the coinage of the word, but there is not a wide agreement on a single definition of what racism is and what it is not. Today, some scholars of racism prefer to use the concept in the plural racisms in order to emphasize its many different forms that do not easily fall under a single definition and they also argue that different forms of racism have characterized different historical periods and geographical areas.[16] Garner (2009: p. 11) summarizes different existing definitions of racism and identifies three common elements contained in those definitions of racism. First, a historical, hierarchical power relationship between groups; second, a set of ideas (an ideology) about racial differences; and, third, discriminatory actions (practices).[1]


Though many countries around the globe have passed laws related to race and discrimination, the first significant international human rights instrument developed by the United Nations (UN) was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).[17] The UDHR was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. The UDHR recognizes that if people are to be treated with dignity, they require economic rights, social rights including education, and the rights to cultural and political participation and civil liberty. It further states that everyone is entitled to these rights "without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status."

The UN does not define "racism"; however, it does define "racial discrimination": According to the 1965 UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination,[18]

the term "racial discrimination" shall mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin that has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.

In their 1978 United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice (Article 1), the UN states, "All human beings belong to a single species and are descended from a common stock. They are born equal in dignity and rights and all form an integral part of humanity."[19]

The UN definition of racial discrimination does not make any distinction between discrimination based on ethnicity and race, in part because the distinction between the two has been a matter of debate among academics, including anthropologists.[20] Similarly, in British law the phrase racial group means "any group of people who are defined by reference to their race, colour, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origin".[21]

In Norway, the word "race" has been removed from national laws concerning discrimination because the use of the phrase is considered problematic and unethical.[22][23] The Norwegian Anti-Discrimination Act bans discrimination based on ethnicity, national origin, descent and skin color.[24]

Social and behavioral science

Main article: Sociology of race and ethnic relations

Sociologists, in general, recognize "race" as a social construct. This means that, although the concepts of race and racism are based on observable biological characteristics, any conclusions drawn about race on the basis of those observations are heavily influenced by cultural ideologies. Racism, as an ideology, exists in a society at both the individual and institutional level.

While much of the research and work on racism during the last half-century or so has concentrated on "white racism" in the Western world, historical accounts of race-based social practices can be found across the globe.[25] Thus, racism can be broadly defined to encompass individual and group prejudices and acts of discrimination that result in material and cultural advantages conferred on a majority or a dominant social group.[26] So-called "white racism" focuses on societies in which white populations are the majority or the dominant social group. In studies of these majority white societies, the aggregate of material and cultural advantages is usually termed "white privilege".

Race and race relations are prominent areas of study in sociology and economics. Much of the sociological literature focuses on white racism. Some of the earliest sociological works on racism were penned by sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois, the first African American to earn a doctoral degree from Harvard University. Du Bois wrote, "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line."[27] Wellman (1993) defines racism as "culturally sanctioned beliefs, which, regardless of intentions involved, defend the advantages whites have because of the subordinated position of racial minorities".[28] In both sociology and economics, the outcomes of racist actions are often measured by the inequality in income, wealth, net worth, and access to other cultural resources, such as education, between racial groups.[29]

In sociology and social psychology, racial identity and the acquisition of that identity, is often used as a variable in racism studies. Racial ideologies and racial identity affect individuals' perception of race and discrimination. Cazenave and Maddern (1999) define racism as "a highly organized system of 'race'-based group privilege that operates at every level of society and is held together by a sophisticated ideology of color/'race' supremacy. Racial centrality (the extent to which a culture recognizes individuals' racial identity) appears to affect the degree of discrimination African American young adults perceive whereas racial ideology may buffer the detrimental emotional effects of that discrimination.[30] Sellers and Shelton (2003) found that a relationship between racial discrimination and emotional distress was moderated by racial ideology and social beliefs.[31]

Some sociologists also argue that, particularly in the West where racism is often negatively sanctioned in society, racism has changed from being a blatant to a more covert expression of racial prejudice. The "newer" (more hidden and less easily detectable) forms of racism—which can be considered embedded in social processes and structures—are more difficult to explore as well as challenge. It has been suggested that, while in many countries overt or explicit racism has become increasingly taboo, even among those who display egalitarian explicit attitudes, an implicit or aversive racism is still maintained subconsciously.[32]

This process has been studied extensively in social psychology as implicit associations and implicit attitudes, a component of implicit cognition. Implicit attitudes are evaluations that occur without conscious awareness towards an attitude object or the self. These evaluations are generally either favorable or unfavorable. They come about from various influences in the individual experience.[33] Implicit attitudes are not consciously identified (or they are inaccurately identified) traces of past experience that mediate favorable or unfavorable feeling, thought, or action towards social objects.[32] These thoughts, feelings or actions have an influence on behavior of which the individual may not be aware.[34]

Therefore, subconscious racism can influence our visual processing and how our minds work when we are subliminally exposed to faces of different colors. In thinking about crime, for example, social psychologistJennifer L. Eberhardt (2004) of Stanford University holds that, "blackness is so associated with crime you're ready to pick out these crime objects."[35] Such exposures influence our minds and they can cause subconscious racism in our behavior towards other people or even towards objects. Thus, racist thoughts and actions can arise from stereotypes and fears of which we are not aware.[36]


Language, linguistics and discourse are active areas of study in the humanities, along with literature and the arts. Discourse analysis seeks to reveal the meaning of race and the actions of racists through careful study of the ways in which these factors of human society are described and discussed in various written and oral works. Van Dijk (1992), for example, examines the different ways in which descriptions of racism and racist actions are depicted by the perpetrators of such actions as well as by their victims.[37] He notes that when descriptions of actions have negative implications for the majority, and especially for white elites, they are often seen as controversial and such controversial interpretations are typically marked with quotation marks or they are greeted with expressions of distance or doubt. The previously cited book, The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois, represents early African-American literature that describes the author's experiences with racism when he was traveling in the South as an African American.

Much American fictional literature has focused on issues of racism and the black "racial experience" in the US, including works written by whites such as Uncle Tom's Cabin, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Imitation of Life, or even the non-fiction work Black Like Me. These books, and others like them, feed into what has been called the "white savior narrative in film", in which the heroes and heroines are white even though the story is about things that happen to black characters. Textual analysis of such writings can contrast sharply with black authors' descriptions of African Americans and their experiences in US society. African American writers have sometimes been portrayed in African-American studies as retreating from racial issues when they write about "whiteness", while others identify this as an African American literary tradition called "the literature of white estrangement", part of a multipronged effort to challenge and dismantle white supremacy in the US.[38]

Popular usage

According to dictionaries, the word is commonly used to describe racial prejudice and discrimination.[39][40]

Racism can also be said to describe a condition in society in which a dominant racial group benefits from the oppression of others, whether that group wants such benefits or not.[41] Foucauldian scholar Ladelle McWhorter in her 2009 book Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America: A Genealogy posits modern racism similarly, focusing on the notion of a dominant group, usually whites, vying for racial purity and progress, rather than an overt or obvious ideology focused on the oppression of nonwhites.[42]

In popular usage, as in some academic usage, little distinction is made between "racism" and "ethnocentrism". Often, the two are listed together as "racial and ethnic" in describing some action or outcome that is associated with prejudice within a majority or dominant group in society. Furthermore, the meaning of the term racism is often conflated with the terms prejudice, bigotry, and discrimination. Racism is a complex concept that can involve each of those, but it cannot be equated with nor is it synonymous with these other terms.

The term is often used in relation to what is seen as prejudice within a minority or subjugated group, as in the concept of reverse racism. "Reverse racism" is a concept often used to describe acts of discrimination or hostility against members of a dominant racial or ethnic group while favoring members of minority groups.[43][44] This concept has been used especially in the United States in debates over color-conscious policies (such as affirmative action) intended to remedy racial inequalities.[45] Those[who?] who campaign for the interests of ethnic minorities commonly reject the concept of reverse racism.[46] Scholars, also, commonly define racism not only in terms of individual prejudice, but also in terms of a power structure that protects the interests of the dominant culture and actively discriminates against ethnic minorities.[43][44] From this perspective, while members of ethnic minorities may be prejudiced against members of the dominant culture, they lack the political and economic power to actively oppress them, and they are therefore not practicing "racism".[43][47][48]


The ideology underlying racism can become manifest in many aspects of social life. Such aspects are described in this section, although the list is not exhaustive.

Aversive racism

Main article: Aversive racism

Aversive racism is a form of implicit racism in which a person's unconscious negative evaluations of racial or ethnic minorities are realized by a persistent avoidance of interaction with other racial and ethnic groups. As opposed to traditional, overt racism, which is characterized by overt hatred for and explicit discrimination against racial/ethnic minorities, aversive racism is characterized by more complex, ambivalent expressions and attitudes.[49] Aversive racism is similar in implications to the concept of symbolic or modern racism (described below), which is also a form of implicit, unconscious, or covert attitude which results in unconscious forms of discrimination.

The term was coined by Joel Kovel to describe the subtle racial behaviors of any ethnic or racial group who rationalize their aversion to a particular group by appeal to rules or stereotypes.[49] People who behave in an aversively racial way may profess egalitarian beliefs, and will often deny their racially motivated behavior; nevertheless they change their behavior when dealing with a member of another race or ethnic group than the one they belong to. The motivation for the change is thought to be implicit or subconscious. Experiments have provided empirical support for the existence of aversive racism. Aversive racism has been shown to have potentially serious implications for decision making in employment, in legal decisions and in helping behavior.[50][51]

Color blindness

Main article: Color blindness (race)

In relation to racism, Color blindness is the disregard of racial characteristics in social interaction, for example in the rejection of affirmative action, as way to address the results of past patterns of discrimination. Critics of this attitude argue that by refusing to attend to racial disparities, racial color blindness in fact unconsciously perpetuates the patterns that produce racial inequality.[52]

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva argues that color blind racism arises from an "abstract liberalism, biologization of culture, naturalization of racial matters, and minimization of racism".[53] Color blind practices are "subtle, institutional, and apparently nonracial"[54] because race is explicitly ignored in decision making. If race is disregarded in predominately white populations, for example, whiteness becomes the normative standard, whereas people of color are othered, and the racism these individuals experience may be minimized or erased.[55][56] At an individual level, people with "color blind prejudice" reject racist ideology, but also reject systemic policies intended to fix institutional racism.[56]


See also: Xenophobia

Cultural racism is a term used to describe and explain new racial ideologies and practices that have emerged since World War II. It can be defined as societal beliefs and customs that promote the assumption that the products of a given culture, including the language and traditions of that culture are superior to those of other cultures. It shares a great deal with xenophobia, which is often characterised by fear of, or aggression toward, members of an outgroup by members of an ingroup.

Cultural racism exists when there is a widespread acceptance of stereotypes concerning different ethnic or population groups.[57] Where racism can be characterised by the belief that one race is inherently superior to another, cultural racism can be characterised by the belief that one culture is inherently superior to another.[58]


Further information: Racial wage gap in the United States and Racial wealth gap in the United States

Historical economic or social disparity is alleged to be a form of discrimination caused by past racism and historical reasons, affecting the present generation through deficits in the formal education and kinds of preparation in previous generations, and through primarily unconscious racist attitudes and actions on members of the general population.

In 2011, Bank of America agreed to pay $335 million to settle a federal government claim that its mortgage division, Countrywide Financial, discriminated against black and Hispanic homebuyers.[59]

During the Spanish colonial period, Spaniards developed a complex caste system based on race, which was used for social control and which also determined a person's importance in society.[60] While many Latin American countries have long since rendered the system officially illegal through legislation, usually at the time of their independence, prejudice based on degrees of perceived racial distance from European ancestry combined with one's socioeconomic status remain, an echo of the colonial caste system.[61]


Further information: Institutional racism, State racism, Racial profiling, and Racism by country

Institutional racism (also known as structural racism, state racism or systemic racism) is racial discrimination by governments, corporations, religions, or educational institutions or other large organizations with the power to influence the lives of many individuals. Stokely Carmichael is credited for coining the phrase institutional racism in the late 1960s. He defined the term as "the collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin".[62]

Maulana Karenga argued that racism constituted the destruction of culture, language, religion, and human possibility and that the effects of racism were "the morally monstrous destruction of human possibility involved redefining African humanity to the world, poisoning past, present and future relations with others who only know us through this stereotyping and thus damaging the truly human relations among peoples".[63]


Main article: Othering

Othering is the term used by some to describe a system of discrimination whereby the characteristics of a group are used to distinguish them as separate from the norm.[64]

Othering plays a fundamental role in the history and continuation of racism. To objectify a culture as something different, exotic or underdeveloped is to generalize that it is not like 'normal' society. Europe's colonial attitude towards the Orient exemplifies this as it was thought that the East was the opposite of the West; feminine where the West was masculine, weak where the West was strong and traditional where the West was progressive.[65] By making these generalizations and othering the East, Europe was simultaneously defining herself as the norm, further entrenching the gap.[66]

Much of the process of othering relies on imagined difference, or the expectation of difference. Spatial difference can be enough to conclude that "we" are "here" and the "others" are over "there".[65] Imagined differences serve to categorize people into groups and assign them characteristics that suit the imaginer's expectations.[67]

Racial discrimination

Main article: Racial discrimination

Racial discrimination refers to discrimination against someone on the basis of their race.

Racial segregation

Main article: Racial segregation

Racial segregation is the separation of humans into socially-constructed racial groups in daily life. It may apply to activities such as eating in a restaurant, drinking from a water fountain, using a bath room, attending school, going to the movies, or in the rental or purchase of a home.[68] Segregation is generally outlawed, but may exist through social norms, even when there is no strong individual preference for it, as suggested by Thomas Schelling's models of segregation and subsequent work.


Main article: Supremacism

Centuries of European colonialism in the Americas, Africa and Asia were often justified by white supremacist attitudes.[69] During the early 20th century, the phrase "The White Man's Burden" was widely used to justify an imperialist policy as a noble enterprise.[70][71] A justification for the policy of conquest and subjugation of Native Americans emanated from the stereotyped perceptions of the indigenous people as "merciless Indian savages" (as described in the United States Declaration of Independence).[72] In an 1890 article about colonial expansion onto Native American land, author L. Frank Baum wrote: "The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians."[73] Attitudes of black supremacy, Arab supremacy, and East Asian supremacy also exist.


Main article: Symbolic racism

Some scholars argue that in the US earlier violent and aggressive forms of racism have evolved into a more subtle form of prejudice in the late 20th century. This new form of racism is sometimes referred to as "modern racism" and it is characterized by outwardly acting unprejudiced while inwardly maintaining prejudiced attitudes, displaying subtle prejudiced behaviors such as actions informed by attributing qualities to others based on racial stereotypes, and evaluating the same behavior differently based on the race of the person being evaluated.[74] This view is based on studies of prejudice and discriminatory behavior, where some people will act ambivalently towards black people, with positive reactions in certain, more public contexts, but more negative views and expressions in more private contexts. This ambivalence may also be visible for example in hiring decisions where job candidates that are otherwise positively evaluated may be unconsciously disfavored by employers in the final decision because of their race.[75][76][77] Some scholars consider modern racism to be characterized by an explicit rejection of stereotypes, combined with resistance to changing structures of discrimination for reasons that are ostensibly non-racial, an ideology that considers opportunity at a purely individual basis denying the relevance of race in determining individual opportunities and the exhibition of indirect forms of micro-aggression toward and/or avoidance of people of other races.[78]

Subconscious biases

Recent research has shown that individuals who consciously claim to reject racism may still exhibit race-based subconscious biases in their decision-making processes. While such "subconscious racial biases" do not fully fit the definition of racism, their impact can be similar, though typically less pronounced, not being explicit, conscious or deliberate.[79]

International law and racial discrimination

In 1919, a proposal to include a racial equality provision in the Covenant of the League of Nations was supported by a majority, but not adopted in the Paris Peace Conference, 1919. In 1943, Japan and its allies declared work for the abolition of racial discrimination to be their aim at the Greater East Asia Conference.[80] Article 1 of the 1945 UN Charter includes "promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race" as UN purpose.

In 1950, UNESCO suggested in The Race Question—a statement signed by 21 scholars such as Ashley Montagu, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Gunnar Myrdal, Julian Huxley, etc.—to "drop the term race altogether and instead speak of ethnic groups". The statement condemned scientific racism theories that had played a role in the Holocaust. It aimed both at debunking scientific racist theories, by popularizing modern knowledge concerning "the race question," and morally condemned racism as contrary to the philosophy of the Enlightenment and its assumption of equal rights for all. Along with Myrdal's An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944), The Race Question influenced the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court desegregation decision in "Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka".[81] Also in 1950, the European Convention on Human Rights was adopted, widely used on racial discrimination issues.[82]

The United Nations use the definition of racial discrimination laid out in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, adopted in 1966:

... any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin that has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life. (Part 1 of Article 1 of the U.N. International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination)[83]

In 2001, the European Union explicitly banned racism, along with many other forms of social discrimination, in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, the legal effect of which, if any, would necessarily be limited to Institutions of the European Union: "Article 21 of the charter prohibits discrimination on any ground such as race, color, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, disability, age or sexual orientation and also discrimination on the grounds of nationality."[84]


Racism existed during the 19th century as "scientific racism", which attempted to provide a racial classification of humanity.[85] In 1775 Johann Blumenbach divided the world's population into five groups according to skin color (Caucasians, Mongols, etc.), positing the view that the non-caucasians had arisen through a process of degeneration. Another early view in scientific racism was the polygenist view, which held that the different races had been separately created. Polygenist Christoph Meiners for example, split mankind into two divisions which he labeled the "beautiful White race" and the "ugly Black race". In Meiners' book, The Outline of History of Mankind

An early use of the word "racism" by Richard Henry Pratt in 1902: "Association of races and classes is necessary to destroy racism and classism."

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