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What is racism?

Racism can be experienced on multiple levels and in interrelated contexts, including:

- Personal/individual (e.g. internalized racism, traumatic responses, personal beliefs, etc.)

- Interpersonal and Intracommunal (e.g. microaggressions, racism occurring in interactions with others, racial slurs, etc.)

- Systemic (e.g. unsafe workplaces, classroom spaces, community spaces, etc., where racism is built into policies and practices of the organization)

- Structural (e.g. patterns of racism across institutions and organizations embedded within common policies, practices, structures, etc.)

- Poststructural (e.g. the intersections and interconnections of systems of oppression, including racism’s interactions with cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, etc. that facilitate experiences of racism)

- Historical/Intergenerational (e.g. experiences of racism that have material and historical origin, such as legacies of colonialism and its continued violence, oppression, and marginalization of Indigenous communities)


What is racism?

While there are numerous definitions and attempts to visually represent racism and its various levels, it is important to note that these understandings are dynamic, contextual, and evolving. Race, itself, is a social construct that was historically designed to justify practices of white supremacy that attempted to depict white people as inherently superior to Black, Indigenous, and racialized persons. While race is a social construct, we must also recognize that it maintains tangible and material implications for how people are able to move and gain access to a multitude of rights, privileges, liberties, spaces, and places; and this is due to the centralization of whiteness.

Whiteness and the Social Construction of Race

How Whiteness Operates

Part of what makes whiteness so difficult to identify, name, and challenge within academia is its ability to remain invisible to white educators, practitioners, and students, thus permeating the physical and intellectual space and utilizing its normative structure to protect itself from redress. Yee and Dumbrill (2003) refer to these dynamics as:

(1) exnomination, or the ability of whiteness to go unnamed, 

(2) naturalization, or the ability of whiteness to name the ‘Other’ and not itself, and 

(3) universalization, or the ability of whiteness to ingrain a Western, Eurocentric understanding of a given problem as the only true perspective. 

In predominantly white institutions (PWIs), where the majority of faculty, instructors, senior administrators, and - in some cases - students are white, where the curriculum is structured and approved by other PWIs, and where the majority of course content is authored by white academics, whiteness becomes further entrenched, thus leading to “colour-blind,” spatial and curricular walls protecting and reinforcing a pedagogy of whiteness. Here, while white folks can see themselves represented in curriculum, many racialized students cannot.

Pyramid of White Supremacy

While it can be difficult to recognize and understand, racism can be perpetrated intentionally and unintentionally and can appear in both explicit, identifiable ways and implicit, invisible ways. The Equality Institute’s Pyramid of White Supremacy attempts to depict the ways in which the normalization of racism can actively facilitate and justify white supremacist violence in its most extreme forms.