Understanding Racism & How it Works In Order to Eliminate It

by Joyce Dowling

I believe that racism could be greatly minimized if people understood how it works. As a person* who's studying anti-racism, this is an attempt at a brief explanation of a complicated social problem. Links to outside resources are at the bottom of this relatively brief document.

Racism, as is also true of ageism, sexism, ableism, and other forms of prejudicial thinking, is due to both our social norms (how we are socialized through childhood caregivers and our surrounding culture) and the way our brain innately works. Our brain recognizes patterns and learns through this recognition of patterns at a very young age. We categorize things and we're taught at a very young age about how to think about certain things. This has especially been noted through studies of how infants and children learn.

Racism is often taught subtly depending on who raises you and to whom you have exposure in your every day life. You can change those ideas to some extent, but if you grew up thinking that people of another race are inferior to you, then that idea might be very hard to eradicate. It can be quite sub-conscious, so you wouldn't necessarily be aware that you think that.

In the United States, overall the idea of racism of whites to African Americans (blacks), or others with dark skin that does not appear to be sun-tanned, has been spread through the media since a great deal of people in this nation watch TV and/or read newspapers & magazines, besides good old-fashioned person-to-person communication. The study of children's attraction to white or black dolls is a very good indicator of this fact - it is a problem perpetuated into the 21st century. It is not a truth, though; these ideas are all part of our culture and are a man-made pecking order. There is only one race - the human race.

Non-racists, people who believe they're not racist, need to be intentional in the way they treat people (people who are innately non-racist by not being exposed to the typical racist messages in society are rare). Many people believe they are not racist even though their behavior seems to indicate otherwise, as has been demonstrated in highly publicized incidents (see links). Antiracists try to go deeper through study and a higher intentionality to change themselves and trying to help change the larger society - particularly institutionalized racism. If you don't recognize how racism in our culture has affected your ways of thinking, it can be almost impossible for you to change it. We behave in subtle ways based on this knowledge, so if we want to truly treat people justly, we need to explore how we can eradicate our subconscious racist thoughts.

Note that in anti-racism, the term "racism" is redefined to only refer to institutionalized racism, and refer to individual racial prejudice as "bigotry". It is hard to separate institutions from the individuals who run them; it is hard to discuss our history without naming the leaders. Anti-racism can be hard work.

Test your attitudes using Harvard University's Implicit Association Test - after you click the link at the bottom of the page which says "I wish to proceed", you will get a list of tests - the Race IAT is among a list that changes (used to be called "Black - White IAT").

Racism has a long history and is connected to classism. Find more videos like this throughout the internet, especially on YouTube (and see links to written articles below)

Links to Outside Resources (open in new window - if any links are bad, please notify me of the error)
Kenneth Clark's Famous Experiment on White and Black Dolls
Doll Test on video from MSNBC
Skin Color is Not Race from Discovery magazine
Comedian Michael Richards spews racial hate statements and then denies being racist
Article about actor/director Mel Gibsons's racism
NIH articles about how racism plays a role in health care disparities
Race the Power of an Illusion - interactive site (PBS)
How Racist Are You? - video documentary in 5 parts
A Class Divided - video documentary from the mid 20th century about prejudice from a classroom experiment
Implicit Bias Taskforce of the American Bar Association
"What Would You Do?" Social experiment video
Articles on Racism/Race from the American Psychological Association
The Ferguson Syllabus: Sociological Research Puts Ferguson in Context
9 Things You Can Do to Help End Racism: How to be An Anti-Racist Activist
Teen Jailed 30 Days For Studying History While Black and many, many more cases
More Antiracism Resources

* Note that I'm not a sociologist or psychologist, but I've studied racism in the U.S. & I know that internet searchers are looking for "sound bites". Racism is a social problem which interests many. Some people believe that racial inferiority is a fact due to certain studies which appear to indicate that, but there is also much evidence that any inferiority is due to how groups have been treated and the culture they live in (many believe that "western culture" is superior to other cultures and I'm not arguing that, though it is still a matter of opinion as to what is superior or inferior) [Back to Top]

Copyright © Joyce Dowling. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document so long as correct attribution and a link back to the originating web page is given.

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