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What is Racism?

Justice, Equity & Inclusion


This activity leads an in-depth conversation on the topic of racism, including the types of racism and the ways racism shows up in our lives. It is suitable for all groups, including folks who are new to this topic or experience racism. However, it requires a level of trust within the group to have a difficult conversation.

Below are definitions that the facilitator must be familiar with before leading this activity. 


Racism is any action or attitude that subordinates an individual or group based on skin colour or race. It can be enacted internally, individually, or institutionally. The key distinction is between the two levels of racism, individual and systemic. While we acknowledge the impact of individual acts of racial discrimination, we believe that it is critical to do so within a deeper analysis of systemic racial injustice.

Systemic Racism

Structural racism refers to a system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity.

  • It identifies dimensions of our history and culture that have allowed privileges associated with “whiteness” and disadvantages associated with “color” to endure and adapt over time.
  • Touches and implicates everyone in our society—White people, Black people, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans.
  • Is a system for allocating social privilege.
    • The lower end of the privilege scale, characterized by socioeconomic disadvantage and political isolation, has historically been associated with “blackness” or “color.”
    • Meanwhile, the upper end of the scale that gives access to opportunity, benefits, and power has been associated with “whiteness.”
    • Between the fixed extremes of whiteness and blackness there is a fluid hierarchy of social and political spaces that are occupied by different groups of color at various times.
  • Institutional racism occurs within institutions and systems of power.
  • It is the unfair policies and discriminatory practices of particular institutions (schools, workplaces, etc.) that routinely produce racially inequitable outcomes for people of color and advantages for White people.

Individual Racism

  • Interpersonal Racism occurs between individuals.
    • These are biases that occur when individuals interact with others and their private racial beliefs affect their public interactions.
    • Examples include racial slurs, bigotry, hate crimes, and racial violence.
  • Internalized Racism is the ideas, beliefs, actions and behaviors that support and/or reinforce racism. These are our personal beliefs and biases about race and racism, influenced by our culture. How it shows up: 
    • people of color accepting negative messages about their own abilities and intrinsic worth.
    • internalized privilege, beliefs about the superiority or entitlement of white people.
    • a belief that you or others are more or less intelligent, or beautiful, because of your race.
  • Participants will be able to define racism.
  • Participants will be able to discuss and identify at least 3 examples of what racism looks like or how it is enacted.
  • Participants will be able to identify and discuss the difference between internalized, individual, and systemic racism.
  • Flipchart, whiteboard, or other surface visible to the group
  • Sticky notes
  • Writing utensils
  • Pass out 3 sticky notes per participant


While we may talk about the effects of racism, often we are having these discussions without defining what racism really is.  

We wanted to start by talking about what racism is and exploring the different types of racism that exist

  1. Write the word “racism” up on the board, and ask the group to list off other words that come to mind when they hear the word racism.  Take just a minute to do this and use this to start your definition portion and to reference back to later.

  2. Then, write the word racism on a new sheet or part of the board and ask if anyone is able to define the word racism. Work with the group to come up with a definition for the word racism. Refer to Facilitator Notes to support you in leading this. 

  3. After establishing a broad understanding of the word racism, ask participants to take out their sticky notes and to write down three instances, actions, and/or examples of racism: one per sticky note.

  4. After everyone has written down at least one example of what racism can look like, add three more phrases to the board (or on three separate sheets of paper—and hang the papers up where participants can see them).  
    • These three phrases are: Internalized racism, individual/interpersonal racism, and institutional racism.
    • Review briefly the definitions for internalized, individual, and institutional racism (from Facilitator Notes).

  5. If time allows, ask participants to bring their completed sticky notes to the front of the room and to categorize their stickies under one of the three categories. Participants should talk to each other when they are stuck or unsure of what category to choose.  

  6. If time does not allow, ask participants to reflect for a moment about the categories they chose for their stickies.

  7. Ask for participants to provide at least one example for each category; ask for one example for internalized, one for interpersonal, and one for institutional.

  8. Share with participants why understanding and seeing these three aspects of racism is important to consider when we are thinking about and working through our own understandings of racism.


When we think of racism, we often think of interpersonal racism: actions that one person does to another person or exchanges that take place between groups. Yet, in reality, the way that racism affects our lives is much more complex than that.  

We can internalize racism, whether that is an internalized sense of dominance or of inferiority, and what is even more difficult about this fact is that we may not ever realize we have done so.  

There is also systemic and institutional racism, which happens in such macro ways that no individual may feel they are doing anything wrong and yet entire systems may be set up for one group of folks (in this country, White folks) to be advantaged and privileged over others.

It is important to consider these three different ways that racism shows up because if we are truly working to educate ourselves and to unknot the effects of racism we must address all three ways that racism manifests.  Arguments against the importance of doing racial justice work are often rebuffs against one type of racism: by saying that you personally did not enact racism. And while that is an important aspect of what racism is, it is not the only thing that makes up racism.

  • What comes to mind when I say the word racism?
  • What is your definition of racism?
  • What are the different ways that racism manifests in our lives?
  • Why is it important to consider these different ways that racism shows up?

As we move forward in our work around race and racism, please consider the following questions when we are talking. Are we including all of the different ways that racism shows up?  How does racism affect your life in these different ways?  How does it affect you intrapersonally, interpersonally, and on a systems level?  These are important questions to reflect on and consider when moving forward.