Module 3: Getting on the Same Page: Defining Race & Racism

Go Back:
Module 2: History of Race and Racism
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Module 3: Defining Race and Racism
Module 4: Implicit Bias and Microaggressions

After working through this module, you will be able to:

  • Define race, racism, and related terms in ways that are consistent with racial equity advocates’ use of these terms.
  • Compare these definitions to the ways that these terms are colloquially used.


To work effectively toward racial equity across systems and organizations, we need to share a common understanding of concepts that are foundational to this work. However, seemingly straightforward terms like “race” and “racism” can be defined very differently from one context to another. In this module, we will develop a shared understanding of concepts that are central to racial equity work.



In Module 2 (History of Race and Racism), we explored the history of race as a concept in the United States. Watch this brief video from Vox to review the historical evolution of this term.



For each term below, spend a few minutes defining the term. Search engines are tempting, but please try not to use them for this activity – come up with your own definition. After you define each term, click the arrow to see our definition.

Now, let’s put these six terms together to create a shared understanding of racism. 


Racism is:
  • a system of advantage based on race;
  • a system of oppression based on race;
  • social and institutional power PLUS racial prejudice.
Racism is NOT:
  • racial prejudice, hatred, or discrimination.

Let’s unpack this definition, because this conception of racism may be different from the ways you have heard the term used in other contexts. Racial equity advocates define racism as a system – a set of things that work together for a common purpose or with a common outcome. Remember from our definition of “system” above that once established, a system does not require planning or initiative of individual people. Because inequity and differential treatment are embedded in the social, economic, and political systems of our country and therefore seen as “normal,” systemic racism would exist even if racial prejudice and racial hatred were completely eliminated.

Racism is both a system of advantage (for whites) and a system of oppression (for BIPOC). The system was created to concentrate social and institutional power among those designated as “white,” and to exclude all others from receiving these benefits. Again, because these systems are self-perpetuating, differential outcomes according to race will continue to be produced by them regardless of the action or inaction of individual people within the system, unless and until the system itself is changed.

Finally, racism is more than mere prejudice, hatred, or discrimination based on race. As we noted above, no one is completely free of prejudice, and it is certainly possible for a person of color to have negative prejudices toward white people. What elevates racial prejudice to racism, however, is the social and institutional power that allows one group to carry out systematic discrimination using the major institutions of society. Because, in the United States, these institutions were created and are still largely controlled by white people, racism refers specifically to a system that advantages whiteness and oppresses people of color and Indigenous people.

Why is it problematic to define racism as interpersonal prejudice or bias based on race? When we define racism as personal rather than institutional, our conversations about what is racist often devolve into a discussion of “what’s in a person’s heart” rather than the impact of their beliefs and behaviors. This limits racism only to intentional and conscious acts and therefore erases the real impact of both unintentionally harmful behaviors and large-scale systemic oppression and discrimination. Defining racism in a systemic way doesn’t ignore individual instances of overtly hateful behavior, but instead expands our understanding of what is “racist” to include less conscious, unconscious, and institutional manifestations.


Another set of terms that are frequently confused is race, ethnicity, and nationality. For example, does “Latino” refer to race, ethnicity, or national origin? Watch the two videos below to explore the differences between these terms.

First, watch this quick overview from the Western Justice Center that explains the differences between race, ethnicity, and nationality using jellybeans.


Next, explore this issue in more depth with the Sociology Crash Course video “Race & Ethnicity,” in which host Nicole Sweeney provides an excellent, research-grounded overview of the past, present, and potential future uses of these terms.



We have defined the term “racism” today in a way that is consistent with how scholars, activists, and others working toward racial equity across systems use this term. However, it’s important to acknowledge that not everyone shares this definition of racism. Over the next week, note in your journal any time you hear or see the word “racism” used in conversation, on the news, in readings, etc. Are people using this term in a way that is consistent with our definition? If not, how are they using the term and what are the potential consequences of using the word in that way?

But Wait!

In this section, we address common questions and concerns related to the material presented in each module. You may have these questions yourself, or someone you’re sharing this information with might raise them. We recommend that for each question below, you spend a few minutes thinking about your own response before clicking the arrow to the left of the question to see our response.

I’ve heard about “reverse racism.” Isn’t it possible for white people to be the victims of racism?
When we adopt the definition of racism that we have described in this model, “racism” ceases to be about individual acts of discrimination and instead refers to the ways that systems and institutions privilege whiteness. With that understanding of racism in mind, the idea of “reverse racism” does not make sense. Many people of color have written extensively on this subject, tackling myths such as the idea that Black History Month is racist toward white people, or that affirmative action takes jobs and opportunities away from white people. For example, see Zeba Blay’s article “4 ‘Reverse Racism’ Myths that Need to Stop,” and check out the video below.


What if a person of color has power over a white person – couldn’t that be racism if the person of color uses their power to discriminate against the white person?
An individual person of any race may be able to enact racial prejudice in ways that are harmful to others by virtue of their local, positional power. For example, a person of color who manages employees may fire a white person based on racial prejudice. However, this is still not racism as we and other racial equity advocates define the term, because the overall systems of social, political, and economic power still work in favor of whiteness. Racism is not about localized power and control, but rather about institutionalized power and control.


If racial categories don’t have any scientific validity, why don’t we just abandon them and stop categorizing people at all?
As long as skin color contributes to differential life outcomes, it will continue to be important to use racial categories as tools to help us see and understand systemic inequity. For example, data collected by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) beginning in the late 1960s provided and continues to provide valuable evidence of race-based inequities in the U.S. public school system, and the Health Disparities & Inequalities Reports released by the Centers for Disease Control show the pervasive and persistent negative health impacts of racism. Abandoning the use of racial categories would not make underlying race-based inequity disappear- it would merely make it more difficult for us to see that inequity.   For more on this question, see the Washington Post article “Yes, the census should be tracking race and ethnicity.”


Can BIPOC be racist toward other BIPOC?
Remember that as we have defined it, racism requires institutionalized power. This does not mean that BIPOC are incapable of prejudice and xenophobia. Colorism – the privileging of lighter skin over darker skin within a racial group – is one example of how BIPOC can enact prejudice toward other BIPOC. However, colorism and other related issues must be discussed in light of the history of racism, misogyny, and white supremacy. Colorism in the African American community, for example, has its roots in slavery: enslaved people with lighter skin were assigned domestic tasks, while those with darker skin were forced to work outside doing much more grueling tasks. This was probably related to the fact that enslaved people with lighter skin were often descended from white slaveholders through rape. This has left a lasting legacy of internalized racism: ideas, beliefs, actions, and behaviors on the part of BIPOC that support or collude with racism, for example, the belief that lighter skin is preferable to darker skin.

For more on these issues, see the following resources:



Additional Resources


Go Back:
Module 2: History of Race and Racism
You Are Here:
Module 3: Defining Race and Racism
Module 4: Implicit Bias and Microaggressions