Defining ‘racism’

Racism is deeply ingrained in various domains of society and social institutions that impact our everyday lives.

Despite its implications on our day-to-day lives, and the proliferation of identity politics and identity discourse in our current political climate, racism remains a very sensitive topic for many.

Even more so, there remains a lack of a working definition of racism when we talk about the issue. How we define a concept is, of course, critical to any discussion we have regarding said concept. Without having a concrete working definition of racism, we fail to have a meaningful conversation or discussion regarding the challenges, consequences, and impact of racism on the lives of individuals.

Defining ‘racism’

Screen Shot 2018-02-06 at 6.57.02 PMThe most widely accepted definition of racism defines racism as prejudice or discrimination against a person based on the color of their skin, often based on the belief that one race is superior to another.

In the social science, such definition of racism is regarded as individual racism. Individual racism refers to a person’s racist assumptions or beliefs that come from personal prejudice often leading to overt discrimination against a person of color.

Often times, the social sciences are more preoccupied with understanding systemic racism that includes the policies and practices entrenched in established institutions, that result in the exclusion or promotion of designated groups. It differs from overt discrimination in that no individual intent is necessary. Nonetheless, individual racism is influenced by broader historical and social processes and is reinforced by systemic racism.

Institutional racism

“While individual racism could be seen and heard, institutional racism [is] a more subtle process that could not be reduced to the acts of individuals.”2

The concept of institutional racism emerged in the 1960s to account for covert racism rooted deeply within institutions.Institutional racism describes how institutional structures and processes create and promote racial inequity.1

Institutional racism, also known as systemic racism, is embedded within various institutions including our health care system, educational institutions, the labor market, and the judicial system to name a few, and can take on different forms.

Some forms of systemic racism are more explicit or easier to identify than others, such as the Residential School System in Canada and the Jim Crow laws in the U.S., while other forms or manifestations of systemic racism may not be as readily obvious to some, such as racial disparities in the healthcare system, usually by those privileged by the system.

Institutional racism: the Canadian context

Historically, Canda has implemented various laws and regulations that were outright discriminatory and racist, including the 1885 Chinese Head Tax, the 1897 Female Refugees Act, the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act, and many more.

Canada was also the first nation to adopt multiculturalism on the federal level. However, official multiculturalism has not eradicated discrimination and marginalization racialized groups in Canada face. Canada still struggles with institutionalized inequalities that impact the lives of millions of individuals across our nation.

For instance:


  • Racism impacts the lives of individuals in a variety of ways and through many different institutions and structures in society.
  • Individual and institutional racism refers to the distinction between overt and covert racism, respectively.
    • Individual racism – racial discrimination that derives from individuals carrying out the dictates of others who are prejudiced or of a prejudiced society.
    • Institutional/systemic racism: inequalities rooted in various social and public institutions.
  • In order eliminate racism, it is necessary to illustrate how racial disparities are rooted in institutional policies, practices, and procedures.


  1. Griffith, Derek M., Mondi Mason, Michael Yonas, Eugenia Eng, Vanessa Jeffries, Suzanne Plihcik, and Barton Parks. 2007. “Dismantling institutional racism: theory and action.” American Journal of Community Psychology 39 (3-4): 381-392.

  2. Murji, Karim. 2007. “Sociological engagements: Institutional racism and beyond.” Sociology 41 (5): 843-855.


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