What is systemic racism and cultural racism?

These things tend to represent and celebrate the values of a privileged group (e.g. white people, etc.) and negatively affect the safety and well-being of historically oppressed groups (e.g. Black folks, Indigenous peoples, People of Colour, etc.).

What are they?

According to Kids Help Phone, a person experiences racism when they’re treated unfairly because of their race (or perceived race), ethnicity and/or culture. When one person directs their negative attitudes toward a person or group, we generally refer to it as individual racism. However, racism can also take shape in more subtle, unconscious and collective ways. Cultural and systemic forms of racism include:

  • the things we see in the media (e.g. movies, ads, etc.)

  • the social practices around us (e.g. policies and systems related to money, work, education, health care, etc.)

These things tend to represent and celebrate the values of a privileged group (e.g. white people, etc.) and negatively affect the safety and well-being of historically oppressed groups (e.g. Black folks, Indigenous peoples, People of Colour, etc.).

People may experience racism and discrimination based on different aspects of who they are. These experiences may also lead to negative impacts on self-esteem, opportunities, relationships, quality of life and more.

“Systemic racism”, or “institutional racism”, refers to how ideas of white superiority are captured in everyday thinking at a systems level: taking in the big picture of how society operates, rather than looking at one-on-one interactions.

These systems can include laws and regulations, but also unquestioned social systems. Systemic racism can stem from education, hiring practices or access.

What are the origins of cultural and systemic racism?

Cultural and systemic racism are complex phenomena. They began in the history of colonialism, slavery and the domination of white people upon racialized groups. Privileged citizens in the dominant group took unearned power and defined the rules of society. As a result, people in the non-dominant groups were oppressed, stigmatized and underrepresented. This system is still in place in our society today, where stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination continue to be a part of how our society is set up.

How can I recognize cultural and systemic racism?

Cultural and systemic racism are everywhere. They can be tricky to recognize if you don’t know what to look for, or don’t experience them. And sometimes, the things people hear, say and/or do can be hurtful to people — whether the person doing it realizes it or not.

To spot cultural and systemic racism, you can strengthen your cultural awareness. Cultural awareness is like a muscle you can train to learn about and recognize things you may not have noticed before. These things include the diverse perspectives and experiences everyone in the world has, which contribute to a more equitable society.

Cultures of discrimination

Under systemic racism, systems of education, government and the media celebrate and reward some cultures over others, according to The Conversation.

In employment, names can influence employment opportunities. A Harvard study found job candidates were more likely to get an interview when they “whitened” their name.

Only 10% of black candidates got interview offers when their race could be implied by their resume, but 25% got offers when their resumes were whitened. And 21% of Asian candidates got interview offers with whitened resumes, up from 11.5%.

Systemic racism shows itself in who is disproportionately impacted by our justice system. In Australia, Indigenous people make up 2% of the Australian population, but 28% of the adult prison population.

How can I strengthen my cultural awareness?

Here are some things you can try to strengthen your cultural awareness:

-Recognize your privileges

The concept of privilege can vary depending on the context. In any circumstance, you may find you have some advantages compared to someone else. It could be because of your:

  • cultural background

  • social status

  • appearance, including skin colour

  • financial background

  • gender identity

  • sexual orientation

  • legal status

  • abilities

  • etc.

In order to appreciate the experiences of people who don’t have the same privileges as you, it’s important to be aware of your own position and biases.

-Identify racism 

Cultural and systemic racism often appear in everyday behaviours. These behaviours can make people belonging to racialized groups feel as if they’re inferior — when in fact, they’re not. People who perpetuate cultural and systemic racism may not even notice they’re doing it. They may think their behaviour is normal and/or be unaware they’re hurting people by treating them in an offensive or demeaning way.

Training your brain to identify racism can help you be a more active participant in fighting it. Some examples of racism in everyday life include:

  • a person assuming that someone with certain physical characteristics is more likely to do something illegal

  • a staff member at a post-secondary school denying admission to someone based on the look and/or sound of their name

Mai Nguyen