A Working Definition of Racism: Revised 7/88
— By Ricky Sherover-Marcuse

  1. Human beings are members of the same species. The term 'racism' is useful as a shorthand way of categorizing the systematic mistreatment experienced by people of color and Third world people both in the United States and in many other parts of the world. But this term should not mislead us into supposing that human beings belong to biologically different species. We all belong to one race, the human race.

  2. The systematic mistreatment experienced by people of color is a result of institutionalized inequalities in the social structure. Racism is one consequence of a self-perpetuating imbalance in economic, political and social power. This imbalance consistently favors members of some ethnic and cultural groups at the expense of others. The consequences of this imbalance pervade all aspects of the social system and affect all facets of people's lives.

  3. At its most extreme, systematic mistreatment takes the form of physical violence and extermination, but it occurs in many other forms as well. Pervasive invalidation, the denial or the non-recognition of the full humanity of persons of color also constitutes the mistreatment categorized as racism.

    Putting the matter in these terms may clear up the confusion, which is generated by thinking of racism merely as 'different treatment'. If we examine the facts, we will see that what is often called 'different treatment' is in reality inhuman treatment, i.e. treatment which denies the humanity of the individual person and their group.

  4. The systematic mistreatment of any group of people generates misinformation about them, which in turn becomes the 'explanation' of or justification for continued mistreatment. Racism exists as a whole series of attitudes, assumptions, feelings and beliefs about people of color and their cultures which are a mixture of misinformation, fear and ignorance.

    Just as 'the systematic mistreatment of people of color' means 'inhuman treatment', so 'misinformation about people of color' designates beliefs and assumptions that in any way imply that people of color are less than fully human. These beliefs and attitudes are not just neutral errors; they are impacted misinformation: ideas and opinions which are glued together with painful emotion and held in place by frozen memories of distressing experiences.

  5. Because misinformation about people of color functions as the justification for their continued mistreatment, it becomes socially empowered or sanctioned misinformation. It is recycled through the society as a form of conditioning that affects everyone. In this way, misinformation about people of color becomes part of everyone's 'ordinary' assumptions.

  6. For purposes of clarity, it is helpful to use the term 'internalized racism' or 'internalized oppression' to designate the misinformation that people of color may have about themselves and their cultures. The purpose of this term is to point out that this misinformation is consequence of the mistreatment experienced by people of color. It is not an inherent feature of their culture.

  7. The term 'reverse racism' is sometimes used to characterize 'affirmative action' programs, but this is inaccurate. Affirmative action programs are attempts to repair the results of institutionalized racism by setting guidelines and establishing procedures for finding qualified applicants from all segments of the population.

  8. The term 'reverse racism' is also sometimes used to characterize the mistreatment that individual whites may have experienced at the hands of individuals of color. This too is inaccurate. While any form of humans harming other humans is wrong because no one is entitled to mistreat anyone, we should not confuse the occasional mistreatment experienced by whites at the hands of people of color with the systematic and institutionalized mistreatment experienced by people of color at the hands of whites.

  9. Racism operates as a strategy of divide and conquer. It helps to perpetuate a social system in which some people are consistently 'haves' and others are consistently 'have nots'. While the 'haves' receive certain material benefits from this situation, the long range effects of racism short change everyone. Racism sets groups of people against each other and makes it difficult for us to perceive our common interests as human beings.

    Racism make us forget that we all need and are entitled to good health care, stimulating education, and challenging work. Racism limits our horizons to what presently exists. Racism makes us suppose that current injustices are 'natural', or at best, inevitable: "someone has to be unemployed; someone has to go hungry." Most importantly, racism distorts our perceptions of the possibilities for change; it makes us abandon our visions of solidarity; it robs us of our dreams of community.

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