Defining Racism - Action for Healthy Kids
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Defining Racism

Racism can take many forms. Understanding them helps to identify and interrupt racism in everyday life. 

Interpersonal racism is what many people think of when they think of racism. This refers to a person’s actions, beliefs, or words that are fueled by their conscious or unconscious bias against a particular racial group. This might be intentional or unintentional. This might look like: 

  • Microaggressions: An indirect or subtle interactions or behaviors, oftentimes unintentional, that comes from bias or discrimination. For example, a White woman locking her car door when she sees a Black man on the sidewalk outside, a teacher giving a student a nickname rather than learning the correct pronunciation of their name, or a White person complimenting a BIPOC person on being “well spoken.” 
  • Racial slurs or jokes.  
  • Racial profiling: Assuming someone is doing something illegal because of their appearance. For example, a shop owner following around a group of Latino teenagers, or a person calling the police because there is a Black man walking down their residential street.  
  • Identity-based violence: Violence directed at someone because of their appearance, race, culture, or identity group. For example, an assault on a transgendered man, or on a woman wearing a hijab, or on a Chinese person speaking Mandarin.  

Internalized racism is when someone believes (consciously or unconsciously) the negative messages about their own culture, ethnicity, or racial group. This might look like: 

  • Viewing typically White physical features as the ideal and non-White physical features as less beautiful, attractive, or desirable. 
  • Rejection of one’s own language or customs.  
  • Shame of or hostility towards members of one’s own race or cultural group.  

Institutional (or institutionalized), structural, or systemic racism refers to the laws, customs, practices, policies, and policies within society that disadvantage some groups on the basis of race while privileging White people. Sometimes these forces may be obvious, and some may be less so. Some examples of areas in which institutional racism operates includes:  

  • Voter suppression and other forms of political disenfranchisement such as discriminatory voter registration laws and gerrymandering practices intended to influence the voting power of certain communities.
  • Financial practices: policies and practices related to lending, credit, mortgages, and other financial activities. 
  • Environmental injustice: the disproportionate exposure to environmental risk and hazards. 
  • Medical racism: disparities in health coverage, health outcomes, and treatment within medical institutions.  
  • Criminal justice: discriminatory policing and sentencing practices.  
  • Education: disparities in disciplinary practices, resources, and funding; underrepresentation of educators from different cultures; lack of diverse, inclusive curricula  

Although most individuals are not to blame for perpetuating institutional racism, we can all share accountability for noticing and intervening when these forces are at play. One way to do this is by talking to our children about racism.  


Additional Resources

How to talk to your child about race and racism What it might sound like to talk about race


This project on Improving Mental, Behavioral and Academic Supports to Students and Families, Part 2 is supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $434,555 with 100 percent funded by CDC/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by CDC/HHS, or the U.S. Government.