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What is Racism? Different Forms of Racism & Microaggressions

Table of Contents

Summary

Racism includes prejudice, discrimination, or oppression of an individual or group based on racial or ethnic identity. The individual or group member who is experiencing racism does not belong to the culturally recognized majority group. 

What is Racism?

Racism includes prejudice, discrimination, or oppression of an individual or group based on racial or ethnic identity. The individual or group member who is experiencing racism does not belong to the culturally recognized majority group. 

Some forms of racism are more subtle or sneaky than others but are just as aggressive, hurtful, and dangerous. Have there been times when someone treated you differently and you couldn’t put your finger on why or exactly what it was about? For example, maybe someone made a comment about your hair or gave unsolicited feedback about the way that you speak and how it sounds “unprofessional.” Any time that you felt intentionally cast out of a group or “othered,” racism could be to blame. 

Racism can creep up at any time and sometimes it can be hard to articulate your experience of it, especially if people claim they were “just joking around.” Sometimes, though, it’s obvious that racism is exactly what is going on, even when other people may outright deny it. This is referred to as racial gaslighting. 

Why do I feel this way? 

It’s dehumanizing, infuriating, deflating, and terrifying all wrapped up into one. The stress people of color feel go far beyond isolated incidents and influence everyday life. Racism-related stress can be a form of distress or chronic stress. It can be defined as emotional, physical, and psychological tension due to being exposed to racism. 

Racial stress can be experienced when the racism is overt or covert. Overt racism is a blatant form of racism that in some instances is meant to harm. Covert racism is more difficult to identify or prove. Microaggressions are a form of covert racism. 

 Effects of chronic stress from racism can include:

  • Digestive and stomach problems 
  • Body aches
  • Headaches
  • Feeling tired a lot
  • Irritability or becoming easily annoyed
  • Diminished ability to concentrate
  • Anxiety or depression 
Different Forms of Racism 

Different Forms of Racism 

Institutional Racism

Racism can also happen on an institutional level. This occurs when institutions or organizations, such as health, political, economic, financial, education, justice, transportation, and government systems, uphold practices that promote racial inequality. 

This allows members of the majority of the population to receive power and benefits at the disempowerment of people of color. Examples of institutional racism include:

  • Medical professionals withholding treatment options due to assumptions about POC not being able to afford medical treatments
  • Having few to no POC teachers, principals, school board members, etc. 

Structural Racism

Structural racism occurs when laws and institutions, such as schools, businesses, and organizations, work collaboratively to create, promote, and uphold racial group inequality. 

Structural racism is practiced on a large scale. It is upheld by our society, economy, and political structures. Its effects can be seen in a number of areas. 

For example, police brutality is excessive or unwarranted use of force by law enforcement. In 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, the structure of policing was examined concerning some of its inequities of excessive force. Individual and collective fear and trauma can occur when police brutality takes place. Native men and women and Latino men were found to be at increased risk of being killed by police when compared to their white peers (Edwards et al., 2019), with black men being at the highest risk. Speaking against police brutality is not anti-police, it is very much pro-humanity. 

Other examples of structural racism include the following:

  • Students of color being more likely to be suspended from school for the same infraction as a non-suspended white student 
  • People of color being paid less to do the same work as White colleagues
  • Higher interest rates for home loans (this is based on where Blacks live in comparison to Whites)
  • Less access to public transportation 
  • Less access to polling places
  • Health providers being less likely to believe POC when they report pain

Microaggressions

Microaggressions are offensive assumptions and behaviors that are perpetuated by people with advantages over disadvantaged groups. Microaggressions are usually subtle, so much so it can be hard to recognize them as being harmful. Some microaggressions may even be intended as compliments but are actually discriminatory. Microaggressions are intended to make an environment feel unsafe or hostile for a minority group. Similar to racism, microaggressions can be both intentional or unintentional. Regardless, they are still harmful.

Let’s look at some examples:

  • “You don’t sound black!”
  • A store owner following a POC (person of color) around the store.

Now let’s unpack why these are problematic:

  • This remark is phrased like it is a compliment, but is implying that they didn’t expect to hear this level of articulation and intelligence from a POC.
  • The store owner presumed that the POC was dangerous or deviant solely based on their race. The message the store owner is sending to the POC is that they think they are dangerous, going to steal something, or they do not belong there.

Microaggressions are not okay. It is important to remember that the “micro” in microaggression does not mean “small” or no big deal.

Racial Battle Fatigue

Racism can result in a high frequency of microaggressions that may be difficult for people of color to manage. People of color can become exhausted trying to combat everyday microaggressions rather than focusing on school work and using their energy to be mindful of their stress responses from microaggressions. This could result in racial battle fatigue. 

Racial battle fatigue is the mental, emotional, and physical stress response due to ongoing microaggressions. The mixture of past experiences of racism and the cumulative stress of being on guard or anticipating the next form of racism can cause mental, emotional, and physical harm.

It is important that a person is in tune with their mind and body so that you know that it is time to step away or step back. This could be stepping away from certain people or organizations. This could be refraining from news outlets and social media. This could also be refraining from social justice opportunities until you feel a sense of restoration. 

Colorism

Colorism is essentially a hierarchy in which those with lighter skin are considered above or somehow better than those with darker skin. It’s important to recognize that this value judgment is based on the belief that whiteness is equated with goodness. It’s so far-reaching that these value judgments have broken into black communities themselves causing discrimination against darker folks by lighter complexion folks. 

Colorism dates back to slavery in which lighter-skinned slaves were favored over darker-skinned slaves. Everyone, yes, including people within the black community, need to recognize the underlying historical context at work that has influenced present-day values and the alienation that erodes communities and unity among black folks. 

Other examples of colorism may include differences in pay rates between darker-skinned men and lighter-skinned men (Greenidge, 2019). In addition, darker-skinned girls are 3 times more likely to be suspended from school than their light peers (Greenidge, 2019). Colorism is a global problem. It impacts all people of color. Skin bleaching products are sold all over the world. 

Internalized Racism 

While racism is often exercised by members of the majority population towards marginalized racial groups, racism can also be practiced on an individual level by members of marginalized racial groups towards themselves. Individual or internalized racism happens when individuals from marginalized racial groups accept the negative societal ideas and beliefs about themselves and their racial group. 

Examples of internalized racism may look like self-disparaging remarks about the “quality” or “goodness” of one’s hair in comparison to European hair, seeing oneself as “scary” or “intimidating” due to being Black, or disliking oneself purely for being Black. It is important to understand that as Black people experience racism, we begin to come up with ideas, opinions, and behaviors about ourselves that support racism as a way to cope with being treated poorly.

Countering Microagressions and combating racism

Wellbeing Strategies

Tips for Countering Microaggressions

Countering microaggressions can be exhausting and you shouldn’t feel like you have to carry the weight of the world or the responsibility to educate people. Gage where your energy levels are continual. Working toward social justice is important, but you need to take care of yourself too and make sure that a situation is safe, or safe enough, for you to address what just happened. 

Check-in with yourself: 

  • How safe are you at this moment?
  • Do you have the energy/emotional space to engage with this person or group of people?
  • Would engaging cause you more distress than you can handle at this moment?

Recognize & Remember: How a person treats you says more about them and their belief systems than anything about you and your worth.

Decide if you want to engage: If you want to engage with someone surrounding a microaggression, start with an “I” statement to own what you are about to say. This may look like: “I don’t appreciate comments like that. They don’t feel good. I feel angry that you implied that most black girls aren’t smart.” You don’t have to talk any more about it if you don’t want to, but if you want to, you might consider saying something like:  “I’m curious about what led you to say that?”

Expect defensiveness: Regardless of if you are calling someone out or calling them in, people like to believe they are “good people” and often don’t want to acknowledge that they’ve hurt someone. Try not to allow someone’s response to you to dictate your mood.

Surround yourself with positive people: Surround yourself with people who love and support you for who you are. Find mentors within your own friend group, family, and community that you can talk to about these types of situations. You can even find support online. 

Tips for combating racism

Racial trauma is a thing: Recognize it and acknowledge that it’s normal for your mental and physical health to be affected because individuals and communities have been affected by racism for generations. That’s compounded trauma. Talking openly with others about your experience helps to end the stigma surrounding mental health concerns.

Acknowledge your feelings: Your feelings are valid and it’s good to express them in healthy ways. This may be through dance, art, music, exercise, or some other outlet. 

Focus on what you can control: This can increase some feelings of safety and reduce fight or flight responses. You might consider the power you have in terms of who you vote for, what you spend money on/donate to, or sharing your thoughts on social media. 

Nourish your body: Focus not only on nutrition and hydration but giving yourself rest. Also consider meditation, yoga, and/or some other form of nourishing movement. 

Build your tribe: Find your people and vibrant people who inspire you. Make sure this includes people from your own community that look like you. Even if you have to reach out online for connections- try to foster them. 

Attend to your spirituality: This doesn’t have to be religion, but it could be. Figure out what finds you inner peace and makes you feel connected to what’s around you, people, and the universe. Make a commitment to incorporating that into your day. Find what gives your life meaning and do more of that. Many people find this is creative work, praying, helping others, etc.

Scholarly Sources

https://www.urccp.org/article.cfm?ArticleNumber=69

Franklin, J. (2016). Racial microaggressions, racial battle fatigue, and racism-related stress in higher education. Journal of Student Affairs at New York University, 12(44), 44-55.

Greenidge, K. (2019). Why black people discriminate among ourselves: The toxic legacy of colorism. The Guardian. April, 13.

Greer, T. M., & Cavalhieri, K. E. (2019). The role of coping strategies in understanding the effects of institutional racism on mental health outcomes for African American men. Journal of Black Psychology, 45(5), 405-433. 

Turner, E. A., & Richardson, J. (2016). Racial trauma is real: The impact of police shootings on African Americans. Psychology Benefits Society, 14.

https://scholarworks.umt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=12614&context=etd

https://blog.zencare.co/mental-health-tips-for-black-folks-from-black-therapists/

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