This is one of the trickiest parts of discussing race. Racism despite its seeming simplicity, is a very complex word.

It is often difficult for various groups to discuss racism as a concept because those groups may be using the same word to mean many different things. Merriam Webster defines the word racism as follows:

a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race

This is a reasonable definition of race and useful for many conversations, but it is not the only contextual definition commonly used.

Here are some others:


A bias at its root, is nothing more than a marked preference one way or another. One can be biased toward vanilla ice cream vs chocolate or cats vs dogs.

When racism is used to mean bias, it is often in the sense of preferring one race over another. (One of your own kind, stick with your own kind)A member of any race is capable of this sort of racial bias, and it is this usage that people are referring to when they make statements like “everyone is racist”.

This definition is most commonly used by White people as it is the most ecumenical and does not single out any one group as any worse an offender than any other. It is most often the conflict between this definition and the definition of systemic racism that is an obstacle to constructive discussion about race.

Using the word racism to denote racial bias isn’t wrong, but realize that its use can conflict sharply with the other definitions, which can lead to painful conflict in discussion.


Prejudice is the habit of making assumptions about something before actually experiencing or learning about it.

It is understandable why people use racism to mean prejudice. In practice, racism usually involves making declarative statements about people based on very little data. The idea that you can determine someone’s empathy or intelligence or determination or capacity for altruism based merely on the color of one’s skin is a shining example of racial prejudice.

This is the sort of prejudice that creeps into hiring, lending and education frequently. Expectations of people become set and rigid based on no more information than the person’s perceived race.

Racial prejudice isn’t always negative either. People can make erroneous positive assumptions based on race too. This fuels privilege.

Using the word racism to mean racial prejudice is also legitimate, but you can see how it differs slightly from racism as bias.


Microaggressions are very difficult for many people to understand because by definition they are subtle.

These aren’t the big swords of oppression, they’re the pins and needles. Taken one at a time, each microagression may seem trivial. But races that suffer them usually do so in overwhelming numbers.

Think of microaggressions like paper cuts. They are small and painful, but they’re not life-threatening, they just make your day kind of miserable. They’re infuriating because they’re so small and yet cause so much discomfort.

Racist microaggressions are subtle jabs and daily reminders that your race is seen as lesser. However their subtlety makes reactions to them easy for critics to dismiss as overreaction. Subtlety doesn’t mean lack of danger. The effects of compounded daily microaggressions can be detrimental to one’s mental and physical well-being.

Using the word racism to speak about microaggressions can be useful in context but be careful to be clear about the scope. Failure to do so can enable absurd comparisons


Systemic oppression is the definition of racism that POC are often using in discussions about race in America. This takes that dictionary definition from the beginning and defines what happens when that premise is codified in a society by the majority.

It is one thing for two people to hate each other. They may have reasons to do so and there may be no inherent right or wrong about their conflict. However if one of those people is in a position of power over the other person, suddenly the dynamic changes.

The person in power may be able to take away that person’s job, or diminsh their salary, or prevent them from getting a loan, or an education. They may be able to put the person they hate in jail for no other reason than that they hate them.

When people say “POC can’t be racist” this is the sort of racism they are talking about.

Using the word racism to mean “systemic racial oppression” is the most useful definition to adopt by default when discussing race. By doing so, you can avoid trivializing other’s experiences.


This is the racism people think of when they say “I’m not racist”. This is the kind or racism people think of when they deride people as racist and evil.

The idea of racism and hate as being synonymous is actually really unproductive. One need not feel the emotion of hate or experience any actual loathing of POC in order to support systemic racism. One need not actively hate POC to dismiss them, to ignore them, to erase their histories and stories, to invalidate their feelings and experiences. All that can be done casually with no specific effort.

Racism does not require malice. People can be friendly to POC and do racist things. People can be in love with a POC and have racist beliefs. People can be charitable and empathetic and still do racist things.

Using racism to mean hate is appropriate when discussing supremacist groups and militant, violent racists. But this is not the common manifestation of racism. Just the most extreme.

Racism is a spectrum. All of racism is neither the most benign nor the most virulent. It is important to know which we are talking about when we are having discussions. Different manifestations of racism require different types of intervention. Some are treatable with gentle correction, others are deep set and difficult to budge. Failing to distinguish which kind of manifestation of racism is at issue makes applying the right fix incredibly difficult.