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Breaking Down Racism

If you keep up with the news, you might’ve noticed a trend emerging. From politics to sports, movies and music, things are being increasingly viewed through a racial lens. You might be asking why are we still talking about racism, despite it being more than fifty years since the end of the Civil Rights Movement and, more importantly, “what does this have to do with me?”

To answer these questions, let me first ask one more: is America really cured of racism, or have we simply done away with its most obvious symptoms? It is important for us to establish a common understanding of what racism is to be able to identify it in our society and heal ourselves of the divisions it brings. In the hopes that we can have safe and productive conversations about this important issue that impacts us all, this article will discuss three forms of racism: institutional, personally-mediated, and internalized racism.

“With each conversation,
we have the power to
teach someone that they
are loved and that they
matter, but we also have
the power to plant seeds
of racism without even
knowing it.”

Institutional racism means that social and political institutions provide unequal opportunity to people based on their race. Segregated schools are a common example of institutional racism. Personally mediated racism lives in individual people as the devaluation and dehumanization of others based on race. It is usually the most recognizable kind of racism, existing in the form of stereotypes, bias, and selective exposure. Internalized racism is the acceptance of racist attitudes by members of a stigmatized race and the adoption of negative messages about their own abilities and values as a person. Someone who has internalized racist perceptions believes they are inferior to people of other races, that their oppression is justified, and that equality is not a logical goal. How does someone come to this conclusion? Consistent social programming from their community, the media, and institutions such as schools, workplaces, and unfair implementation of laws work to confirm and uphold these beliefs. Each form of racism feeds into the others, even though they can have different impacts throughout one’s life.

People often remember the Civil Rights Movement as the era in which racism died completely, when in reality it was simply a period where several policies of institutional racism were changed, but racial tension between dominant and minority groups continued. Racist structures can be weakened on one front while simultaneously strengthened on another, which is why we must fight purposefully on all fronts to defeat racism as a whole. While addressing institutional racism can provide economic opportunity and protections against injustice, our nation cannot be completely rid of this beast until every citizen believes in the fundamental human rights of both themselves and their neighbor, with race no longer a determinant or justification for obstruction or discrimination.

Racism impacts every single one of us, whether we recognize it or not. It is in our news, exemplified by the overcriminalization of whole groups of people; in our entertainment, demonstrated by every stereotype and movie based on a story written by history’s winners. Its ideologies have been ingrained in our society, surrounding citizens on all sides. When we aren’t conscious of the ways that our actions impact others, we could be blindly perpetuating racism. With each conversation, we have the power to teach someone that they are loved and that they matter, but we also have the power to plant seeds of racism without even knowing it.

If we want a better future, we need everyone in on this battle to end racial injustice. Each of us must be aware of our roles as both students and teachers in this world and accept the responsibility each role holds. We can’t change what was taught in the past, but we have power over the lessons of the future — it’s just a matter of determining what it will be. What will you choose to teach the world?