The Word “Racism” Needs A Little More Explanation

The Word “Racism” Needs A Little More Explanation

By Chris Sanders

What is racism? The word is so much a part of the daily news and daily conversation that it deserves careful consideration. Let’s unpack it. I heard a speaker recently say racism is “a system of advantage based on race.” True, but does that definition explain and clarify?

We overuse the term “racism”. We say racism, which is an encompassing concept for several specific sub-concepts. We say racism when it’s more accurate to say bias, unconscious bias, prejudice, stereotyping, white privilege, white supremacy, or bigotry.

Mostly we use “racism” to refer to bigotry, which is ugly, blatant abuse of another based on race. This abuse can be verbal abuse, social media abuse, and even physical abuse. So, in conflating all of racism with bigotry, the full meaning of “racism” gets lost, and conversation breaks down.

Let’s try to define these terms, with an eye toward better interaction.

Bias, especially unconscious bias

Unconscious bias is where the head betrays the heart. The head, more accurately the brain, is a categorical processor. It takes in data and assigns it into understandable compartments.  It separates people, each person a data byte, into groupings based upon its experience and observation. Call it silo-ing. More accurately, stereotyping. Stereotypes are inevitable and harmful.

For example, if the brain is used to seeing only white people in leadership positions, it makes judgments on the next observation based upon the last. If the brain is used to seeing black people only in subservient positions, it also makes judgments based on the next encounter using the data from its previous encounters. Judgments, then conclusions, made instantaneously.

Barbara Ehrenreich made this point in a Time magazine column twenty years ago, and it’s been burned in my brain ever since. Stereotypically, the brain, using the eyes, sees two men walking down the street in business suits. Seeing the white man in a business suit, the brain says to itself, “Self, there is a professional.” The same brain, lacking experience with black professionals, sees a black man in a business suit, says to itself, “Self, a janitor wearing a suit.”

And if sufficiently compassionate and aware, the heart, betrayed, an instant later slaps a hand to the forehead containing the brain, and says, “Why did you think that? Where did that come from?” Because, unconscious bias.  It can be a relief to realize that unconscious bias is just the brain doing its job. And we can be better. The brain is trainable. To paraphrase the Scripture, we need not be conformed to this world, but can be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

The trouble comes, when insufficiently compassionate and insufficiently aware, the heart never catches what the brain has done. The hand never slaps the forehead, as the bias is so unconscious that it never touches the heart and makes changes for the future. The person continues to stereotype. Bias just works its way on, further processing, the soul never knowing what or why. Unconscious bias is a building block of prejudice.


We could call it semi-conscious bias, the result of repeated bias events congealed over time. Prejudice is the semi-conscious/conscious big brother of unconscious bias. It builds up over years of observation, experience, and peer influence. Another word for it is Stereotype. Its benign-ish form is Doubt. If you find yourself eyeballing a person and then questioning without speaking whether she or he is up to it, you’re pulling toward prejudice. When considering a decision about a task, filling a role, reaching a goal, and so forth, when you hesitate because of who they are, prejudice is at work.

Its insidious form is Mistreating The Other. Cops pull over black people at a much higher rate than whites, because, as a veteran officer once candidly said to me, there’s a fine line between prejudice and good police work. If something or someone doesn’t look right or doesn’t look like they belong, pull them over. Every black male American, young and old, has a personal story of being treated like they don’t belong.

It also manifests with prejudice toward entire neighborhoods. Prejudice aggregates by labeling and then targeting “high-crime areas”. To use fishing as a metaphor for crime-fighting, cops are assigned to go where they expect to find fish, and, not surprisingly, catch fishy crooks accordingly. The system works, as it is designed, even though it reels in and hurts a lot of innocent people. How would it work if designed without prejudice? How would crime rates look if all neighborhoods were policed without regard for race?

White Privilege

White privilege is separate from brain activity and personal motivation. It’s aggregated power that whites benefit from, even if not motivated to seek benefit or claim status. If 9 times out of 10 the world works for you as a white person, you’re privileged. Not always, because you don’t always try your best. But even if you aren’t always on your game, and you still progress, you’re privileged, because whiteness gives you the benefit of the doubt.

With whiteness, color is an entre, not a barrier. Not always, because the world is random, and stuff happens to everyone. But privilege helps through the random slings and arrows that come, so that white people don’t get stuck in a bad situation. Because “we don’t want to waste ‘good’ people.” The converse for black people is harsh. It’s “sorry, rules are rules.”

Privilege is relative, since it’s tempered by classism. Poor whites don’t get as much benefit, even with less doubt. Upper-class, more sophisticated, better-networked white people make judgments without information and evidence that keep people down and keep people out. White people who don’t fit are denied entry to rooms and opportunities “above their pay grade”.  Privilege is power, and relative privilege one over another is more power.

White Fragility

Pointing out privilege can also trigger white fragility, a self-facing sensitivity to status relative to black people. If your react-before-pondering response to blacks’ plight is, “Don’t blame me, my family were (insert working-class cred here)”, you may be unduly fragile.

Though not all whites have bootstraps to pull ourselves up, there is still privilege just in whiteness. As to working-class cred, statistically, whites with a high-school education get paid better than blacks with college degrees. The system works for whites whether biased or not, prejudiced or not.  In fragility, whites may have points to make about relative privilege, but not a trump card for absolution. Think before you speak, and toughen up.

Calling out privilege is countercultural. Nothing is more American than believing in rugged individualism. Individualism sells to each of us that we each have power, self-determination, and equal opportunity. If we lose, it’s because we’re losers. Pointing out that each of us stands on the shoulders of those who went before is inconvenient. And countercultural.

White Supremacy

White Supremacy is the accumulation of individual white privilege(s) aggregated to groups, neighborhoods, cities, and governments. Privilege through the decades becomes culture. Power to make law and policy for whites to hold and prosper becomes “just the way things are.” Or as I once heard said, with a menacing chuckle, “justice means just-us.”

Consider real-estate redlining as an example. Power brokers in real estate and government in the Thirties drew lines to advantage themselves and their white clients and white constituents, keeping out black constituents. Decades later, whites are shocked to learn that segregation was created. It was not simply a result of people organically separating from each other.  To go back to where this essay began, segregation was built into a system of advantage based on race.


And finally, last and ugliest, bigotry. Bigotry is the worst manifestation of prejudice. It’s conscious, deliberate, self-maintained, unrepentant bias. Few people are out-and-out bigots. It’s the Klan. The “alt-right”. Those who tell race-based stories and jokes, daring their listeners to call them on it. It’s those who say, “go back to your own country,” and demand that America “send them back.” It’s overt hatred. It’s disgusting names and epithets spewed through social media.

It’s those who herald leaders for saying aloud “what everyone is thinking.” It’s confusing and conflating patriotism with nativism. It’s waving the exclusionary Stars and Bars alongside our beloved Stars and Stripes, damaging that symbol of justice and beacon of hope for all.

Bigotry is rare-ish. Not as rare as I once thought, and currently high-profile, but still not in the majority. Most Americans are heeding the call of the better angels of our nature. It’s why white Americans candidly say, “I’m not a racist,” because they mean, “I’m not a bigot.”

It’s why we hear whites declare, indignantly or painfully, “I’m not a racist: I have black friends.” A little tone-deaf, but they are separating themselves from out-and-out bigots, and rightly so. But as we’ve seen, racism is much more than bigotry.

Let’s isolate bigotry to small, ugly corners of America. Let’s condemn it, and rob it of its power. When we do, America will be better for it. But our work will not be done. Bigotry is the ugliest form of racism, but not the most powerful.

White folk, let’s also own all the other elements of racism, a system of advantage based on race. Let’s own unconscious bias and prejudice that apply to most of us whites. Let’s own white privilege and white supremacy, a system of advantage based on race.

Let’s speak more accurately when we speak of race, because choice of words matters. Even in this writing, I worry that my choice of words miscommunicates. But in the renewing of our minds, we’ll be clearer about what we mean, and we’ll make better decisions about how to be better.

Chris Sanders
is a lawyer for working people, active in law, labor, faith
and politics. Raised in Daviess County, Kentucky, he has deep Kentucky Baptist roots. While practicing law, he serves historically-black Simmons College of Kentucky as coordinator of Empower West Louisville, a coalition of black and white pastors and churches based in Louisville working for racial repentance and repair around the country.