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The 4 Prominent Layers of Racism

by Petiri Ira about a year ago in activism
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The substance in the four layers of the cake.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Most people understand racism by looking at it from just one angle and through a narrow lens. Racism is often understood as being an expression of a system of oppression which has its roots in a history of power and the subordination of ”non-white” groups.

While this is true, that is only the peak of the colossal iceberg that lies deep beneath it. Racism should be viewed as a system that complements and operates through other systems of oppression.

Society needs to view racism at the systemic, structural, interpersonal and internalised level because that is what is holding our progression at a prolonged halt. All four of these layers pile up on top of one another, just like layers you would find in between a cake. Building up and adding on to one another to create an even larger issue.

The icing in between the cake holds the racism that we see in everyday life together, glueing them together so that they will never separate and prohibiting change and improved conditions for BIPOC in society.

The icing can be looked at as structural racism. It’s made up of those who do not want to acknowledge that racism exists at all these levels, along with those who continue to discriminate at all four levels.

Systemic racism

Systemic racism shows up in all aspects of society for BIPOC. This includes the racial wealth gap, employment, housing discrimination, government Surveillance, Incarceration, Drug Arrests, Immigration Arrests, and Infant Mortality.

Systemic racism is a form of racism that is embedded as normal practice within society or an organization. It can lead to such issues as discrimination in criminal justice, employment, housing, health care, political power, and education, among other issues.

To see the depth of systemic racism we can simply look at the statistics. For example, African Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white people in America. Although African Americans and Hispanics make up about 32% of the U.S. population, they made up 56% of all incarcerated people in 2015, according to the NAACP.

When it comes to the health care racial disparities are clearly evident: In 2018, 8.7% of African American adults received mental health services, compared with 18.6% of non-Hispanic white adults, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health.

Housing discrimination highlights the effects of redlining in BIPOC communities. Where you reside has an impact on your kind of employment, the food you consume and the healthcare you get as well as the quality of education in your area.

Structural racism

A system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. It identifies dimensions of our history and culture that have allowed privileges associated with “whiteness” and disadvantages associated with “color” to endure and adapt over time. Structural racism is not something that a few people or institutions choose to practice. Instead it has been a feature of the social, economic and political systems in which we all exist. ( — Apsen Institute).

Thinking back to the substance in between the four layers of racism, structural racism lies in between all years of the cake. Structural racism is the result of society continuing racist policies and not enforcing changes. It is the result of the systemic racism being turned into a "societal norm".

Interpersonal racism

Interpersonal racism is the term which covers the forms of racism which most people commonly understand as racism because they are the most visible forms. It covers all interactions or behaviour between individuals that are racist or have racist content. The term interpersonal racism covers a range of types of racist incidents, from “microaggressions” to racist name-calling and racial bullying and harassment, to discrimination and racist hate crimes.( — INAR)

Interpersonal racism is experienced by BIPOC on a daily basis; it includes both microaggressions and racial discrimination.

Microaggressions are comments or actions that subtly and sometimes unconsciously or unintentionally express a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalised group. Microaggressions may sound like the following:

“You’re English is good!”

“Can I touch your hair?”

“ You sound white though”

Racial discrimination refers to the practice of treating a person or particular group of people differently, especially in a worse way from the way in which you treat other people, because of their real or perceived “racial”, national, ethnic or cultural backgrounds.

Racial discrimination frequently plays a massive role in the workplace. For instance, as a Black woman, you may not be hired because of your hairstyle, just for having braids, an afro or cornrows. This is one of the most common forms of interpersonal racism that reoccurs over and over again.

Internalised racism

Internalized racism is defined as “the acceptance, by marginalized racial populations, of the negative societal beliefs and stereotypes about themselves” — (-Williams & Williams-Morris, 2000, p. 255; Taylor & Grundy, 1996).

Internalised racism is the product of falling victim to racial discrimination, especially upon experiencing racial discrimination from a young age. Moreover, we develop demeaning beliefs, actions and behaviours about our own race and ethnicity.

Individuals may or may not be aware of their own acceptance of these negative beliefs. Internalized racism can also be expressed via a rejection of the cultural practices of one’s own ethnic or racial group.

Internalized racism negatively impacts people of colour intra-culturally and cross-culturally. Because race is a social and political construct that comes out of particular histories of domination and exploitation between Peoples, people of colours’ internalized racism often leads to great conflict. — (Donna K. Bivens).

Effects of internalised racism:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Self-hatred
  • Colourism
  • Stereotyping
  • Main takeaways

After taking apart all four layers of the cake we were able to understand and recognise the four dimensions of racism in our society. This will help us understand each individual form of racism in order to tackle it effectively.

Acknowledging all four layers of racism is the fundamental part of being anti-racist, it will enable people to reflect on all levels and make modifications to their practice in pursuit of dismantling the racist systems in our society.


About the author

Petiri Ira

I am a Race, Society and Culture writer. I write opinion pieces and personal essays on the Black experience in our society. My articles provide readers with actionable takeaways they can take to aim for change and progression.

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