anthropology, race, and racism II: the way we look edition

Three easy to find definitions of racism:

  1. A belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others (

  2. Faye V. Harrison (from here): “My working definition of racism is the following: any action, whether intended or not, that reinforces and reproduces racial inequalities, which are ultimately structured around disparities of power.”

  3. From Tim Wise’s FAQ page:

As with other “isms” (like capitalism, communism, etc.), racism is both an ideology and a system. As such, I define it in two ways.

As an ideology, racism is the belief that population groups, defined as distinct “races,” generally possess traits, characteristics or abilities, which distinguish them as either superior or inferior to other groups in certain ways. In short, racism is the belief that a particular race is (or certain races are) superior or inferior to another race or races.

As a system, racism is an institutional arrangement, maintained by policies, practices and procedures — both formal and informal — in which some persons typically have more or less opportunity than others, and in which such persons receive better or worse treatment than others, because of their respective racial identities. Additionally, institutional racism involves denying persons opportunities, rewards, or various benefits on the basis of race, to which those individuals are otherwise entitled. In short, racism is a system of inequality, based on race.

There are lots of definitions of racism.  Some focus more on culture, others on intelligence, and still others on the meanings and assumptions associated primarily physical appearances.  Racism is about judgments, often based upon extremely superficial bits of information.  Often racism is a matter of learning–whether at the very personal/familial level, or the institutional level.  Sometimes both.  If you think about it, it’s pretty shocking what people will do to one another based upon the biases and prejudices they attach to appearances.  Mere physical differences.  It’s incredibly disturbing, if you really think about it, what humans are willing to do to one another based upon these biases.  Human history is laden with examples.  But, racism is by no means some dead relic of the past.  It persists, despite what some folks try to argue these days.  For many people around the world today, the way we look still matters, immensely.  In related news, check this out:

[ted id=1647]


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

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