Core Concepts

One way to jumpstart racial equity work is by reviewing its core concepts. These include: race, ethnicity, racism, white privilege and internalized racism. To create effective strategies that contribute to progress on addressing racial inequities or improving race relations, it helps to know how race is constructed, and to understand how racism works, how privilege is embedded in our systems, and how internalized racism and superiority are created and maintained. In group work, it is especially helpful to spend time developing some common understandings and vocabulary for discussing these core concepts together. Groups that move forward without investing in that work often find themselves stuck later on, when they realize people have been working from very different assumptions about what these words mean, and their underlying relationships and components.

Racial Equity

It is tempting to think, based on the mainstream U.S. narrative about race, that racial inequity is a problem of the past. However, the overwhelming weight of evidence makes it clear that racial inequities are still present, and are still being created by current systems, institutions, policies and laws. The socially constructed reality called 'race' is still one of the strongest predictors, in a statistical sense, of how groups of people fare in terms of wealth, health, education and many other aspects of life. Even in this era of high-profile (and, in some cases, historic) success stories at the individual level, the legacy of racially discriminatory laws and policies (for example, redlining, exclusion from the GI Bill) continues to have a profound impact (for example, on wealth accumulation through inheritance based on unequal opportunities for home ownership, access to higher education and in many other ways). There are also many current institutional and government policies that, if left unchecked, will only increase what are already oppressive inequalities (e.g. credit-worthiness ratings that value assets above earnings, or an inability to get some school and health care related jobs because of prior involvement in juvenile justice systems driven in part by racial profiling, etc.). Simply put, the problem is real, and unless active measures are taken to change the systems that continue to fuel it, racial inequities will persist and widen. To start to pivot, one might imagine what a racially equitable world would look like – what kinds of laws and policies are in place? Do people relate to each other differently? What are the stories and impressions formed by mass media or popular culture? How do these core structures and cultural messages promote racial equity and how do we know?

Race, Ethnicity and Indigeneity

As many people know, the idea that human beings belong to different “races” is not true in a genetic sense. Since the concept of racial classifications came into being, it has been used to distribute opportunities and resources to groups – with groups defined as white consistently getting more advantages, on average, and groups defined as not white consistently being disadvantaged, on average. The long term effects can be seen at every level of society: in institutions, culture, the stories told about identity, and in the current way opportunities and resources are still unequally distributed among people allowed to be called white or not. Resources in this section provide information about three core concepts related to the categorization of people into groups for purposes of racial types of sorting: race, ethnicity and indigeneity.

For many people, it comes as a surprise that racial categorization schemes were invented by scientists to support worldviews that viewed some groups of people as superior and some as inferior. (Race: Power of an Illusion) There are three important concepts linked to this fact:

  1. Race is a made-up social construct, and not an actual biological fact
  2. Race designations have changed over time. Some groups that are considered “white” in the United States today were considered “non-white” in previous eras, in U.S. Census data and in mass media and popular culture (for example, Irish, Italian and Jew people).
  3. The way in which racial categorizations are enforced (the shape of racism) has also changed over time. For example, the racial designation of Asian American and Pacific Islander changed four times in the 19th century. That is, they were defined at times as white and at other times as not white. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, as designated groups, have been used by whites at different times in history to compete with African American labor. [Paul Kivel, Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice (Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society Publishers, 2002), p.141.]

Ethnicity generally refers to classifications of humans that are based on shared country or region of origin, shared history and culture. Examples of different ethnic groups are: Cape Verdean, Haitian, African American (Black); Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese (Asian); Cherokee, Mohawk, Navaho (Native American); Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican (Latino); Polish, Irish, and Swedish (White). More recently, some people have found it useful to think about race as a category created by dominant cultures and imposed on groups not considered part of the dominant culture, and ethnicity as an identity people claim for themselves, based on common language, culture and current, recent or historic places of origin.

Indigeneity is a classification that generally refers to groups of people in a territory they once occupied or owned, and that has since been taken over through conquest, colonialism, and/or genocide (e.g. Maori in territory now defined as New Zealand; Mexicans in territory now defined as Texas, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, and Oklahoma; Native American tribes in territory now defined as the United States). The United Nations also provides a definition for the term indigenous, noting that among other attributes, such peoples are ”formally placed under a state structure which incorporates national, social and cultural characteristics alien to their own.” 


Racial oppression is painful to experience, and challenging to discuss. Discussions are difficult even when people respect and understand each other; they are harder when people use the same words to convey different ideas.  So, for purposes of this site, we want users to know we are using the term “racism” specifically to refer to individual, cultural, institutional and systemic ways by which differential consequences are created for different racial groups.  The group historically or currently defined as white is being advantaged, and groups historically or currently defined as non-white (African, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, etc.) are being disadvantaged.

That idea aligns with those who define racism as prejudice plus power, a common phrase in the field. Combining the concepts of prejudice and power points out the mechanisms by which racism leads to different consequences for different groups. Resources in this section offer different ways to understand individual, cultural and institutional racism; structural racism is described in the next section.

The relationship and behavior of these interdependent elements has allowed racism to recreate itself generation after generation, such that systems that perpetuate racial inequity no longer need racist actors or to explicitly promote racial differences in opportunities, outcomes and consequences to maintain those differences. 

Individual racism refers to the beliefs, attitudes, and actions of individuals that support or perpetuate racism in conscious and unconscious ways. Examples include telling a racist joke, believing in the inherent superiority of white people over other racial groups, or not hiring a person of color because “something doesn’t feel right.” The U.S. cultural narrative about racism typically focuses on individual racism and fails to recognize systemic racism.

Cultural racism refers to representations, messages and stories conveying the idea that behaviors and values associated with white people or “whiteness” are automatically “better” or more “normal” than those associated with other racially defined groups. Cultural racism shows up in advertising, movies, history books, definitions of patriotism, and in policies and laws. It helps justify laws and policies, such as racial profiling (an action by an authority based on the assumption that every person in a particular racial group is sufficiently likely to be a criminal that they can be stopped, searched and/or questioned). The fact of racial profiling thus creates the stereotype that people use to further justify the policy. Cultural racism is also a powerful force in maintaining systems of internalized supremacy and internalized racism. It does that by influencing collective beliefs about what constitutes appropriate behavior, what is seen as beautiful, and the value placed on various kinds of music, art, poetry, speech and other forms of expression. All of these cultural norms and values in the U.S. have explicitly or implicitly racialized ideals and assumptions (for example, what “nude” means as a color, which facial features and body types are considered beautiful, which child-rearing practices are considered appropriate.)

Institutional racism refers specifically to the ways in which policies and practices of organizations or parts of systems (schools, courts, transportation authorities, etc.) create different outcomes for different racial groups – for example, by how various kinds of assets or sources of income are considered in credit worthiness, or how the number of bedrooms or bathrooms in a dwelling are considered by child welfare agencies in determining whether or not a child may remain in the home, when those agencies are investigating abuse and neglect allegations. The institutional policies may never mention any racial group, but their effect is to create, maintain or fail to remedy accumulated advantages for white people and accumulated disadvantages for people from other racial groups.

Structural Racism

The complex system by which racism is developed, maintained and protected is often referred to as structural racism. The term was developed in part to help people working towards racial equity emphasize the idea that racism in society is a system, with a clear structure, and with multiple components. Per the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change, a group doing important work to help others understand structural racism, “the term structural racism refers to a system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity….the structural racism lens allows us to see that, as a society, we more or less take for granted a context of white leadership, dominance, and privilege. This dominant consensus on race is the frame that shapes our attitudes and judgments about social issues. It has come about as a result of the way that historically accumulated white privilege, national values, and contemporary culture have interacted so as to preserve the gaps between white Americans and Americans of color." The term structural racialization has also become popular more recently (See Dr. john a. powell’s work). The idea of racialization is being used for two reasons. First, to avoid some of the negative response to the term “racism,” and second, to emphasize the processes by which institutions and systems create and maintain racism – not, at this point, the actions of individual people acting out of their own individual, conscious racism.

This section also includes resources on “systems thinking.” Systems thinking can also help people to understand why changes in multiple sectors are likely to be required to make genuinely sustainable progress towards racial equity in a particular sphere, such as education, health or economic security. It can thus help identify both entry points for change and links among those entry points.

Whiteness and White Privilege

On any given day, in any given place in the United States, a person is less likely to be stopped and accused of committing a crime – whether they have committed one or not – if he or she belongs to a group that has historically been defined as white for a sufficient period of time in the United States. People defined as white are also are dramatically more likely to have benefits in terms of home ownership, access to quality education and an inheritance based on previous generations’ access to those privileges of whiteness. Almost no one – white or person of color—is individually asking to be privileged or oppressed. At the same time, understanding white privilege in the context of systemic racism and doing nothing about it constitutes colluding in exactly the way the system was set up to work.

As Linda Faye Williams notes in The Constraint of Race: Legacies of White Skin Privilege in America,”little or none of white privilege is maintained by blatant racists; rather institutional and structural mechanisms and public policy maintain it, both materially and psychologically. Moreover, white privilege is shared by all whites, affluent and poor, albeit to varying degrees…white skin privilege is usually less a matter of direct, referential, and snarling contempt than a system of protecting the privileges of whites by denying people of color opportunities for asset accumulation and upward mobility.”

Internalized Racism

Donna Bivens provides this definition of internalized racism in her chapter on “What is Internalized Racism?” from Flipping the Script: White Privilege and Community Building: "As people of color are victimized by racism, we internalize it. That is, we develop ideas, beliefs, actions and behaviors that support or collude with racism. This internalized racism has its own systemic reality and its own negative consequences in the lives and communities of people of color. More than just a consequence of racism, then, internalized racism is a systemic oppression in reaction to racism that has a life of its own. In other words, just as there is a system in place that reinforces the power and expands the privilege of white people, there is a system in place that actively discourages and undermines the power of people and communities of color and mires us in our own oppression..."

“…Because race is a social and political construct that comes out of particular histories of domination and exploitation between Peoples, people of colors' internalized racism often leads to great conflict among and between them as other concepts of power-such as ethnicity, culture, nationality and class-are collapsed in misunderstanding. ... Putting forward this definition of internalized racism that is systemic and structural is not intended to 'blame the victim.' It is meant to point out the unique work that people of color must do within ourselves and our communities to really address racism and white privilege. As experiences of race and structural racism become more confusing, complex and obscured, it is imperative that people of color explore and deepen our understanding of internalized racism. As more anti-racist white people become clearer about whiteness, white privilege... people of color are freed up to look beyond our physical and psychological trauma from racism."


This section has resources on three theories that have become important for understanding and working on racial equity: Racial Identity Development Theory, Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality.

Racial Identity Development Theory discusses how people in various racial groups and with multiracial identities form their particular self-concept.  It also describes some typical phases in remaking that identity based on learning and awareness of systems of privilege and structural racism, cultural and historical meanings attached to racial categories, and factors operating at the larger socio-historical level (e.g. globalization, technology, immigration, and increasing multiracial population). (From, C. Wijeyesinghe and B. Jackson, New Perspective on Racial Identity Development: Integrating Emerging Frameworks, New York University Press, 2012.)

Critical Race Theory is an area of scholarship that looks particularly at how laws and power create “race,” and argues for applying a racialized lens (rather than a color-blind one) with a focus on looking at the role of white privilege and white supremacy in order to understand current societies based on those laws.

Intersectionality as a field of study looks at the relationships among different forms of oppressions, and highlights the importance of understanding and acting against their collective and interactive effects. As Doug Meyer describes in the Gender and Society journal, “The theory of Intersectionality also suggests that discrete forms and expressions of oppression actually shape, and are shaped by, one another. Thus, in order to fully understand the racialization of oppressed groups, one must investigate the ways in which racializing structures, social processes, and social representations (or ideas purporting to represent groups and group members in society) are shaped by gender, class, sexuality, etc.”

Each of these theories makes important arguments and adds useful information to an understanding of racial equity.