What is racism?

Nina Høy-Petersen, Cora Alexa Døving and Katrine Fangen


  • Racism is attributing negative traits to people based on their perceived belonging to cultural, biological, religious, national origin, and to allow this to legitimate their subordination
  • Since the 1970s in particular, the has been a shift from “racial” to cultural and religious incommensurable differences, often described as ‘cultural racism’
  • Both individuals and institutions may act in a racist manner resulting in everything from subtle (even subconscious) exclusion to violent persecution.
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Key definition

Racism is most widely recognized as a process of assigning negative properties to people on the basis of their biological characteristics, or essentialized understandings of their culture, religion, or nationality, and using these negative properties as an argument for keeping members of the group at a distance, excluding them, or actively discriminating against them. Contemporary forms of racism often consist of a complex overlap between ideas based on biological ancestry and culture/religion. For example, racist rhetoric, particularly what we find online and in right-wing extremism, refers to religion and culture rather than “race” or skin color. At the same time, victims of racism often consider their dark skin color to be the core motivating factor.

As such, and depending on the national context and research tradition, there are scholarly disagreements and social debates about whether racial thinking and a devaluation of biological ancestry must be involved for the term to apply. This makes the concept a controversial one, and while racism is a prevalent phenomenon across the globe, many cases that would be considered “racism” according to the dominant definition as presented here, will not be named as such. For example, in the United States and the United Kingdom, the broad definition is widely accepted and used, whereas Germany and the Scandinavian countries often use related terms of discrimination, xenophobia, and prejudice to avoid political controversy and terminological debates. Notably, the term “structural racism”, which addresses dimensions in a society’s history and culture that have led to institutionalized practices of privileging some people over others (in economy, health, politics, education and so on) based on ideas about “race”, ethnicity, or cultural/religious identity, is far less controversial.

History of the concept

Going as far back as the 16th century,[1] the term “race” has been used in European languages to denote descent and family, and refer to religious or cultural groups.[2] In the 1700s, ideas of “race” and “racial thinking” were further developed by European eugenicists who began classifying and hierarchizing foreigners encountered by explorers and colonialists, based on their perceived differences in “race”, physical, moral, and cultural characteristic. [3] Racial thinking at this time developed into an ideology, which became increasingly prominent from the second half of the 1800s, when “racial hygiene” and “eugenics” were understood as necessary means to maintain a form of natural selection in civilized society. This “classical racism”, which focused mostly on the concept of superior and inferior biological “races”, became a political ideology in Hitler’s Nazi regime. However, following the Second World War, associations to Holocaust partly discredited the concept of “race”. At this time, anthropologists[4] assisted in establishing consensus in the social sciences that “race” is a social construct, but with real social and political implications. From the 1970s, the emphasis shifted towards cultural differences as the central justification for “racist” devaluations. This shift was reflected in the introduction of the terms “racism without races”,[5] “cultural racism”,[6] “neo-racism”,[7] and new racism”,[8] which function as terminological tools to capture racism’s forms without becoming dependent on race as an analytical category.

Different conceptualizations

Scholars have not fully resolved the question of what exactly counts as “racism”.[9] There are disagreements around how broadly the term should be used – for example, to what extent it is relevant to integrate concepts of Islamophobia and antisemitism in the racism tradition.[10] Proponents of integrating perceptions of incommensurable cultural and/or religious differences in the definition argue that hostility on the basis of culture and biological differences are (and have historically been) closely interlinked, have equally harmful effects, and that the focus on cultural differences may merely be a more socially acceptable way for biological racists to promote their ideas. Opponents of the broad definition of racism, on the other hand, consider it to diminish the term’s scientific value and utility. Relatedly, there is also an ongoing debate pertaining to whether or not “racism” requires a history of oppression, or if it is possible for cultural and ethnic majorities to practice “reverse racism” against minorities.

Moving from debates about definitional characteristics to debates about origin, racism researchers place varying focus on racism’s irrational or rational root causes. Whereas the former perspective explains racism as remnants of evolutionary survival mechanisms, with disgust for things foreign as a means of pathogen avoidance, the latter perspective centers on racism as rationally motivated by a struggle for economic resources and cultural integrity.

In terms of racism’s current form, or modus operandi, ongoing research in the field is finding that both institutional and interpersonal racism is becoming more covert, particularly in the Western context as a result of increasingly egalitarian norms, discourses, and laws. For example, according to the “aversive racism”[11] framework, it is common for people to consider themselves open and tolerant, while subconsciously discriminating against and avoiding cultural and ethnic diversities to the same extent as previous generations. As a final example, critical whiteness studies focus on hidden structures in society that reproduce white power and privilege. From these perspectives, public visibility and expressions of racism have declined, while subtle discrimination in employment, housing, and access to education and health services remains high. Importantly, this change in racism’s visibility and, at times, subconscious nature, has required researchers to reconsider or reinvent their measurement tools, leading for instance to the development of Implicit Association Tests, experiments, and survey questions that capture racism more indirectly.

The concept of “everyday racism” is focused on the lived experience of racist oppression.[12] It refers to how racism permeates trivial and normal practices of everyday life. This is an especially useful concept in societies that do not stand out as particularly racist. Rather than focusing on racist movements or explicit racist institutions, the concept aims to capture practices that leads to disadvantages for minorities, infiltrate organizational life and become seen as normal.

Lastly, the intersectionality approach is central to contemporary racism research, finding that “race”, as it exists alongside other identity markers of social class, gender and so on, is not a stable identity. Different identity categories are emphasized to a greater or lesser extent depending on the context or setting, making a person’s propensity to be racialized or experience racism highly context dependent – and racism quite fluid.

Prevalence of racism

Due to the many conceptual and phenomenological variations of racism, it is often used in plural form, as racisms. To demonstrate this point, it may be helpful to consider the broad variety of racisms that arises from combinations of 1) source of devaluation (biological, cultural, religious and so on); 2) if it is practices by institutions or individuals, and 3) its implications, ranging from subtle discrimination to violent persecution. For example, European eugenicists practiced racism in their hierarchization of biological differences, but many will argue that so are contemporary far right parties in their criticism of immigration as founded on representations of Islam and Muslim culture as incompatible with Western values. The political system of apartheid in South Africa, and slavery in the United States which overtly and systematically discriminated against blacks on the basis of biological differences, was racist, but so is today’s institutional racism in these same countries which continues to privilege white people in far more subtle ways. As a final example, a woman who is vocal in her support for liberal immigration policies, but who automatically crosses the street to avoid the immigrant walking towards her, has very little in common with a far right terrorist who writes online about the biological superiority of Caucasians. Still, while these examples vary tremendously, they exemplify racism as they involve the exclusion, discrimination, avoidance, or violent persecution of groups based on notions of origin.


[1] Meer, N. (2013). Racialization and religion: race, culture and difference in the study of antisemitism and Islamophobia. Ethnic and Racial Studies36(3), 385-398; Mignolo, W. (2010). The Communal and the Decolonial, 245-261.

[2] Lentin, A. (2016). Eliminating race obscures its trace: Theories of race and ethnicity symposium. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 39(3), 383–391; Fredrickson, G.M. (2015). Racism: A short history. Princeton, USA: Princeton University Press. The classical example of this overlap is the expulsion of Arabs and Jews from Christian Spain in the name of “purity of blood” in the 15th century.

[3] See, for example, the Swedish scientist Carl von Linné.

[4] See the anthropologists Ashley Montagu and Claude Levi-Strauss.

[5] Goldberg, D. (2006). Racial Europeanization. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 21(2), 331–364.

[6] Fanon, F. (1967). Black Skins, White Masks. New York, USA: Grove Press.

[7] Balibar, E. (1991). Is there a neo-racism?. In E. Balibar & I. Wallerstein (Eds.), Race, nation, class: Ambiguous identities (pp. 17-28). London, UK: Verso Press.

[8] Barker, M. (1981). The new racism: Conservativism and the ideology of tribes. London, UK: Junction Books.

[9] Garner, S. (2009). Racism: An introduction. London, UK: Sage.

[10] Meer (2013).

[11] Dovidio, J.F., & Gaertner, S.L. (1986). Prejudice, discrimination, and racism. Cambridge, USA: Academic Press.

[12] Essed, P. (1991). Understanding Everyday Racism: An Interdisciplinary Theory (2nd ed.). London, UK: Sage.

By Nina Høy-Petersen, Cora Alexa Døving and Katrine Fangen
Published Sep. 7, 2020 11:25 AM - Last modified Nov. 7, 2020 1:44 PM