Colourful silhouettes of people in different coloured thought and speech bubbles, on a pale yellow background.

Lesson 2: What is racism?

Unpacking racism

Racism is often exclusively portrayed as individual acts of harshness that are only being committed by a few unpleasant members of society. This perception is consistently reflected in the media’s coverage of individual acts of racism. This makes the conception difficult to challenge, as people don’t look beyond individual levels of racism. As a result, prevalent systematic issues typically go unchallenged or ignored.   

System of power

Racism is a system of power based on the social construct of race.

Assigns value

Racism assigns value, while unfairly disadvantaging people of colour. Subsequently, racism privileges whiteness.


Internalized racism is a conscious or subconcious acceptance of the assumptions, biases, and standards placed on individuals of racialized groups. 

Impacts self-perception

Internal projections of white superiority can lead racialized people to believe that white standards of beauty are the preferred standard.

I've had professors nickname me, without my consent, for their own personal convenience. Decolonizing teaching begins when my real name is accepted.

‎Student Feedback on Improving Anti-Racism on Campus

African and Caribbean Students Association

Pyramid visually representing the four dimensions of racism. The first level of the pyramid is red and has a silhouette of one person on it, with the label "individual" beside it. The second level is orange with a group of people on it. Beside them is the label "social/cultural". The third level is orange and has a graphic of a building on it. Beside it is the label "institutional". On the bottom is a green level with a circle made up of arrows on it. Beside it is the label "systemic".

Figure 3: Anti-Racism, EDI, and Positionality – the four dimensions of racism.

The four dimensions of racism

Racism is a form of oppression and can occur at many different levels. These include individual, cultural, institutional, systemic, or structural levels.  

This is generally the most common understanding of racism. Individual (interpersonal) racism occurs between individuals. This includes public expressions of racism or prejudice towards or between individuals, such as slurs, hate, bias, and/or bigotry. While individual (interpersonal) racism is a key component of racism, racism occurs at many other levels.

Example: I don't think he can afford this. Those people aren't responsible with money. 

Representations, messages, and stories that convey “whiteness” as ‘better’ or ‘more advanced. Sociocultural racism often conveys a preference for white behaviours or values over those of other racially defined groups. This is evident in a lack of diverse representation in mainstream media (television, print). White culture, norms and values become the default or preferred standard that other cultures, groups, and individuals are measured against. 

Example: A lack of representation in media by people of colour. 

Institutional laws, policies and practices that benefit white people and negatively affect people of colour. Institutional racism differs from individual (interpersonal) racism as it affects groups of people, rather than individuals. This can be seen in random airport security checks, which disproportionately target people of colour. 

Example: Policies that explicitly restrict the ability of Black people to get loans and purchase homes in white neighbourhoods (known as redlining).

Systemic racism can be the most difficult type of racism to identify. It is pervasive and subtle and can be unintentional. Systemic racism is embedded in societal and institutional policies. It can also be found in regulations, legislation and ideologies that perpetuate racial disadvantage. 

Example: Proportion of Black and Indigenous people in the prison system.  

There are faculty & staff members who believe that BIPOC  undergraduates are strictly inferior or less than their white counterparts.

Student Feedback on Improving Anti-Racism on Campus

African and Caribbean Students Association

Pause and reflect

Take some time to pause and reflect on what you have just learned, by answering the following questions in this worksheet on racism.

Racism worksheet

Download PDF

Shifting towards anti-racism

Why does it matter? Anti-racism acknowledges and confronts institutional and systemic racism. It goes further than just 'not being racist', which, alone, only enforces apathy and neutrality.

Anti-racism involves taking active action against racism and dismantling oppressive mindsets and structures. Furthermore, anti-racism takes a structural approach in ensuring that institutional and individual level strategies address systemic barriers. 

Anti-racism is the active process of identifying and eliminating racism by changing systems, organizational structures, policies, practices and attitudes so that power is redistributed and shared equitably.

NAC International Perspectives: Women and Global Solidarity

Anti-racism scholarship

Noted scholars who have contributed to the field of anti-racism scholarship. 

Malinda Smith

Focuses on racial (in)equity in Canada and human rights issues.

Learn more

Sherene Razack

Looks at Critical Race Studies, discrimination in Canada, and colonial violence against Indigenous peoples.

Learn more

George Dei

Takes an anti-racist approach to education, Indigenous knowledge, and anti-colonial thought. 

Learn more

Robin DiAngelo

Focuses on critical discourse analysis and studies of whiteness. 

Learn more

Lesson checklist

  • Develop an understanding of what racism is  
  • Review the four dimensions of racism  
  • Complete the worksheet on reflections on racism in your own life  
  • Brainstorm ideas for disrupting patterns of racism in your everyday life 


Governor’s Interagency Council on Health Disparities. (2018). Equity language guide. Office of Financial Management. 

Okafor, C. (2021). Let's Talk: How to be actively anti-racist. University of Calgary, Faculty of Arts.

African and Caribbean Student Association. (2021). Student feedback on improving anti-racism on campus. University of Calgary, Faculty of Arts.

More lessons

Colourful silhouettes of several people passing by each other, in front of a pale yellow background.

Lesson 3: Anti-racism in teaching and learning

A group of silhouetted people in front of a pale yellow background with coloured, empty speech bubbles over their heads.

Lesson 1: EDI, positionality and intersecting identities

Colourful silhouettes of people in different coloured thought and speech bubbles, on a pale yellow background.

Lesson 2: What is racism?