What Do We Mean by Racism?

Racism can be defined as a belief in the superiority of a particular race, and prejudice arising from this belief, that often results in antagonism towards, or discrimination against, other races. Today, treating someone badly because of nationality alone is usually regarded as racism.

The official report of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry states that ‘Racism in general terms consists of conduct or words or practices which disadvantage or advantage people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. In its more subtle form it is as damaging as in its overt form.’

Many today do not hold conscious views of racial superiority, but they do retain stereotypes about people from different countries or ethnic backgrounds that lead to discriminatory attitudes and actions. They may be unaware of their own attitudes or rationalise them. We all see nasty graffiti and the brick through the window as racism but a casual lack of understanding of peoples’ needs can be just as hurtful.

Individual racism often has an element of intent but Institutional Racism (where there is collective failure to deal with people properly) may well be unintentional. It is similar to Systemic Racism where policies, practices and systems that work against certain groups of people become embedded in organisations. For example, a policy which aims to treat everyone in exactly the same way may sound fair, but it may disadvantage a group whose needs are not met by that policy.

Direct Discrimination is to be treated less favourably because of your racial or ethnic background. Indirect Discrimination is where a provision, criterion or practice is applied equally but puts someone from a particular race or ethnic background at a disadvantage.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland defines a racist incident as any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.