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Examples of Subtle Racism and the Problems It Poses

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Updated July 20, 2013

When you hear the words "racist" or "racism" what comes to mind? A man in a white hood? A burning cross on a lawn? A black person swinging from a tree? Unfortunately, many who hear the word "racism" often conjure up images of bigotry at its most extreme. In reality, most members of minority groups in the U.S. will likely never encounter a Klansman or be the casualty of a lynch mob. Instead people of color in the U.S. are much more likely to be the victims of subtle racism, also known as everyday racism or covert racism. This sort of racism has a pernicious effect on its targets, many of whom struggle to see it for what it is. So just what is subtle racism?

Defining Everyday Racism

A study conducted by San Francisco State University Professor Alvin Alvarez identified everyday racism as "subtle, commonplace forms of discrimination, such as being ignored, ridiculed or treated differently." Explains Alvarez, a counseling professor, "These are incidents that may seem innocent and small, but cumulatively they can have a powerful impact on an individual's mental health."

Annie Barnes further illuminates the matter in her book Everyday Racism: A Book for All Americans. She identifies such racism as a "virus" of sorts exhibited in the body language, speech and isolating attitude of racists, among other behaviors. Due to the covertness of such behaviors, victims of this form of racism may struggle to determine for certain if bigotry is at play.

Examples of Everyday Racism

In Everyday Racism, Barnes tells the story of Daniel, a black college student whose apartment building manager asked him not to listen to music on his earphones while strolling the premises. Supposedly other residents found it distracting. The problem? "Daniel observed that a white youth in his complex had a similar radio with earphones and that the supervisor never complained about him." This is an example of everyday racism that involves treating a white person and a black person differently, even when they engage in identical behavior. Based on their own fears or stereotypes of black men, Daniel's neighbors found the image of him listening to earphones off putting but made no objections to his white counterpart doing the same thing. This gave Daniel the message that someone with his skin color must adhere to a different set of standards, a revelation that made him uneasy.

While Daniel acknowledged that racial discrimination was to blame for why the manager treated him differently, some victims of everyday racism fail to make this connection. These people only invoke the word "racism" when someone blatantly commits a racist act such as using a slur. But they may want to rethink their reluctance to identify something as racist. Although the notion that talking about racism too much makes matters worse is widespread, the SFSU study found the opposite to be true.

"Trying to ignore these insidious incidents could become taxing and debilitating over time, chipping away at a person's spirit," Alvarez explained.

Ignoring Certain Racial Groups

Ignoring people of certain races is another example of subtle racism. Say a Mexican-American woman enters a store waiting to be served but the employees behave as if she's not there, continuing to rifle through store shelves or sort through papers. Soon afterward, a white woman enters the store, and the employees immediately wait on her. They help the Mexican-American woman only after they wait on her white counterpart. The covert message sent to the Mexican-American customer? You're not as worthy of attention and customer service as a white person is.

Sometimes people of color are ignored in a strictly social sense. Say a Chinese-American man visits a mostly white church for a few weeks but each Sunday no one talks to him. Moreover, few people even bother to greet him. Meanwhile, a white visitor to the church is invited out to lunch during his very first visit. Churchgoers not only talk to him but supply him with their phone numbers and email addresses. In a matter of weeks, he's fully enmeshed in the church's social network.

The church members may be surprised to learn that the Chinese-American man believes he was the victim of racial exclusion. After all, they simply felt a connection with the white visitor that they lacked with the Chinese-American man. Later, when the topic of increasing diversity at the church comes up, everyone shrugs when asked how to attract more parishioners of color. They fail to connect how their coldness to the people of color who do occasionally visit makes their religious institution unwelcoming to minorities.

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