Diversity & inclusion3 min read

What is racism? And what is systemic racism?

We at Hive Learning have made a conscious decision to focus on racism directed at Black Americans, given the current climate and Black Lives Matter movement. We appreciate that racism is a major issue for other groups in America and around the world, and we’d love to do that justice in future content.

For now, we’d welcome your views and experiences on all forms of racism — please join the conversation here.

This forms part of our ‘What is Systemic Racism’ pathway in our Inclusion Works programme. We’ll be publishing each resource in this pathway over the next few weeks — if you’d like to be notified when each resource is available, sign up to our newsletter below:


If you’re like most people, it’s probably hooded KKK Klansmen, burning crosses, lynching mobs or perhaps the haunting image of George Floyd.

These are all certainly racist — but reveal a common misconception that racism is just about the overt acts of prejudice and hatred and terror on an individual level known as explicit or active racism.

It’s not.

Explicit racism actually only accounts for a small proportion of the racism Black Americans face. Much more common is subtle, often unconscious racism on an individual level known as passive racism, and systemic racism on a larger scale.

Let’s dig into what systemic racism is.

As the poet Scott Woods wrote in The Atlantic Black Star:

“The problem is that white people see racism as conscious hate, when racism is bigger than that. Racism is a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on the behalf of whites at other people’s expense, whether whites know/like it or not. Racism is an insidious cultural disease. It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a white person who likes Black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you. Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another, and so on.”

In 1977 the sociologist David T. Wellman argued that racism is a system of advantage based on race. This is in contrast to the earlier popular definition of racism as prejudice plus power, basically an attitude that lived in the minds of individuals with some measure of power.

What he meant is that racism is an intricate web of institutions and policies and practices in place in our society that systematically advantage some people and disadvantage others, resulting in inequality.

Some examples of key systems that prop up racism, which we’ll deep-dive into in the pathway ahead:

👀 Housing

👀 Education

👀 Healthcare

👀 Criminal justice

👀 Cultural representation (driven by the media)

Since these systems perpetuate racism, even a well-meaning person working within them or not actively dismantling them will unknowingly prop up racism, even if they never intended to. That’s what we mean by passive racism.

Passive racism is any individual behaviour that supports a system of advantage, according to psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum, author of the bestseller Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

In a work context, passive racism might look like biased decision-making. For instance, unconsciously scoring a black candidate lower than equally-qualified white candidates in a hiring assessment because your bias tells you this person looks different than the norm, perhaps different than other people you’ve seen do this job well in the past.

Research indicates this phenomenon is particularly powerful where there’s just one person from an underrepresented group in a four-person finalist pool because the fact they’re outnumbered “highlights how different he or she is from the norm – and decision-makers often unconsciously associate difference with risk or even incompetence.”

Or passive racism may be much more subtle, seeping out in microaggressions and microexclusions. For instance, who you make eye contact with and say “Good morning!” to as you walk through the office — and who you don’t. Or who you make eye contact with and warm, open “I’m listening” body language towards in a meeting — and who you don’t.

(There’s more to come on passive racism and its antidote in our Antiracism pathway.)

Ultimately, structural racism and the individual acts of passive racism that uphold it have resulted in an enormous wealth gap between white and Black Americans.

As a report by Abril Castro and Zoe Willingham for the Center for American Progress states,

“The impact of structural racism—or systematic discrimination by private and public institutions—over the course of U.S. history on the wealth of Black families is staggering. Black households hold about 10 percent of the wealth of white households.These inequities reflect the lasting impact of slavery, as well as impacts of exclusion from government policy initiatives aimed at promoting economic opportunity.”

Watch this 8-minute video of author Ijeoma Oluo speaking about why it’s so difficult to talk about racism (especially when it’s passive racism), and why we might be better off spending our time trying to change systems rather than individuals.

🚩 It’s challenging to confront racism because often we don’t feel like we have an “effective comeback”. And that’s because we aren’t given the language for this. (00:00-00:45)

🚩 We don’t have this language by design. We’ve been taught to view racism as binary: either you’re a Klan member or you’re a good person. But then how do you address the more subtle racism of the kind, nice person who treats you differently because of your race? (00:46-01:43)

🚩 The KKK-style reign of terror is not systemic racism — rather it’s an enforcement of systemic racism. Systemic racism is more often economic terrorism, e.g. jobs or homes taken out from under you in the post-Reconstruction South. (01:48-03:00)

🚩 We need to focus on addressing the systems, rather than the individuals — for instance, lobby to change rules and regulations and procedures to stop the harm from being done to people of colour, instead of trying to convince your racist uncle of why he shouldn’t vote for Trump. (05:40-08:03)

🗝 Your key takeaway

Racism is so much more than just explicit acts of hatred or prejudice. It’s also systemic racism — a system of advantage and disadvantage based on race — and the subtle behaviours on an individual level that prop up systemic racism. It’s resulted in a staggering wealth disparity between white and Black Americans.

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