[ rey-siz-uhm ]
/ ˈreɪ sɪz əm /
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See synonyms for: racism / racist on Thesaurus.com

usage alert about racism

See race2.


a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one's own race is superior and has the right to dominate others or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others.
Also called in·sti·tu·tion·al rac·ism [in-sti-too-shuh-nl rey-siz-uhm, -tyoo-], /ˌɪn stɪˈtu ʃə nl ˈreɪ sɪz əm, -ˈtyu-/, struc·tur·al rac·ism [struhk-cher-uhl rey-siz-uhm], /ˈstrʌk tʃər əl ˈreɪ sɪz əm/, sys·tem·ic rac·ism [si-stem-ik rey-siz-uhm] /sɪˈstɛm ɪk ˈreɪ sɪz əm/ . a policy, system of government, etc., that is associated with or originated in such a doctrine, and that favors members of the dominant racial or ethnic group, or has a neutral effect on their life experiences, while discriminating against or harming members of other groups, ultimately serving to preserve the social status, economic advantage, or political power of the dominant group.
an individual action or behavior based upon or fostering such a doctrine; racial discrimination.
racial or ethnic prejudice or intolerance.



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Origin of racism

First recorded in 1900–05; from French racisme; see race2, -ism


rac·ist, noun, adjectivean·ti·ra·cism, noun
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2021


What is racism?

Racism is most commonly used to name a form of prejudice in which a person believes in the superiority of what they consider to be their own “race” over others. This most often takes the form of believing that those with other skin colors—especially darker skin colors—are inferior physically, intellectually, morally, and/or culturally, and mistreating and discriminating against them because of this. Such a belief typically promotes the notion that white people are “the default”—that whiteness is “normal” and that people with other appearances are the ones who are “different” (and “inferior”).

The word racism is also used to mean a system of oppression based on this kind of prejudice that is thought to be embedded into the fabric of society and its institutions, resulting in ongoing mistreatment and injustice in many, many forms. This is often called systemic racism, institutional racism, or structural racism. These terms imply that such racism is upheld by laws, policies, traditions, and institutions—and the people who keep them in place.

When used in this way, racism typically refers to a system that has oppressed people of color all over the world throughout history. Such a system is often thought to operate through white people using the advantages that the system gives them (often called white privilege) to maintain their supremacy over people of color (often called white supremacy). Particularly in the U.S., it’s used to refer to a system that has historically oppressed and continues to oppress Black people, Native (also called Indigenous) Americans, and other people of color, including Latinx, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Australian Aboriginal and other Oceanic peoples.

Other forms of bigotry, intolerance, and xenophobia, such as anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, are often considered to be rooted in racism.

The word racist can be used as a noun meaning a racist person or as an adjective meaning “of or promoting racism,” as in racist ideology or racist comments.

What is race?

To fully define racism, we have to define race. Throughout history, the word race has commonly been used to refer to a classification of humans based on various physical characteristics, especially skin color, facial form, and eye shape. But sorting people into such races is truly arbitrary—they’re not based on meaningful scientific differences (like, for example, those used to determine legitimate scientific classifications such as species and genus). Although the obsession with the difference in people’s skin color is one of the foundations of racism, skin color is in fact not even a reliable indicator of how genetically different or similar people are. (Difference in skin color is due to having differing levels of a pigment, called melanin, in the skin. Melanin is also a factor in hair color.)

Today, race is best understood as a socially constructed category of identification based on physical characteristics, ancestry, historical affiliation, or shared culture. Many people identify as a member of a particular race based on one or more of these factors, and doing so helps members of oppressed groups to form communities.

Still, the insidious idea that race determines a person’s behavior is strong and pervasive. Racism often refers to the way that racists and racist institutions use this concept to continue to sort and stereotype people, perpetuating racism and making it widespread on both an individual and systemic level.

Where does the word racism come from?

The word racism derives from the French word racisme, which is first recorded in the 1800s. The suffix -ism is used in racism to indicate a doctrine of prejudice—in this case, a prejudice based on race (-ism is used in the same way in words like sexism and ageism).

The first known record of the word racism being used in English is from a 1902 speech by Colonel Richard Henry Pratt at the annual meeting of the Lake Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indian: “Association of races and classes is necessary in order to destroy racism and classism.” What may seem like a positive statement was actually said in the context of a speech based on the classically racist notion that Native Americans need to be “civilized” in order to be assimilated into the dominant white American society.

Is racism a belief, a pattern of behavior, or a system? Racism certainly relies on the belief that certain groups of people are inferior. People who are racist dehumanize these groups by treating them as subhuman, often through the use of racist language. In this way, racism prevents people from seeing others as individuals. But those who advocate for the recognition that racism is systemic often note that referring to racism as simply a belief ignores these actions taken due to such a belief and the oppression said to be embedded in such systems.

Those who use the word racism to refer to more than a belief also often point out the importance of recognizing the imbalance of power in the equation. Namely, they note that racism is a tool of the dominant group, the group with economic, social, or cultural power—in most cases, white people. (Use of the term reverse racism, such as to refer to prejudice against white people, is often criticized for dismissing the role of power in most cases of racism and its systemic use.)

Many people tend to think of racism as glaring and obvious: racist slurs, slavery, the Ku Klux Klan, Nazis, lynching, and other violent hate crimes. But racism exists in many forms. In the U.S., examples of racism implemented explicitly and on an institutional level include Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, and segregation, which denied African Americans many basic rights and resulted in inferior schools, housing, and access to jobs—all inequities that continue to persist in some form. In South Africa, the policy of apartheid was used by white South Africans to segregate and economically and politically oppress Black South Africans and other nonwhite citizens. In Australia, Aborigines have been subjected to racist mistreatment since the arrival of white settlers, and other Indigenous peoples across the world have been oppressed under racist colonialism and imperialism.

Other forms of racism may not be as readily obvious to people who are not targeted by them. One example is redlining, in which institutions like banks and insurance companies refuse or limit loans, mortgages, or insurance policies within specific geographic areas—typically neighborhoods where people of color live. Another example is racist profiling and mistreatment of people of color by police. Discussion of systemic racism often references statistics that highlight the prevalence of these practices. In the U.S., for example, Black people are arrested and imprisoned at higher rates. They are also, on average, less likely to be hired for jobs than white candidates, despite the fact that there are laws prohibiting the consideration of race in the hiring process. Labor statistics also frequently show a wage gap between white people and nonwhite people—meaning people of color earn less for doing the same work. (The theory of intersectionality is the idea that certain groups are the subject of multiple forms of systemic oppression—women of color, for example, are regularly shown to earn lower wages than other people doing the same job.) The infant mortality rate for African Americans is often more than twice that of white Americans and is one of the inequities that is often attributed to systemic racism.

Other forms of racism are more subtle and may even be unintentional. These often result from implicit bias and conscious or unconscious stereotypes. For example, when a white person tells a Black person they’re articulate, it may be offered as a sincere compliment, but it often implies a sense of surprise that a Black person speaks so well. (Actions and statements like these are sometimes called microaggressions.)

Many theories about racism also focus on how it can be internalized by the people it targets. The term colorism, for example, is often used to refer to the practice within a group, such as between or among Black people, of favoritism toward those with a lighter skin tone and mistreatment or exclusion of those with a darker skin tone.

What is antiracism?

Antiracism is an active effort to identify and dismantle racism. It is often distinguished from the questionably neutral stance of simply being “not racist.” Like racism, antiracism can be implemented in both big ways, such as passing antidiscrimination laws and abolishing racist ones, and small ways, such as explicitly labeling racist comments as racist, instead of using euphemistic terms like racially charged.

Antiracist movements like the Civil Rights Movement, the movement to end apartheid, and those led by organizations like Black Lives Matter work to replace racism and injustice with justice. As these efforts continue, the many terms used in the discussion of racism are sure to evolve.

Did you know ... ?

What are some other forms related to racism?

  • racist (noun, adjective)
  • antiracism (noun)

What are some words that share a root or word element with racism

What are some words that often get used in discussing racism?


How is the word racism used in real life?

A lot of people, especially white people, are uncomfortable talking about racism. But because racism is so common, it’s a frequent—and urgent and necessary—topic of conversation.



Example sentences from the Web for racism

British Dictionary definitions for racism


racialism (ˈreɪʃəˌlɪzəm)

/ (ˈreɪsɪzəm) /


the belief that races have distinctive cultural characteristics determined by hereditary factors and that this endows some races with an intrinsic superiority over others
abusive or aggressive behaviour towards members of another race on the basis of such a belief

Derived forms of racism

racist or racialist, noun, adjective
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Cultural definitions for racism


The belief that some races are inherently superior (physically, intellectually, or culturally) to others and therefore have a right to dominate them. In the United States, racism, particularly by whites against blacks, has created profound racial tension and conflict in virtually all aspects of American society. Until the breakthroughs achieved by the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, white domination over blacks was institutionalized and supported in all branches and levels of government, by denying blacks their civil rights and opportunities to participate in political, economic, and social communities.

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.