Core Ideas & Definitions about Race and Racism

We understand that people joining the NAACP have a wide variety of assumptions about what we stand for around the general issues of race and racism in America. In order to create a more coherent and purposeful community within our branch, we want to share this set of core ideas and definitions. These ideas do not represent a litmus test for membership, but a starting point for conversation and understanding.

This outline is not a “how-to” manual for fighting racism. Neither is it a list of values or ideals that guide our philosophy or our work. This outline is no substitute for thorough study of American history, politics, economics, sociology and current events. Most importantly, this outline is no substitute for listening and learning to the lived experiences of individual People of Color. Within our organization people share a wide agreement about these ideas, although they may have some disagreement about their relative importance or their impact on society.

These ideas are especially important for our White, non-BIPOC members to understand. If you are like many White people, it is likely that you have been shielded from the full extent of how race-based injustice and oppression impacts People of Color in America. It is also likely that you may not have had many conversations with your closest family and friends about what your whiteness means. Therefore, this list is an essential starting point for your growth and maturation as an anti-racist person in the United States.

Race is not a meaningful, scientific term, either in human biology or medicine.

  • There are no genes that are found in one race that are not found in other, so-called races.
  • Genes can give clues about geographic ancestry, but cannot identify one’s “race.”
  • Most genetic variation occurs within so called races, not between them.
  • Human physical variation (such as skin color, eye shape, hair texture) exists on a gradual continuum, not in discrete, neatly defined categories.

Race is a social construct.

  • Race is a modern idea; it did not exist as a term until three or four hundred years ago.
  • Race emerged as a term in America to justify the enslavement of African peoples and the extermination/subjugation of Native American peoples.
  • Race is an asymmetric category: The prejudices and stereotypes associated with being white or black (or Asian or Latino) are not morally equivalent

Racism is far more than individual, intentional acts of meanness.

  • Definition of Racism: One often repeated expression is “Racism = Prejudice + Power.” The essential feature of racism is not hostility or superiority but the defense of a system from which advantage is derived on the basis of race.
  • Racism exists on a continuum in society; from internalized racism to interpersonal racism to institutional & systemic racism.
  • Racism is connected to, but distinct from, terms such as prejudice, bias and bigotry. Anyone can be prejudiced, biased or bigoted, but only White people can be racist, since they are the ones who are more advantaged in society. An alternate way of framing this idea is that racism is a system that only benefits White people.
  • The idea of “reverse racism” has no meaning in a system where one group is systematically bestowed with the most advantages.
  • Racism is a two-sided coin: oppression and privilege. To fully understand the disadvantages experienced by People of Color, one must also recognize the unearned advantages of being White in America. (see “Whiteness…” below)

Whiteness: You can’t understand racism without it.

  • “White” as a category to describe people did not exist until the late 1600’s, as it co-evolved with slavery and colonization.
  • The definition of “Who is White” has changed and shifted over the course of our nation’s history. It has changed due to political and economic reasons, not biological ones.
  • White Privilege has nothing to do with wealth, status or class. It is the unearned benefits of being a White person.
  • One example of white privilege is the ease of driving anywhere in the US without worrying about scrutiny by the police. White people don’t say after a big road trip “Wow, that was great, I didn’t get pulled over by the police once!” Yet this is common expression of relief for many African American motorists.
  • Definition of White Supremacy – “a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.”

Intersectionality is crucial to understanding how other kinds of oppression interact with racism.

  • People can have multiple ways of identifying themselves, as well as multiple ways of being disadvantaged in society (such as being a Muslim immigrant woman, or a disabled Asian transgender person).
  • Intersectionality is “a metaphor for understanding the ways that multiple forms of inequality or disadvantage sometimes compound themselves.” (K. Crenshaw)
  • This perspective demands us to see how oppressions are interlinked and cannot be solved alone.

Race and Racism have different meanings across the globe, but similar patterns of oppression.

  • Racial categories and definitions of racism vary across the world. For example what “Black” means in America is different than in Brazil or Italy or Nigeria or Japan.
  • However, patterns of marginalizing certain groups of people, often based on both physical and cultural traits, is a near universal constant in societies throughout the world.
  • There are numerous clear parallels between the struggles of marginalized peoples in other nations, and the struggles against racism by BIPOC in the United States.

Practice Antiracism; merely not being a racist is NOT enough.

  • Antiracism is the active resistance against the structures of White Supremacy; it states that “not racist” neutrality is actually a mask for racism.
  • Antiracism does not equal multiculturalism. While it is valuable to celebrate the holidays and heroes (or food and flags), of various marginalized groups, that alone is not sufficient.
  • Colorblindness is antithetical to antiracism. Saying things like “I don’t see color” is not only absurd, but it denies both the complicated history of our country and the lived experiences of the individuals in it.
  • For White Allies: Your work must be grounded in responsibility, not guilt. Guilt may be an emotion you feel at times, but the real fuel for your work is your recognition of how you benefit from White Supremacy, and your responsibility for dismantling this system.
  • Antiracism is a journey, not a destination. This is for two reasons: 1) one can never be “done” learning and 2) our understandings about social justice are always changing.

Social change happens by a variety of means.

  • Some are Top-Down, such as business policies, executive actions, legislation and court decisions.
  • Others are Bottom-Up, such as consumer behavior, involvement by faith groups, community organizing, or direct protest.
  • The NAACP embraces making positive changes in America to combat injustice using all these approaches.

Written by Shirley Edgerton and Joel Priest, co-chairs of the Racial Justice Committee and endorsed by the Executive Committee.