Everyday Racism

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Everyday Racism

The concept of “everyday racism” emerged in the 1980s and was meant to identify as theoretically relevant the lived experience of racial oppression. Everyday racism is not about racists, but about racist practice, meaning racism as common societal behavior. Racial inequality perseveres even when the dominant ideology mutes reference to color, as witnessed in the United States following the successes of the civil rights movement. Some use the term “color-blind racism” to account for racist systems without legally sanctioned race-supremacy ideology.

Racism is easily recognized in its extreme forms (e.g., white youth beating up and killing dark-skinned people), or in its overt forms (e.g., throwing bananas at black players on European soccer fields). Everyday racism can be more coded (a white teacher saying to an African-American student: “How come you write so well?” ); ingrained in institutional practice (appointing friends of friends for a position, as a result of which the workplace remains white); and not consciously intended (when lunch tables in a canteen or cafeteria are informally racially segregated and the white manager “naturally” joins the table with the white workers where only they will benefit from casually shared, relevant information and networking).

Everyday racism is a process of smaller and bigger dayto-day violations of the civil rights of ethnic minorities— and of their humanity and their dignity. Sometimes the meaning of the event remains contestable: Is it or is it not racial discrimination? It may take circumstantial evidence or inference from other experiences to understand the possible racial connotations. The outcome of an event is often more telling than the reported motive. Take the following example:

A 747 aircraft to Amsterdam has a business class section in the front, separated from economy class by a blue curtain with the sign “business class only.” Various passengers sneak behind the curtain to use the business class lavatories right behind the divide. They happen to be white men. But when a young woman of color does the same thing, a flight attendant blocks her way, kindly explaining that she has to use the economy-class facilities. The entrance then gets sealed off with a food trolley.

Discrimination often operates through rules being applied differently or more strictly to people of color. But does this also apply to this particular case? Imagine the reply of the flight attendant: “We treat everybody equally.” When told that others did the same thing, the response is: “Oh really, I did not notice.” Did the young woman get caught because her brown skin color stands out? Did the white men get through because they blend in more easily in the predominantly white (male) business class, indicative of global institutionalized racial (and gender) inequality? This surely must have happened on other flights, and whites too must have been sent back at times. Was the limit reached when a person of color started to take the same liberties? It could be shortsighted to quickly downplay the racial dimension of putdowns and other demotions with seemingly race-neutral arguments such as “it could have happened to anyone.”

The fact of the matter is that in this particular situation the woman of color was the only one to be put in her place. Perceiving the event as racially significant in its implications reveals how one event, where the person of color is the only one to receive less favorable treatment, links to both historical and contemporary patterns of racial discrimination. Any situation with random options between better or worse treatment can be a vehicle for racial discrimination, whether it occurs in or outside institutions, in schools, at work, through the media, at a shopping mall, or in the neighborhood.

At work, the accumulation of seemingly petty experiences of disrespect, humiliations, rejections, blocked opportunities, and hostilities symbolically signifies the “glass ceiling” or “concrete wall,” where color is a determining factor for upward mobility or for moving sideways, to the center of an organization. Because human beings communicate mostly through images and words, everyday racism is often expressed visually and discursively in what is being said or portrayed and how it is being said. In addition, facial expressions or avoidance of contact can “say” a lot too. Such behavior may even feel trivial or normal.

Everyday racism means that members of the dominant racial/ethnic group automatically favor members of their own group, not simply because they want to be with those they feel are their own, but because they believe, deep down, that white lives count more, that they are more human, that theirs is a superior culture and a higher form of civilization than others. Yet it would be incorrect to see everyday racism simply as a black-versus-white phenomenon. When dominated groups internalize the belief that European-derived cultures are superior, they may themselves become agents of everyday racism.

Everyday racism may cause ethnic minorities to anticipate racism in their contacts with members of the dominant group regardless of whether they are actually discriminated against on each occasion. This is a strategy of self-protection. Counter to the common-sense belief that people of color are overly sensitive to discrimination, research has indicated that most people of color are reluctant to label a given situation as racism before carefully considering all other possible explanations to account for unfair treatment. On the contrary, the common-sense belief that racism is a problem of the past makes members of the dominant group insensitive in recognizing when and how racism permeates everyday life.

Everyday racism adapts to the culture, norms, and values of a society as it operates through the prevalent structures of power in society. The more status or authority involved, the greater the damage resulting from common-sense prejudiced statements and discriminatory behavior. When members of a parliament or legislature make discriminatory statements or sanction discriminatory policies in the course of their normal everyday duties, the safety and civil rights of ethnic minorities and refugees are at stake. When teachers underestimate, discourage, or ignore ethnic-minority children, the futures of ethnic-minority generations are at stake. When employers discriminate against people of color, jobs, incomes, and career mobility are at stake.

Everyday racism is not a singular act in itself, but the accumulation of small inequities. Expressions of racism in one particular situation are related to all other racist practices and can be reduced to three strands of everyday racism, which interlock as a triangle of mutually dependent processes: (1) The marginalization of those identified as racially or ethnically different; (2) the problematization of other cultures and identities; and (3) symbolic or physical repression of (potential) resistance through humiliation or violence. Accusations of oversensitivity about discrimination, continuous ethnic jokes, ridicule in front of others, patronizing behavior, rudeness, and other attempts to humiliate and intimidate can all have the effect of discouraging action against discrimination.

Although the term everyday racism has such an informal ring that it may sound as if it concerns relatively harmless and unproblematic events, it has been shown that the psychological distress due to racism on a day-today basis can have chronic adverse effects on mental and physical health. The anticipation that discrimination can happen becomes in itself a source of stress. The same holds true for fretting over how to respond, whether the response has been effective, and whether victimization will follow. Studies have demonstrated a link between exposure to everyday racism and blood pressure. This is not to say that targets of racism are only victims, powerless or passive against the forces of exclusion. Throughout history, active community resistance against racial discrimination has emerged from anger about the indignities of everyday life.

Legal battles against racial discrimination are a mixed bag, even with progressive laws in place. The European Equal Treatment Law, for instance, follows the principle of a shared burden of proof. If the party who feels discriminated against provides “facts” that give reason to believe that racial discrimination may have occurred, it is the other party’s responsibility to prove that the accusation is not true. But what the “facts” are is a tricky issue. The accused party is likely to deny that anything happened and witnesses may refuse to cooperate out of fear of retaliation. As a result, ethnic minorities often refrain from filing complaints, feeling their stories will not be believed anyway, or because they have doubts about the gains to be made. Studies have shown that testimonies and stories can provide relevant and detailed information about what happens and how racial injustices happen. The more these stories are voiced and circulated, the more sensitivity people develop for recognizing these everyday violations as forms of everyday racism.

SEE ALSO Color-Blind Racism; Critical Race Theory; Institutional Racism; Orientalism; Racial Formations; Scientific Racism, History of.


Bell, Ella L. J., and Stella M. Nkomo. 2001. Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2004. Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Das Gupta, Tania. 1996. Racism and Paid Work. Toronto: Garamond Press.

Essed, Philomena. 1990. Everyday Racism: Reports from Women of Two Cultures. Translated by Cynthia Jaffé. Claremont, CA: Hunter House.

———. 1991. Understanding Everyday Racism: An Interdisciplinary Theory. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

St. Jean, Yanick, and Joe R. Feagin. 1998. Double Burden: Black Women and Everyday Racism. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Philomena Essed