What do terms like systemic racism, microaggression and white fragility mean?

As we’ve noticed in America and globally from protesters crying out and demanding deeply entrenched forms of racism be rooted out, the demand phrases commonly heard throughout the Blacklivesmatter movement as well as global mainstream of dialogue.Systemic racism. White privilege. Institutional racism. Microaggression. White fragility.

Understanding the meaning of Systemic racism,White privilege, institutional racism, microaggression and White fragility can help us fully grasp how it affects society or certain communities or skin color.

 “I don’t need you to feel my pain I need you to have influence with those who are responsible for my pain to help address the issues.”said Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University.

Here’s a breakdown on the phrases by those who are seeking to dismantle racism.

Systemic racism: Refers to the rules, practices and customs once rooted in law.Practice of denying financial, government and other services to people in certain neighborhoods or communities based on race or ethnicity.This means that, when people of color who live in redlined communities get ready to sell their homes, they receive far less in proceeds and have far less capital to leverage.these communities tend to have a lower tax base and as a result, their schools have fewer resources to educate children of color. That puts those communities’ kids behind their white peers academically, epidemiology, sociology and African American studies experts told ABC News.

Separating people out in this way makes it easier to deny certain zip codes and neighborhoods resources such as grocery stores, bicycle lanes, public transportation and more by making the argument that those residents don’t need or can’t financially support such amenities so why even bother building them, Bailey said.

Many researchers and experts say in many ways systemic racism is like a large spider web — with each corner and fiber representing government and social systems — all supporting the overall integrity of the web.

The dismantlement according to experts are impossible “systemic racism means looking at systems that reproduce racism, law enforcement, real estate, education, health, all of it, ” Neal said.

Structural racism— The term refers to “A system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. It identifies dimensions of our history and culture that have allowed privileges associated with ‘whiteness’ and disadvantages associated with blackness. Structural racism is not something that a few people or institutions choose to practice. Instead it has been a feature of the social, economic and political systems in which we all exist.


It functions much as the sections of a spider web, each touching the next, she said.

“It’s when black kids are disproportionately put into special education classes, become disruptive out of boredom, are expelled from school, and then they are criminalized as adults,” Sewell said. “Once you get in that space of being in prison it locks you into a trajectory in life of competing for resources. Once you have the mark of a criminal, it invades every aspect of your life. You can’t get an apartment or a job.”

Structural racism is currently playing out in the ways people of color who disproportionately make up the invisible army of workers — all now deemed “essential” to help the nation reopen are being impacted, Bailey said.

Institutional racism If systemic racism is the large spider web, and structural racism the sections of the web that touch, then institutional racism is the threads that run throughout.It is racism that occurs within social and governmental institutions and refers to the blocking of people of color from the distribution of resources in a systematic way that benefits whites.

The impacts of institutional racism start as early as when a child of color is born, and even when that child is in the womb, experts said.

“Institutional racism results in data showing racial gaps across every system. For children and families it affects where they live, the quality of the education they receive, their income, types of food they have access to, their exposure to pollutants, whether they have access to clean air, clean water or adequate medical treatment, and the types of interactions they have with the criminal justice system.

“White privilege is not worrying about what type of mask to wear or whether to wear one at all because coronavirus doesn’t impact your community as much. Or not worrying about getting shot by the cops if you’re pulled over. Or not having to think about someone following you around the store. White privilege is not that white people have no problems and blacks have all the problems,” she said. “It’s that blacks have unique and historic challenges all tied to the color of their skin.”

Privilege is born out of a hierarchal system where some people have more advantages than others. They do stuff like ‘I don’t like this conversation about leashing my dog so I am going to call NYPD and play the white damsel in distress role.A prime example with be Amy Cooper who called cops on Christian Cooper, who is black and was bird watching, was “an African American man threatening my life.

White fragility Refers to the negative emotional reaction some whites have when racism on various levels is called to their attention by people of color, sociology and African American studies experts said.

“White fragility is based on people of color having to couch statements and feelings for the comfort of white people,” Bailey said. “When you’re trying to describe a system where there are inequities built into it, people start crying and talk about their experience and it acts as a barrier to people of color sharing it with white people because they can’t handle it.”

While it is normal to feel upset when confronted with uncomfortable truths and perspectives, white fragility supports racism because it shifts the power dynamic in an insidious way, Neal said. All of a sudden, the conversation becomes less about what the person of color experienced, but the white person’s reaction, and, in so doing, is an attempt to undercut the validity of the person of color’s experience.

“It’s the whole ‘I can’t believe you accused me of that. I’m not a racist’ defense. it forces black people to be in defense positions because of white people’s hurt feelings” Neal said. “What you end up managing is their grief and trauma which become a bigger issue. If you are an African American who raises issues of racism or discrimination, you always have to consider how white people are going to react and then how people react to that reaction.”

White fragility can have an especially negative impact in work and social spaces, experts said.

When confronted by a person of color with their experiences of racism, white fragility can manifest as ‘Oh she was being so aggressive and so unprofessional. I don’t think she is a good fit here anymore’ and therefore have retaliatory impacts for someone’s employment,” Bailey said, adding “We should not have to cater to the comfort of white people. We shouldn’t limit justice based on the comfort of white people. White fragility is that inherent sense that you have to take care of white people and their feelings.”

Microaggression This refers to the “quotidian racial slights that accumulate and make a person feel marginalized,” Gillespie said.

Microaggression can manifest in myriad ways in every day interactions and communication as the “small actions, comments, snide or snarky expressions that show their value in a structure,” Gillespie added.

For example, it can present as not directly answering a black colleague who raised a question in an email chat or meeting and instead directing your response to someone else who is white or perceived as less challenging to your beliefs, Neal said.

It can also occur when a person of color is deliberately left off such email chains or meetings, he and other experts added. It’s when the white manager takes certain staffers out for afterwork cocktails and never invites the staffer of color.

The problem of lack of diversity in workplace settings also presents through microaggression as well, experts said, pointing out that when it comes to taking in experience gleaned from minority-owned or focused companies or attending historically black colleges and universities, sometimes that experience is viewed as somehow less valid.

During a hiring process, you may be hiring a number of different candidates. Those hiring panels are usually mostly white, maybe one token person of color. They’ll have two candidates one white, the other a person of color, both equally qualified. You’ll hear that other person ‘is not just the right fit for our organization,’ ” Bailey said adding “It’s a microagression a lot of people of color experience every day. Then, for the sole person of color in the room, the onus is on them to say ‘What do you mean not the right fit?’

“And then they question ‘why don’t we have a diverse staff?’ “

Microagressions also occur in other spaces such as classrooms, television casting, bars and other places, experts said. They point out that asking where someone of color is “really from”, constantly mistaking one person of color for another or suggesting that they look like another person of color and having an expectation that a person of color should sound a certain way are all common microggressions.

Gillespie said common microaggressions include “not speaking to people of color in the hallway or in meetings when you speak to others. Telling a black person, ‘you are so articulate.’ Telling someone who is Asian American or LatinX that ‘you speak English so well.’ If you are a teacher that makes basketball references and always look over at the black kid.”

“The example of the black girl on the reality show who is going to be a “trouble maker”, grabbing your purse in a store when a black teen walks by, all of these are microaggressions,” Gillespie said.

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