Are prejudice, bigotry, and racism the same thing?

No. And this is a HUGE source of misunderstanding.

Prejudice is when a person negatively pre-judges another person or group without getting to know the beliefs, thoughts, and feelings behind their words and actions. A person of any racial group can be prejudiced towards a person of any other racial group. There is no power dynamic involved. 

Bigotry is stronger than prejudice, a more severe mindset and often accompanied by discriminatory behavior. It’s arrogant and mean-spirited, but requires neither systems nor power to engage in.

Racism is the system that allows the racial group that’s already in power to retain power. Since arriving on U.S. soil white people have used their power to create preferential access to survival rights and resources (housing, education, jobs, voting, citizenship, food, health, legal protection, etc.) for white people while simultaneously impeding people of color’s access to these same rights and resources.Though “reverse racism” is a term I sometimes hear, it has never existed in America. White people are the only racial group to have ever established and retained power in the United States. 

Below is a prime illustration of racism.

This Philadelphia map created in the 1930s by government and lending agencies indicates various neighborhoods’ financial risk level. White policy makers considered race as much of a risk factor as a building’s condition. These risk levels allowed white people like my family to buy into “best” neighborhoods with the lowest mortgage rates while leaving people of color behind in “hazardous” neighborhoods. The linked cycles of advantage and disadvantage gained traction as white people in “best” neighborhoods accessed better education, food, jobs, healthcare and home equity growth while people of color in “hazardous” neighborhoods suffered inferior education, food, jobs, healthcare and zero or declining home equity. The housing footprint created by these policies is largely intact today.

To learn more about the above practice, called redlining, click here.

12 Comments

  1. […] I’m choosing to frame our work by distinguishing between prejudice, bigotry, and racism (Irving) and distinguishing between segregationists, assimilationists, and antiracists (Reynolds and […]

  2. If only a white person can be racist, and you don’t want to recognize the possibility of reverse racism, what term would you use to describe a situation where a white person is denied a job or other opportunity because of race? I’m not talking about just whining about affirmative action; I’m talking about losing an important opportunity because a person in power is prejudiced against white people. I’m not implying this is a common situation, but it certainly happens, and we need to be allowed the vocabulary of label it appropriately.

    1. I would call that prejudice, pre-judging another person if in fact it is purely based on race. Lacking broader institutional, ideological, and cultural anti-white power, individual acts like this don’t move into ISM territory. There’s also the possibility that something other than race was in play. Did the candidate of color bring cultural skills not typically developed in white culture? Or offer connections to communities of color that the organization is wanting to connect with? If it was you who lost this important opportunity, I am truly sorry for your loss. Do you think you would be equally upset if another white person had gotten the position? Are you 100% sure that the hire was based on race?

      1. I am writing in response to Kate’s scenario. I can see both sides of this argument. But I want to learn more before I start this conversation with some friends and family who are having a knee jerk reaction to the topic of racism. My concern is that there is more than one definition of racism. The definition I see here in your article applies to the systems of power in play for generations that many white people are just now waking up to. The power to turn your prejudices into laws is one definition of racism. That aspect of racism is white because white people created the systems and have the power. But there is another definition of racism that can apply to all humans: hatred or intolerance of another race or other races. Under that definition of racism, a person of color could have a prejudice against a white person and make their decision not to hire any white personnel. If their decision was based SOLELY on race, their actions do indeed fall under the definition of racism. By that I mean that prejudice is prejudging someone, discrimination is acting on that prejudice and racism is when the specific prejudice in action was based on race. Here is an example. I will paint myself as the hiring manager. I interview an overweight person. I believe that all overweight people are lazy. I liked what I saw in their resume but as soon as I meet them I already know that they will not be hired. I mentally check out of the interview and end it abruptly because I do not hire overweight people. That was prejudice and discrimination. Now apply that same scenario but change overweight to Mexican. I am prejudiced that all Mexicans are lazy and discriminating against hiring a Mexican. This time my decision was based on race. That’s racism. If I’m interviewing for an accountant and I believe only men are good with numbers I refuse to hire women, I’m sexist. I’m interviewing for a nurse and think only women make good nurses so I refuse to hire men I am also sexist. No need to call it reverse sexist. Now let’s run out our scene one last time. The applicant is white. I am the black hiring manager. I believe all white people are bigots and refuse to hire them. I hate white people because they are all privileged and pampered. So even though I loved what I saw in the resume, as soon as I see that the applicant is white I mentally check out of the interview and end it abruptly because I have already decided I would never hire a white person. In fact there are other white hiring managers at our company who can hire white people so I feel like it’s my job to balance the scales by never hiring any of those “crackers”. Putting that white punk in his place, knocking him down a few pegs was the best part of my day. Like Kate mentions, we are not saying that this happens a lot but what I am saying is that when it happens it clearly falls under the definition of racism. No need to call it reverse racism. It falls squarely under the definition: hatred or intolerance of another race or other races. Prejudice is the belief. Discrimination is the act. Sexism is when the act was based on sex. Racism is when the act was based on race. All humans have prejudices. Some prejudices have been given specific names. It’s hard to find out that one if those specific names applies to me. But that’s where the changes start. Systemic racism is a huge white problem because we have the power. Racism in and of itself, while it has been exhibited largely by white people, is not exclusive to white people.

        1. I like the way you’re working to think the nuances of this through Dawn. Racism, and all forms of oppression, operate on four levels: Intrapersonal, Interpersoonal, Institutional, and Ideological. The power scenarios you’re describing exist at the intra/interpersonal level only, and yes, increasingly people are acknowledging that at a small scale, that too is more than just prejudice, it is racism. And yet, racism as a web of interconnected institutions that put up barrier after barrier is where the more entrenched issues lie and what the term racism means. When a person from a historically targeted racial group is discriminated against at school, at the office, at the grocery story, on the bus, while driving, while biking, while walking, while birdwatching, AND sees few or mostly negative images of him/her/theirselves in curriculum, on TV, in movies, in the news, that is a very different experience than being on the end of negative bias when with this or that person.

          1. Thank you. I have so much to learn!

  3. why do people need to reinvent words? Webster spells it clearly

    a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race

    Black people can be racists as he’ll against white people. There’s no arguing about that. They can make statements regarding superiority about physical fitness, strength, sports, dancing, etc all based on a belief that their race is superior. It’s a lie if you say racism is limited to white people

    1. What I hear you talking about Thomas is prejudice – and that indeed can go any which way. ISM’s however (sexism, racism, classism) require the power to embed that prejudice into laws, policies, and procedures.

      1. so as i understand you a brand new born white baby is a racist and no matter what he does and unless 85 Percent of the white population in america is killed he will always he a racist

        1. Hello Richard, I would say you don’t yet understand the concept. People are not born racist. And killing people is the very opposite of the life, liberty, and justice for all that I and every other racial justice educator and activist I know believes in. If you are sincerely interested in growing your understanding of how racism impacts all people, I send you encouragement and love in that pursuit.

  4. I’m glad I found your website. I’ve learned a lot about others and myself. I now fully understand white privilege. I also know I am not a racist. I have some prejudices, and it is important to know this about yourself. Understanding race issues will definitely help me overcome my prejudices. It already has. Thank you.

    1. Great to hear Linda. Two books I’d recommend for you next would be Ibram X Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. Both will support you in getting deeper into what it means to move from “not racist” to anitracist.

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