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Systemic racism explained: Four dimensions of racism and how to be part of the solution

You’ve likely heard the term “systemic racism,” but do you know what it means? KGW talked to the experts to break it down and to give us the tools to address it.

PORTLAND, Ore. — The death of George Floyd has forced many white Americans to reflect on what racism looks like in our country. Most of us have been taught about racism through a narrow lens, whether that’s through our schooling, socialization, or what we see in the media. 

But it’s just not that simple.

Racism takes many forms. Before we can be part of the solution, we first have to understand the problem.

The CEO of Portland’s Center for Equity and Inclusion, Hanif Fazal, and the CEO of North Star Forward Consulting, Lillian Green, have dedicated their careers to empowering the community with an understanding of racism to create a more equitable future.

It's important to recognize that racism isn't one size fits all, according to Green. In her workshops she breaks racism down into four dimensions: internalized, interpersonal, institutional and systemic. 

“The first thing you have to understand is that you have normalized racism already in your practice: the way in which you are educated, the way in which you were taught to do your job, the way in which we engage with each other on the street,” Green said. "We think about being anti-racist and think about anti-racism on those four different dimensions of racism."

Internalized racism refers to our own thoughts, feelings and actions, conscious and unconscious, as an individual. 

This racism exists in forms like believing negative racial stereotypes, denying services to someone based on the color of their skin, or denying racism even exists.

Then there's interpersonal racism: acts of racism between one person and another.

This is how most of us have been taught to see racism, Fazal said. It's about negative ways people treat one another: harassment, discrimination from a boss, a racist rant caught on a cell phone video.

“I kind of grew up with this idea of racism being the exception to the rule. That the general rule was that we live in this equally based society where if racism happens, it's these bad individuals that are doing something that is contrary to the norm,” Fazal said. “And so I think we can start there, with, ‘Hey, how have we been taught to think about or understand racism?’”

There's institutional racism, which some people use interchangeably with systemic racism, but Green makes a distinction. She says institutional racism in connected to the policies and practices that reinforce racists standards within a workplace or organization.

This can be seen in discriminatory hiring practices, silencing of black voices in the boardroom, or a work culture that prioritizes a white point of view.

“For my work, I make a distinction,” Green said. "Institutional racism is connected to the policies and practices that reinforce racist standards within a workplace or organization; structural racism involves multiple institutions collectively upholding racist policies and practices. 

"I believe this distinction is important because it addresses the fact that racism is not only upheld in an individual location, but is collectively active, at all times, within and across multiple institutions. Thus, any approach to interrupt and eliminate racism must consist of a multi-prong approach addressing these different forms of racism across individual institutions and the actions of collective institutions.”

That brings us to the main focus: systemic racism. This is how the other three dimensions are allowed thrive in society, both openly and in the shadows.

“This is a type of racism that has been normalized in all the systems in which we engage in,” Green said.

“When I think about systemic racism, I think about policies,” Fazal said. "I think about practices. I think about a culture that supports that racial arrangement."

Systemic racism involves all of our institutions collectively upholding racist policies: education, health care, housing, government, etc. It's the ripple effect from hundreds of years of racist and discriminatory practices that still play out today.

To see the impact of systemic racism, Green says just look at the statistics.

“When we think about this racialized predictability, it's really important to think about that magnification of our likelihood of being placed into … prisons, restrictive environments and dying, based off of our racial identity, our ethnic identity,” she said.

For example, African Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white people in America. Although African Americans and Hispanics make up about 32% of the U.S. population, they made up 56% of all incarcerated people in 2015, according to the NAACP.

As for health care, in 2017, 10.6% of African Americans were uninsured, compared with 5.9% of non-Hispanic white people, according to the 2017 U.S. census.

In 2018, 8.7% of African American adults received mental health services, compared with 18.6% of non-Hispanic white adults, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health

Those stats are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to racial disparities, regardless of socioeconomic status, Green said.

“As a Black woman, as I’m entering into these spaces, it’s not my blackness that’s the problem,” Green said. “It’s the system -- the impacts of the system – that interacts with me because of my blackness.”    

If we are able to predict the life expectancy of people based on someone’s race, ZIP code, and neighborhood, Green says, we have to understand that multiple systems of oppression are in play to make it a reality.

RELATED: 'Reimagine Oregon' unveils proposals to end systemic racism in Oregon

This racialized predictability that Green references requires us to look at the disproportionate numbers of Black, Indigenous and People of Color over-represented within mass incarceration, more likely to be pushed out of our educational institutions, experiencing a higher level of exposure to environmental toxins, or lacking access to health care, including a likelihood that they'll be discriminated against while seeking care.

Despite well-documented examples of systemic racism and the fight to right these historical wrongs, many still choose to turn a blind eye to systemic racism, ignoring its existence.

“We tend to have a belief system about something, and we tend to look for evidence about those belief systems," Fazal said, "but dismiss anything that might be in the contrary."

Many white people don’t see systemic racism because they’re simply not looking, according to Fazal. He argues if your race has benefited and continues to, it is difficult to challenge that notion.

“I think sometimes there is both a comfort level and a privilege to not look. Right? Not have to look,” he said. “Where People of Color are forced to deal with that stratification every day, forced to deal with that in every interaction that they have. White folks have the privilege of not having to do that.”

Green has a different take on it. She says the evidence of systemic racism is all around us.

“It has been heard,” she said. "It has been pushed to the side. It has been refuted. It has been denied credibility."

She says that's disseminated by our understanding of history and progress for People of Color.

“I think there's a perpetuation of a sanitized history that we have to interrupt," she said. "That even though these conversations have clearly been happening over generations--over centuries--we have, as a society, felt comfortable with ignoring what's been in front of us."

If we take the time to educate ourselves, recognize our implicit bias, and open our eyes to how we got here, we can fully work toward change and equality. 

“If we can lose that defensiveness we can begin to think about, "OK, how do I build relationships with those communities so we can inform what those spaces need, in order for them to really thrive?'” Fazal said.

We are all part of this system, whether we want to be or not. It doesn’t make everyone a bad person outright, it just means everyone is part of a society deeply rooted in racists practices.

RELATED: 'The message has to be central that Black lives matter’: NAACP leader on focus of Portland protests

The good news is: That means we can all be part of the solution. Real change starts by looking inward, especially for white folks. It’s hard, it takes effort, and change doesn’t happen overnight. But it’s work worth doing.

To create a truly equitable future, Green says we cannot simply denounce racism. We have to actively fight it in our ourselves, in our interactions with others, at work, and throughout our greater systems as a whole every day.

“We have this false sense of beliefs that, ‘Well, if we’re just nicer we will interrupt systemic racism or interrupt racism in general.’ And I was like, ‘Nice does not interrupt racism, anti-racism interrupts racism and anti-racism with strategies to interrupt those different dimensions of racism interrupts racism,’” Green said.