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Firsthand Experience with the System of Racism

By Alicia Sojourner, YWCA Racial Equity Consulting Manager
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I was five years old the first time I was called the “N” word.

I was eight years old when a classmate told me my skin was “gross looking”.

I was twelve the first time I was stopped by a police officer walking home from school.

I was fifteen years old when I got into a fight at school with a white classmate. I got out-of-school suspension for three days and my white classmate received one day of in-school-suspension.

Forms of Racism

By the time I was in high school my understanding of racism was only based on how my classmates treated each other. That racism was about racial slurs, KKK, history of slavery and Jim Crow. While all of these examples are a form of racism, I began to understand that racism is deeper and more complex than what I was noticing and feeling for myself.

System of Racism

It was not until I was sitting with my Aerospace Science Engineering peers at Tuskegee University that I learned how the system of racism was created and designed. One of my first projects was to research the history of Aerospace, including who had access to this science and the field of Aerospace Engineering.

What became obvious to me through my research was the many levels of racism and how they work together to create the systems we live in every day.

These levels include:

  • Level 1 – Internalized Racism – racism that most people do not see within themselves. This could be an internalized belief you are inferior or superior due to the color of your skin.
  • Level 2 – Interpersonal Racism – this is when internalized racism turns into action.
  • Level 3 – Institutionalized Racism – this occurs within institutions and systems of power.
  • Level 4 – Structural Racism – this occurs among institutions and society.

Person-to-Person vs. Layers of Racism

I have several conversations everyday about many topics connected to race and racism…football, fashion, policing, fraternity parties and how people are finding new ways to show off their racial insensitivity. What I often find is many people focus on the person-to-person level of racism but many people do not see nor understand the many layers of racism.

Racial Justice Journey

A huge part of my racial justice journey is to continue to break down how racism plays a role in my interactions with other people, systems and histories. Reflecting on the different narratives of people affected by policies and laws, and understanding my role within the different narratives. Then finding ways to break the cycle within myself and dismantle racism within systems.

  • What is your role in understanding the many levels of racism?
  • Are you able to have conversations about how the different levels of racism play a role in our everyday lives?
  • What can you do to interrupt the different systems of racism?

“We have made enormous progress in teaching everyone that racism is bad. Where we seem to have dropped the ball…is in teaching people what racism actually IS.”

–      Jon Stewart