Now in September I have been following a course on Multiculturalism in the light of research at the University of Helsinki. The course has not only been informative, interesting and enjoyable, but above all thought provoking thanks to the knowledgeable lecturers, the numerous exercises as well as the lively debate in the class. Simply an excellent course with a good combination of theory and practice.
One of the lecturers called for a more critical awareness of what racism is and how it expresses itself. He addressed the issue of individual and systemic forms of racism. Individual racism is related to an individual’s racist assumptions, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours that are based on that person’s conscious and/or unconscious prejudices, whereas systemic racism manifests itself in the organizational policies and practices that either include or exclude certain groups, but does not necessarily involve an individual act of explicit discrimination.
Further, systemic racism can be regarded as racial discrimination stemming from an individual conducting the orders of others who hold prejudices (institutional racism) or there are inequalities in the systemic functioning of the society that excludes, for example, members of a particular minority group from social or civic participation (structural racism).
Individual-level racism is not developing itself in a vacuum, but instead emerges from the established values of the society and how they are visible and repeated over and over again in institutions and systems (e.g. education and training, labour market). In this context, we cannot overlook the impact of culture on us and how it shapes our way of seeing the world and the people, who live in it.
Since the very first moment we are born, we start learning and internalizing the values and behavioural patterns of the culture, in which we happen to be (enculturation). As part of this process, the influences that restrict, guide, or form us as individuals include in the first place our parents, other adults (such as teachers), and also our peers. As children we tend to follow the example of adults (especially our parents), and if they happen to demonstrate discriminative/racist attitudes or acts, we easily might take and absorb that as a norm without being able to judge whether that actually is correct behaviour.
Needless to say, it is much easier to recognise individual or interpersonal acts of racism (than systemic forms of discrimation/racism), such as to pass carelessly over another person, intentionally leaving him/her out in a social or work context or committing a psychological or physical act of violence against him/her. Moreover, due to the prevailing culture of individualism especially in the western parts of the world, some people (try to) justify their judgemental statements as not racist, because that just happens to represent their “personal opinion” and should thus be allowed in terms of freedom of speech.
Finally, I think that multicultural education provided in schools and educational institutions can help learners to gain an understanding of the concept of racism as well as help them to adopt tools to combat discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance in their daily environment. To this end, the conceptual framework for the Dimensions of Multicultural Education*) developed by Banks (2011) can be a useful model to be applied by teachers to address the complexity of racism.
*) The five dimensions of the framework (i.e. content integration, knowledge construction, prejudice reduction, empowering school culture, equity pedagogy) have been described, for example, in Banks, J.A., (2011, Ed.). The Routledge International Companion to Multicultural Education.