How to be an Anti-Racist in an Individualistic, Institutionally Racist Society

Photo of Author, Tiara A Cash

Since 2020 and the emergence of the global pandemic, the world has been given an opportunity to better view the underlying aspects of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and other forms of “-isms” that riddle the institutions that create our modern society. Institutions created in modern western society are rooted in exploitation. These institutions have developed into our education systems, healthcare systems, and political systems, by exploiting earth (creating climate change), exploiting land (stealing from indigenous nations), exploiting people (trans-Atlantic slave trade and private prisons), and exploiting money (classism and capitalism). Seeing the connection of these emergences, many disciplines in academia have tried to create strategies to help mitigate lasting effects of past and present slights. Specifically, psychology has tried to take time to research, discuss, and translate ways in which individuals can work to dismantle some of these emerging racism in our labs, classrooms, and universities.

Modern western society is based on an individual/independent world-view (i.e., one that centers on an individual perspective verses a collective one). As such, many of the strategies to become anti-racist institutions focus mainly on the individual and the independent actions that individuals can take to dismantle racism. These tactics are based on trainings, workshops, and powerpoints to teach individuals how to become more culturally aware of another individual and how to engage interpersonally. What these trainings, workshops, and powerpoints don’t typically focus on is why those individual actions are important to change these institutions and what institutional change looks like. By continuing to focus on individual actions of people within labs, classrooms, and universities, we are signaling that people themselves are the issues, leaving the onus and responsibility solely on the people engaging. The reality is individuals are likely to engage in institutional racism whether they want to or not. Institutional racism is a reflection of the forms of racism that we find in laws, regulations, and norms of society and organizations. This form of racism is structural.  So, how do we change the narrative from individuals reflecting on their personal thoughts and behaviors, and instead center conversations around how individuals must reflect on how personal thoughts and behaviors continue to uphold a racist institution.

What these trainings, workshops, and PowerPoints don’t typically focus on is why those individual actions are important to change these institutions and what institutional change looks like.

This short blog is meant to outline to what being an active anti-racist researcher, professor, or administrator in an independent, institutionally racist society is and why recognizing the systemic racism within these institutions is an important part of creating change! Below are two ways to begin understanding our individual role and actions we can take to dismantle institutional racism.

  1. Understand: Racism is constantly changing to adapt to the system, leading individuals to believe that they are not indeed forms of racism. Because of this, racist behaviors are not always easily detectable. In fact, researchers have said that systemic racism is the “Trojan horse of racism” (Kang, 2005), explaining that these forms of racism exist without knowledge of the individuals who hold them and who might believe they are living in non-discriminatory fashion.
    • Action: Our remedies to this form of systemic racism must reflect this understanding. Leaders work to change this by inviting open conversation about what racism looks like to those who are experiencing it, without the exchange of gaslighting (i.e., questioning someone’s sanity) or questioning those experiences. The group must begin to listen, deeply, to how racism is experienced on the larger systemic scale from the people who are engrained within those systems – not text books, not studies, but people. Too often we see leaders within higher education looking to understand the nuances of race and race-based discrimination from sources that are either created by non-racialized individuals or created within containers that are controlled and gate-kept by non-racialized individuals (i.e., academic journals, academic books, etc.). Listening to those who are in your systems you both cut out the “middle man” and allow for the insidious changes of racism to be acknowledged in real time instead of waiting for academic sources that are 1-5 years behind. For example: Instead of creating a reading list for your students or peers, contact an organization (either within your institution or closely related to your institution) whose job it is to share narratives around this work. An important piece of this is to remember not to burden BIPOC individuals with requests for sharing, but to get information from a human source who is paid to answer the questions that the audience might have. These types of interactions begin to break the cycle of blind “inclusion” and monotonous uniformity. And remember to PAY THEM for their labor.
  2. Understand: As an individual, in order for institutional racism to continue, it needs your compliance. What does this mean? This means that as a PI, professor, or administrator, even when you believe that you are not racist, it does not mean that you are actively working against racism. As we’ve laid out in the beginning of this blog, most modern western institutions were built on exploitation. So, if what you are doing in your lab, classroom, or university is normative, it might still be exploitive.
    • Action: When dealing with assumptions of individuals or situations that seem to have a deeper meaning about an individual within your group, question the “why”. For example, if a non-racialized member is constantly questioning intentions or capabilities of a racialized member of your group, it’s important to ask the simple question “why” do you think this is happening? Is there an underlying systemic reason? Are these considerations based on fact or stereotypes? As a researcher, professor, or administrator, are you and the non-racialized person making these assumptions of the racialized member based on fact, or based on the normative expectations & behaviors of the stereotypes and institutional norms of racialized individuals? If it’s the latter, it might be rooted in institutional racism. An example of this: You receive an email from a member outside of your group that is questioning the capacity of a racialized member of your group (i.e., an ethics coordinator questioning your lead student). The email states that the racialized member has been making a lot of mistakes and that you, the PI, should be the person to submit all ethics applications forthcoming. As a PI, do you question the motives of this email? Have you seen the mistakes that the outside member is mentioning? Would you have received this email if the student that were turning this application in were non-racialized? All of these questions should be considered. By considering that there might be something more to this exchange you are engaging in anti-racist behavior. This reflection on a norm can help you to reflect on what seems to be normative behavior, but in truth could be an act of systemic racism.

Although these two understandings might seem simple, they are actually foundational to begin individual reflection of systemic racicm. By taking a step back from each situation that we are in and considering our individual actions on an institutional level, we can begin to change the workings of the system from the inside out and model how to be active anti-racists in an individualistic, institutionally racist society.


Bledsoe, A., & Wright, W. J. (2019). The anti-Blackness of global capital. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space37(1), 8-26.

Kang, J. (2004). Trojan horses of race. Harv. L. Rev.118, 1489.

Salter, P., & Adams, G. (2013). Toward a critical race psychology. Social and Personality Psychology Compass7(11), 781-793.