We are talking about more about racism, but have we actually stopped to define it in all its forms?

Materials & Media Required:

  • Flipchart, whiteboard, or other surface visible to the group
  • Sticky notes
  • Writing utensils

Set Up Required:

  • Pass out 3 sticky notes per participant

Goals & Learning Outcomes:

  • Participants will be able to define racism
  • Participants will be able to discuss and identify at least 3 examples of what racism looks like or how it is enacted
  • Participants will be able to identify and discuss the difference between internalized, individual, and systemic racism


  • While we may talk about the effects of racism, often we are having these discussions without defining what racism really is.  
  • We wanted to start by talking about what racism is and exploring the different types of racism that exist

Process Steps & Talking Points:

  1. Write the word “racism” up on the board, and ask the group to list off other words that come to mind when they hear the word racism.  Take just a minute to do this and use this to start your definition portion and to reference back to later.
  2. Then, write the word racism on a new sheet or part of the board and ask if anyone is able to define the word racism.  (Refer to the instructor’s sheet at the end of this activity for a definition).
  3. After establishing a broad understanding of the word racism, ask participants to take out their sticky notes and to write down three instances, actions, and/or examples of racism: one per sticky note
  4. After everyone has written down at least one example of what racism can look like, add three more phrases to the board (or on three separate sheets of paper—and hang the papers up where participants can see them).  These three phrases are: Internalized racism, individual/interpersonal racism, and institutional racism.
  5. Review briefly the definitions for internalized, individual, and institutional racism.
  6. If time allows, ask participants to bring their completed sticky notes to the front of the room and to categorize their stickies under one of the three categories.  Participants should talk to each other when if they are stuck or unsure of what category to choose.  
  7. If time does not allow, ask participants to reflect for a moment about the categories they chose for their stickies.
  8. Ask for participants to provide at least one example for each category; ask for one example for internalized, one for interpersonal, and one for institutional.
  9. Share with participants why understanding and seeing these three aspects of racism is important to consider when we are thinking about and working through our own understandings of racism.


When we think of racism, we often think of interpersonal racism: actions that one person does to another person or exchanges that take place between groups. Yet, in reality, the way that racism affects our lives is much more complex than that.  

We can internalize racism, whether that is an internalized sense of dominance or of inferiority, and what is even more difficult about this fact is that we may not ever realize we have done so.  

There is also systemic and institutional racism, which happens in such macro ways that no individual may feel they are doing anything wrong and yet entire systems may be set up for one group of folks (in this country, White folks) to be advantaged and privileged over others.

It is important to consider these three different ways that racism shows up because if we are truly working to educate ourselves and to unknot the effects of racism we must address all three ways that racism manifests.  Arguments against the importance of doing racial justice work are often rebuffs against one type of racism: by saying that you personally did not enact racism. And while that is an important aspect of what racism is, it is not the only thing that makes up racism.

Discussion Questions:

What comes to mind when I say the word racism?

What is your definition of racism?

What are the different ways that racism manifests in our lives?

Why is it important to consider these different ways that racism shows up?

Wrap Up:

As we move forward in our work around race and racism, please consider the following questions when we are talking. Are we including all of the different ways that racism shows up?  How does racism affect your life in these different ways?  How does it affect you intrapersonally, interpersonally, and on a systems level?  These are important questions to reflect on and consider when moving forward.

Bring Your Style:

There are many ways to shape this activity.  After all participants have written their examples of what racism looks like, you could ask the whole group to pile their sticky notes together and to then sort them into the categories as a group rather than individuals.

You could also prompt the group to write an example of each category of racism after you’ve introduced the definitions, rather than before.  

You could break the participants into groups and assign each group a category of racism and challenge them to come up with as many examples as possible for that category.

Challenges & Tips:

This activity can very easily take longer—so pick and choose what elements you want to spend the most time on, and focus in on those aspects of the activity.

This activity was created for the University of Michigan’s Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs (MESA) office in the summer of 2015 by Meg Bolger.