Understanding Racism

Our Journey for Anti-Racism and Racial Equity must begin with a) clearly defining racism and how it operates in systems, including institutions of higher education; b) identifying frameworks or strategies for eliminating or reducing barriers to access and equity; and c) addressing racist behaviors and structures. These steps are central to addressing the concerns and issues articulated by members of our University community.

Utilizing several sources, we have generated the following definitions to guide our understanding and conversations on anti-racism. Most often, conversations on racism focus on the individual or what one person does and on whether an individual is good or bad. While there are individuals who engage in racist acts and behaviors, we emphasize that racism is structural and embedded into systems. It is important to make this distinction as we strive to transform our culture and institution into an organization where anti-racism is part of our goal to be a place where every person and every interaction not only matters but results in equitable outcomes.

Taking Action Share Your Resources

Racisim operates at three primary levels:

Interpersonal Racism or racism at the individual level or through person-to-person interactions.

At this level, individuals maintain private belief systems that show as public expression of bias and/or hate toward Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Addressing interpersonal racism may include examining how we set expectations for respect and appreciation; respond to racist or biased acts; and facilitate conversations and dialogues on topics related to racism, power, and privilege.

Cultural Racism or racism manifested through symbols and organizational norms.

More woven into organizational practices, there are overt and covert representation, messages, and stories that convey certain behaviors and values associated with white people or “whiteness” as better or normal than behaviors associated with other racial groups. Addressing cultural racism may call for examining what we set as expectations and guidelines; what we value; how and what we communicate; and our visible images, namings, honorifics, and other representations across the institution.

Institutional Racism or structural racism that results in different outcomes for different groups.

At this level, the organization’s (as well subsystems) practices, policies, cultural representations, and norms work in ways that either reinforce or perpetuate racial inequity. Addressing institutional racism, which is what the journey seeks to do, may include examining our enrollment, persistence, activity participation, and graduation data for students; application, hiring, and promotion and tenure data for faculty and career progression for staff; the impact policies and decisions have on communities of color; and how we engage communities of color in policy formation and decision making.

Our focus on anti-racism also recognizes the intersectional nature of inequity and how individuals experience both racism and other forms of discrimination and oppression tied to their intersecting identities (e.g., gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc.). Our journey for anti-racism expands and strengthens, as opposed to replaces, our existing efforts to advance inclusive excellence and diversity. Through the journey, we are not abandoning our goals outlined in the N2025 Strategic Plan; however, we are ensuring our institution is keenly aware and focused on how race has and continues to shape our institution in significant ways that have long-standing consequences.

The Journey on Anti-Racism and Racial Equity is a conscious effort to move our inaction of not being racist to being anti-racist where we actively oppose racism through “advocating for changes in political, economic, and social life;” engaging in self-reflection; and dismantling oppressive systems that lead to racial equity.

Racial Equity in this journey refers to the state where “one's racial identity no longer [predicts], in a statistical sense, how one fares.” Ultimately, a racially equitable and just institution is one where there is an elimination of gaps between racial groups across our institutional practices, procedures, and infrastructure, and where this equity is sustained through “proactive and preventative measures.”

Resource: Racial Equity Tools

Taking Action

In addition to institutional actions, there are important steps we can take as individuals, departments, units, colleges, or other organized groups that contribute to our collective journey for anti-racism and racial equity.

Step One: Recenter how racism and equity operates.

According to the Equity Literacy Institute, this type of recentering involves shifting our mindsets. The first shift is from racism as solely individual, interpersonal actions to racism as structures of advantage and disadvantage. The second shift is from racism as an occasional incident that needs to be addressed when witnessed or reported to racism as ordinary and impacting everything, so we need to proactively address all the time. The third and last shift is from racism as solely a prejudiced belief system that can be adjusted with anti-bias training to racism as the accumulative impact of institutional, cultural, and structural racial injustice that must be addressed at the ideological, institutional, cultural, and structural core. These shifts assist us in fully understanding racism as not narrowly occurring at the individual level, but as being deeply rooted in our institutions. FSG Consultants describe this shift as a transformative change in mental models.

Resource: The Water of Systems Change developed by FSG

Step Two: Establish a mechanism and practice of recognizing inequities, biases, and oppressive behaviors.

During the 2020 State of Diversity, Vice Chancellor Marco Barker introduced several strategies for creating equitable and anti-racist policies and practices. As a point of reflection, you should ask:

  1. What strategies are already part of your practice?
  2. What strategies have been difficult to fully understand and implement at an individual or departmental (collective level)?
  3. What are the structural barriers that prevent you (or your department/unit/college) from fully implementing such strategies?

Addressing equity and anti-racism should be approached through different strategies. No one strategy is a solution and dismantling structures that perpetuate racism and other oppressive behaviors is not a “one-and-done” exercise, meaning it will require on-going focus and attention. As we engage or continue on our journey, consider:

Education educating yourself and your team on concepts, like racism, intersectionality, decolonization, universal design, and classism, and how to address these intersecting issues as a society or to change how you systemically operate.
Influence identifying your sphere of influence (self, friends/family, work/school/social networks, community, broader society) and act in anti-racist and inclusive ways where you can make a difference or impact. This also entails a shift from framing groups through a “deficit” lens as “needing to be fixed or helped” to recognizing the need for the structure/institution/program to change to foster greater inclusion.
Power recognizing what power (structural, positional, or social) exists in your learning, work, or social environments and how you can dismantle power structures that creates shared power or collaborative environments. For example: what perspectives are represented in leadership roles or in places where decision-making occurs.
Resources providing the tools and support to ensure that everyone has the necessary resources to be successful—with attention to and appreciation of unique identities, backgrounds, and experiences.
Corrective Action “calling in” or creating teachable moments when you observe behaviors of racial, gender, and/or cultural bias. This behavior is not intended for minoritized groups to place themselves in the role of teaching, but instead an opportunity for allies to act.
Assessment conducting equity audits and assessments to identify where there might exist disparities and inequity among minoritized and marginalized groups. This often involves collecting disaggregated data by race and gender/gender identity and identifying what data is historically not collected or available, which can be telling.
Prioritization situating anti-racism, equity, and universal design as a core value and/or goal that is inextricably connected to your organization, department, unit, or college’s mission and philosophy. This becomes communicated to broader audiences.

Resource: Equity & Inclusion Lens Guide developed by The Nonprofit Association of Oregon

Resource: Anti-Racism Action Plan Guide developed by the College of the Holy Cross

Step Three: Strengthen your skills, knowledge, and abilities to sustain equity.

Our Journey for Anti-Racism and Racial Equity is not merely a moment but a movement. It represents a commitment to always stretch ourselves, to build our knowledge on what it means to practice anti-racism, and to strengthen our ability to create and foster equitable learning, living, and work environments. However, we not only want to build these spaces where equity is achieved but where it is also sustained through intentional and ongoing work. As an institution of higher education, we have frameworks and resources at our disposal to guide us through this journey and our equity mission.

One adapted framework we offer is from the Equity Literacy Institute. It captures equity as a process “through which we ensure that policies, practices, institutional cultures, and ideologies are actively equitable, purposefully attending to the interests” of our community members to “whose interests we have attended inequitably.” There are five suggested “abilities” that move us toward building our skillset to address racism and inequity in ways that lead to institutional change. These include:

  • Ability 1: recognize even the subtlest biases, inequities, and oppressive ideologies
  • Ability 2: respond to biases, inequities, and oppressive ideologies in the immediate term
  • Ability 3: redress biases, inequities, and oppressive ideologies in the long term by addressing their root causes
  • Ability 4: actively cultivate equitable, anti-oppressive ideologies and institutional cultures
  • Ability 5: sustain bias-free, equitable, and anti-oppressive classrooms, departments/units, ideologies, and institutional cultures

Resource: Equity Literacy Institute Resources


The University offers a variety of resources and opportunities to increase your knowledge and apply equity-minded and equity-focused practices in your teaching, experiential learning, research and creative activity, operations, service, and outreach or engagement. Some of these resources include the ODI Racial Equity Resources page, UNL’s academic programs and curriculum, including the Institute for Ethnic Studies, and many other programs, departments, and courses across the institution, and programs and events by various offices and organizations. This information and more is available at the Diversity and Inclusion website.

Let us know about your efforts

We want to know what you are doing to promote racial equity and practice anti-racism.