Here are two more useful images for explaining structural racism:
A baseball has a cork sphere at its centre, tightly wound with many layers of yarn and then covered with leather. Picture a baseball with an oddly-shaped cork centre. Each layer of yarn reproduces the lumpy shape, modifying and disguising it after awhile, but always preserving the lop-sidedness, so that the way the ball flies is always affected by its original shape.
Now picture an institution formed to accomplish a certain goal. As the years go by, it develops an internal culture. It chooses individual participants suited to its purposes and enhances those “desirable” traits and skills through training. It rewards some behaviours and discourages others. It changes and adapts to different times and, even though the leather cover mades the internal structure hard to see, each layer of yarn is based on the layer before, which is based on the shape of the original core.
The institutions that shape our lives have histories. For example, our international economic system grew out of colonialism. Its purpose was to make Europe rich by using violent forms of coercion to take resources and labour from the rest of the world’s people. Racism justified it. The language and some of the specific mechanisms have changed but, layer after layer, the winding yarn has reproduced the core. The European form of the university was founded in the Middle Ages to define what knowledge is legitimate and what is not. In some quarters it struggles to accommodate the knowledge of traditional cultures, but change is hard because its institutional forms go right back to its original purpose. Our national police force was created as part of the colonial project of taking the West from Indigenous peoples. Racism was built in from the beginning, shaping every layer since.
You don’t change a baseball by poking at the surface, or pulling out an individual thread here or there. You have to take off the cover, unravel all the layers and start with the core. Likewise, institutions can only be changed by looking honestly at their history, analyzing how every structure, every procedure, every policy echoes the original purpose. Only then can we begin to build something better.
Another image for communicating structural or systemic oppression is the clock. Picture a large, extremely complex clock, built long ago by a master clockmaker whose name is now forgotten. It was built to last, however, ticking on and on, doing its original work of keeping time. Generations have been born, lived and died with its ticking in the background. No one hears it anymore. The time is just always there, always known, taken for granted.
Now imagine that instead of a clock, it is a large, complex mechanism designed to take wealth and power from one group of people and give it to another. The people who gain from it claim that they have wealth and power because they are smart or work hard. Sometimes the people who lose from it believe that too, not able to see that they work harder and receive less for it, but the inequity both groups experience comes from the by now almost invisible clockwork. Like with the baseball, it can’t be changed by fiddling with this cog or that spring. It has to be disassembled and built anew, with a different purpose.