I have never heard so much public conversation about structural racism, a good thing, although much of it is filled with misunderstanding and confusion, not a good thing, but no surprise. In my experience, few people “get” the concept of structural, or systemic, injustice. Over five years I taught a basic, mandatory “diversity and employment equity” course to roughly 5000 Nova Scotia provincial government employees. I met only five who knew what structural oppression was when they entered the room. I hope a great many more understood it by the time they left, since employment equity is impossible to grasp without it.

At a press conference in June, the Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police admitted that she didn’t know what it is. I have respect for that admission. She could have denied that there is structural racism in her organization, as others have done, become defensive or tried to bluff her way through. I would rather a simple “I don’t know,” although there is the question of why the head of our national police force, in a time of intense criticism of police violence against Black and Indigenous people, would not yet have taken the time to find out. Later, apparently, she did.

So, how to explain structural racism? In my courses I used the image of an iceberg. The handout I used can be found here.

The section above the water is the personal or individual level of racism, defined by how people treat one another. The section below the water is the structural or systemic level, defined by wealth, power and status.

The personal level is individual, the structural level is collective.

The personal level is easier to see, the structural level harder, because the personal level is experienced by individuals, the structural level takes more work to figure out through analysis.

The personal level assumes that “majority rules”; on the structural level, more often “minority rules,” because a minority hold the institutional wealth, power and status.

The personal level takes place in the present, but history made the structural level. Even when the individuals who took the actions and made the decisions that shaped it are long gone, the patterns of wealth, power and status they created continue to impact people’s lives, taking from some and giving to others. Because our international systems were formed by colonialism, they are designed to take from women, give to men; take from Black, Indigenous and People of Colour and give to white people, take from the poor and give to the rich. Think of it as a perpetual motion machine. The maker dies, but the mechanism continues operating, doing what it was designed to do, with no one’s hand on the controls.

Intention can play a role at the individual level. If a person unintentionally hurts or offends a person, saying “I didn’t mean to hurt you” is an important part of the apology, although not the most important part. The most important part is to do something about it. Intension is irrelevant at the structural level. Privilege goes to men over women, white people over Black, Indigenous and People of Colour, straight over queer people, rich over poor people whether or not there is any intension to harm. We’re also not talking about “good” or “bad” people here; just people living in a system designed to privilege some and exploit others.

The personal level is reversible, because anyone can treat anyone else badly, no matter who or what they are; the structural level does not reverse except over centuries because, like the perpetual motion machine, it was created to benefit one group at the expense of another and continues operating, even after its original makers pass on. For example, at one point I worked with Canadian volunteers returning from Africa, Asia and Latin America. The white volunteers would claim that they had experienced racism, because, at a personal level, they now knew what it felt like to be in the minority, the only white person on the bus, or have everyone notice them and remember their mistakes. However, during the two years they were overseas, the structures of racism did not change. The eighty percent of the world’s resources consumed by the Northern countries did not suddenly flow back to the South, and if there had been a catastrophe, like an earthquake, the Canadian government would have used its resources, far greater than the resources of the host country, to find them first and get them to safety, or if there was a political disruption that threatened the lives of local people, the Canadian government would get them out as soon as possible. Certain privileges travel with North Americans and Europeans, no matter where we go, because we have citizenship in countries that have inherited the “white” side of colonialism.

The individual level is easier to change than the structural level, because many will change their attitudes and treatment of others, but few will willingly give up wealth, power and status. A person who sees only the personal level can imagine that doing nothing does no harm, but a person who understands the structural level can see that “not to act is to act.” The structure goes on producing injustice every day. If we aren’t working to change it, we are perpetuating it.

There are much more to say about making change at the structural level, but I will tackle that later. What I set out to do in this post is simply explain the concept of structural/systemic racism for those who are hearing it named in this time of broadening awareness and doin’t know what it is.