What is racism?

First of all, short and to the point:

We as BDB define racism as a historically developed pattern of seeing, presenting and organising groups according to their (usually) physical characteristics in order to justify some groups’ exclusion, unequal treatment and humiliation and others groups’ privileges. It is based on the idea that people belong to clearly defined groups which can be linked with certain non-changing personality traits and abilities. Instead of perceiving each person as an individual, racism leads to non-white people being reduced to a supposed group membership (“ethnicity”, “nation”, “culture” or “religion”), and often people think they can tell if a person belongs to that group because of physical characteristics, like “skin color” or clothing (like a headscarf). At the same time, people who are perceived as white have a multitude of privileges which are part of what they see as their “normal life”, but are not available to those affected by racism, for instance the assumption that if a person calls a police for help that police officer will indeed help them instead of suspecting them of a crime. Instead, the people who experience racism face exclusion and disadvantages on different levels. We define racial discrimination as the unequal treatment, exclusion or humiliation of people based on or using racial categories.

More on the concept of racism:

Racism divides people into “us” and “them”. For this reason, it is assumed that certain group memberships also result in certain unchangeable personality traits (e.g. criminality, temperament or lack of interest in education) and abilities (e.g. music and sports, but not management or physics). The assumption here is that the boundaries of who belongs to a group and who does not are quite clear and obvious.

Remarkably, most people are quite capable of seeing and recognising the diversity of their own (self-named) group, especially when it comes to larger categories such as place of residence (coming from the city or the countryside, from Berlin or Bavaria) or religion (Protestants, Catholics in Bavaria vs. Catholics in Spain).

In contrast, “the others”, e.g. “the Muslims” or “the foreigners”, are understood as a homogeneous group. It is assumed that people from these ‘other’ groups must all be the same – maybe with a few ‘exceptions’ to confirm the rule – and that these characteristics are not changeable: “That’s just the way these people they are.” This perspective that people within a group are all the same as opposed to different individuals is part of racist thinking.


Racism is deeply anchored in our society

Because of Germany’s current denouncement of its National Socialist past, the open expression of an obviously racist attitude, especially racist violence, is not generally seen as acceptable in this country. However, this does not mean that racism no longer exists.

On the contrary: our laws, our state structures and our assumptions about each other are all shaped by images and ideas that go back to colonial times and have been passed down through generations. These images and ideas, or their origins, have rarely been questioned, but rather taken for granted. This makes them difficult to recognise and thus difficult to change. For this reason, for example, negative images of “the Africans” or “the Muslims” are still often found in school textbooks and the news. These stereotypical images can only be fought and changed if they are exposed and the general population is made aware of them.


Colonial origins

Racism did not come about only by chance. Racist ideologies, as well as the hierarchies and privileges associated with them, find their origin in European colonial history.

In order to justify the exploitation of entire continents and the enslavement of their inhabitants during the colonial period, white Europeans declared themselves the superior “race” with a universal claim to power over the inhabitants of the colonies, claiming they were inferior, uneducated and uncivilised.

The term “race”

The ideology claiming the existence of different “races of people” has long been proven wrong by scientific research. The differences within a group are usually much greater and more diverse than between groups. There are no human “races”.

The racist categorisation of people and the idea of a natural race order of the world have from the beginning served the sole purpose of justifying the claims to power of white Europeans and their resulting privileges. Racism is an invention of those who profit from it – grown out of specific economic and territorial interests of White people. (See also “Colonial origins”)



In Germany, racism is still often portrayed as a marginal problem, manifested in right-wing extremist violence or direct, explicit insults. However, racism takes place everyday in ways which may seem harmless to outsiders but are in the long run often more impacting and painful in the lives of most of those affected by it. Racism is an everyday phenomenon that occurs in all parts of society and is not always intentional or meant in a hurtful way. It occurs at the individual level, but also at the level of organisations and institutions.

Racism in interpersonal interaction

Racism can manifest itself in different ways in the interaction between individuals. For example, some remarks people make may imply that another person does not really belong in Germany. Questions like “Where do you come from?” or “When are you going back to your home country?” suggest that the person cannot be German because of their skin colour, hair structure or other external features and comes from somewhere else to which they will (or should) eventually return. Supposedly positive statements such as “You speak good German” or “You have such a beautiful complexion” also trigger the feeling in the person addressed that they are different.

In this context, we also speak of microaggressions. With regard to racism, this term refers to questions or statements by White people towards People of Colour or Black people, but often not being aware of the hurtful or insulting assumptions behind their statements (“Yeah, yeah, but where are you really from?”). These comments can trigger emotional discomfort or pain in the person being addressed. When the speaker is confronted with the insulting assumptions behind the statement, he/she may become defensive and insist that the remarks were not racist (Trying to convince people to not see the discrimination they are facing is called “gaslighting“). This just makes the discrimination more painful.

This is another reason why it is important to spread awareness about racism, even at the level of microagressions.

Also jokes made at the expense of a particular group – or carnival costumes that represent a group in a stereotypical and/or ridiculous way – help reinforce more general images in society that portray these people as ridiculous. Even if that is not the intention of the person acting this way, doing so communicates to others that it is okay to make fun of and devalue certain people.

This may be meant “just in fun”, but such deeply embedded images in society have a great impact on how certain groups are perceived in certain settings, for example, in the job market or when looking for housing. Since such images indirectly have real effects on the reality of people’s lives, it is difficult for affected people to perceive this as “just for fun” and not as an insult.

However, interpersonal discrimination can also take place in an organisational context, for instance if a person is treated in a demeaning way by a state official, for instance an employee of the employment office or the police. This could mean, for instance, that a person cannot take part in a training program that could help him/her get a desired job or that the person gets a criminal record for something that is not usually treated as a strong offence. Facing racist mobbing in a work environment could lead not only to the loss of that job, but also to future difficulties in facing an employment situation more generally.

Institutional racism and structural racism

Racial discrimination not only takes place in interpersonal contact, but also, for example, through laws and rules or through ways of presenting people in history books, movies or advertising. It can also take place in indirect contact, for instance when a real estate company’s general policy or online forms (using selection algorithms) make it difficult for certain groups to get an apartment. When people talk about organisations, companies or state authorities having official or unofficial ways of working which create racist effects, they often refer to this as “institutional racism”. The term “structural racism” is sometimes used synonymously with institutional racism, but it usually is used to describe how certain racist discrimination affects or results from broader social structures or patterns (for instance, certain laws or media images).

Why is everyday racism so dangerous?

For people who are not direct victims of racism, racial discrimination may seem like harmless behaviour, for instance categorisations of “us” and “them”, stereotyping jokes or “well-intentioned” group descriptions, such as “exotic” or “hot-tempered”. However, these categorisations makes it seem as if these people don’t really belong to German society and don’t have really have their own individual personalities or abilities.

Especially when this happens repeatedly over time, this can be a very painful experience and lead to isolation, emotional stress and self-doubt, difficulties in doing well in a learning or working environment and destroy relationships.

If people are confronted with interpersonal racism when they are dealing with institutions which have a degree of power, such as the employment office or the police, this may compound the discrimination and make the effects of the discrimination even stronger, for instance that the person may not just be insulted but also not be supported in getting a decent job.

Regardless of whether these racist behaviours are conscious or unconscious, intentional or unintentional, they create a breeding ground and justification for ever stronger forms of discrimination: from more difficult hurdles to education, housing, political participation rights or the labour market – to racial profiling and general ethnic-based suspicion – to intimidation and violent attacks, murders and even genocide.

Therefore, it is important not only to focus on the extreme cases of right-wing radicalism, but also to expose structures of everyday racism and to prevent them by raising awareness about them.

Structures and actions of racism shape ideas in society according to which certain groups are to be seen as “different” and not conforming to the norm, that is as “not normal”, not trustworthy or even as dangerous. These racist images and assumptions are part of a long, historical tradition and can therefore be found at all levels and institutions of society: in the media, in educational materials, in laws and also in state authorities.