Racism – Personal and Structural… Yet Again…

Almost exactly a year ago I wrote a post which sought to clarify some issues on race in Bermuda.  

With Mr Bean’s recent comments on becoming the PLP Leader, concerning race and political discourse, the flood of apparently OBA supporters comments on Bermuda entering a post-racial era, and the reactions to Dr Hodgson’s recent critique of Mr Bean’s comments, I thought it made sense to re-investigate this issue.

I should make it clear at the outset that I am hardly an authority on the literature on racism, but I will do my best to explain my understanding of the situation.


One of the key problems that one encounters with discussions of race in Bermuda is confusion about what is really being talked about.

Most ‘public intellectuals’ or ‘activists’ that speak on issues of race in Bermuda are speaking about structural racism, but most reactions to these speakers (and this is predominant amongst White Bermudians) appear to understand racism in terms of personal racism, or, in other words, in terms of racist ideology.

Racism, like other ‘isms’ such as capitalism, sexism, liberalism, may be defined in two ways, as an ideology and a system (or as I use them, as personal racism and structural racism).

It is important that we have a discourse on race where both sides understand what the other is talking about.  And how we collectively work to build a non-racist, or ‘post-racial’ Bermuda depends on what kind of racism that exists and needs to be tackled.

So, what is the difference between personal and structural racism?

Personal/Ideological Racism

This type of racism is the kind that I find the majority of White Bermudians understand when discussing racism.  They see racism solely in terms of personal, or ideological, racism.  And this leads to one of the main confusions and obstacles to moving forward in any discourse on race in Bermuda.

Personal (or ideological) racism is when individuals hold racist beliefs, or act in a racist manner.  Individuals may see members of a certain race as inferior, or in a negative light.  They may voice these views, or hold them privately.  They may not even be consciously aware of their racism, but act or behave in a racist manner all the same.  They may deliberately avoid interactions with members of this race, or act in a negative manner towards them (in terms of service, for example) or even engage in racist aggression (from use of slurs or psychological and physical violence) towards this race.

This form of racism is more obvious in terms of identifying as ‘racist’.

Structural/Systemic Racism

This type of racism is what I find the majority of anti-racist activists are referring to when discussing racism.

Structural or systemic racism refers to how society, the economy and institutions (be it organisations, corporations, media, etc) help to produce and reproduce or maintain racial inequalities within society.

This form of racism may be overt (as in openly visible/obvious) or covert (as in hidden/not obvious).

Examples of overt structural racism would be official, codified policies that are designed on purpose to create, recreate or maintain racial inequalities, as in segregation or apartheid.

Covert structural racism involves systems or policies that are not necessarily designed on purpose to create, recreate or maintain racial inequalities, but which do so nonetheless.  By definition, as being covert, it is harder to identify the exact mechanisms which are involved in this.  Most of the time these policies or systems are explicit in being non-racial, in terms of not being based on race, but impact in terms of race nonetheless.

In Bermuda

The above definitions are perhaps not perfect, but I hope they help to clarify all the same.  It should be noted that both forms of racism, the personal/ideological and the structural/systemic, can be overt or covert.

In Bermuda we have had all four versions, to various degrees, throughout our history.  Today there are very few people who can be clearly described in terms of overt personal racism (although they do exist!), and I think it’s fair to say that overt structural/systemic racism has been dismantled.

We continue to have covert forms of both types of racism.  And in many ways the two are reciprocal, or, at least, the continued racial inequalities in our society produced through covert structural/systemic racism provide fertile ground for covert (and even in some cases overt) personal/ideological racism to persist or even to come into existence.

For the sake of space, I will continue this writing in a new post shortly.  In it I will attempt to give some outlines of the covert racism (personal/ideological and structural/systemic) that persists in Bermuda, as well as putting forward (likely in an additional post) some steps that may help build a truly ‘post-racial’ Bermuda.