What is systemic racism? UVM facilitators discuss ways to identify and challenge it

“It’s not…if I engage in racism; it’s a when,” said facilitator Christa Hagan-Howe, diversity educator in the Center for Cultural Pluralism, at the first of three teach-ins dedicated to exploring, explaining and eradicating racism. As demonstrations continue around the world in support of racial justice and the Black Lives Matter movement following the killing of George Floyd, the University of Vermont community came together June 17 for the teach-in, What is Systemic Racism?

Joining Hagan-Howe, facilitators Sherwood Smith, senior executive director for diversity, engagement and professional development, and Paul Suk-Hyun Yoon, senior advisor for Strategic Diversity Assessment and Research in the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, also welcomed questions from audience members who brought the conversation to UVM’s campus and how both individuals and units can contribute to building equity at the university and in our communities.

We caught up with the facilitators after the teach-in for a quick Q&A to learn more.


  • What is the role of higher education institutions in challenging systemic racism?

All institutions play a key role in challenging systemic racism. The role of all educational institutions, including higher education, is to first examine its own policies and practices to ensure outcomes in the institution are equitable for people of all races. Please note that this does not mean that everybody gets treated equally. In this case, equal does not mean equitable. In addition, higher education institutions should leverage their educational missions by helping to educate students equitably by making excellence inclusive of everyone, engage in and advance high-quality research that helps to address phenomena like systemic racism, and work in close collaboration with local communities to help uplift both the people in and outside of the institution. 

  • Talking about systemic racism is important; any advice for students, faculty or staff who may be engaging in conversations about race or racism for the first time with their friends, families or colleagues?

Educator Tricia Ebarvia says, “You cannot disrupt if you do not understand how systems of oppression work. You cannot understand how systems of oppression work until you come to terms with how they have worked on you.” We believe any person hoping to engage in these kinds of conversations first engage in understanding “how systems of oppression work.” Individuals need to do their own work first to model what they are asking of others. Afterwards, we encourage people to start where other people are, to try to understand their views, and ask questions like, “What I heard you say was…” or “Tell me more about what you meant by…” to explore if the stated beliefs about race and racism are factually accurate. In addition, we encourage people to ensure they are having developmentally appropriate conversations about race and racism. Tolerance.org and our Library's own Antiracism Reading Resources are a good place to start.

  • What are the four levels of racism and how do they differ?

The four levels of racism are internal, interpersonal, systemic, and cultural. Laws and policies make up an interlocking set of parts at the systemic level. Each level is distinctly different and all are fundamental to understanding how racism in any society operates.

  • How do those levels influence or affect each other?

The four levels of racism influence each other in that the system they create reinforces itself, and in many cases, it is difficult or challenging for people to see the system working. The established way of doing something becomes normalized and assumed to be the way things get done. One prime example of this was the institutionalization of enslavement in our country. Each level of racism worked together to maintain the system that allowed for the enslavement of Blacks or African Americans for hundreds of years. 

  • Can those levels influence each other in positive ways that reverse systemic racism?

Reversing systemic racism in our country will take generations. In the context of U.S. history, it has only been a few generations since the end of de jure segregation and legislation like the 1965 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discriminatory voting practices, particularly in southern states, as a prerequisite to voting. A nuanced understanding of the four levels of racism will help people see our system clearly and truly understand how it has been designed to function: to benefit some in our country, in our case, white people, at the expense of others, namely BIPOC people.


Missed the event? Watch the teach-in and save the date for the next teach-in June 24 that will focus on law enforcement, racism in the criminal justice system, and mass incarceration.