Understanding Key Concepts

Understanding racial equity and other race-related terms and concepts is critical to be able to talk about race in a meaningful way—a way that has the potential to shift attitudes and behaviors. The definitions, comparisons, and examples provided below explain how some common race-related terms and concepts relate to, and differ, from one another.

You can also attend one of our training sessions to deepen your understanding and learn how to apply this knowledge.

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"Racial equity is about applying justice and a little bit of common sense to a system that's been out of balance. When a system is out of balance, people of color feel the impacts most acutely, but to be clear, an imbalanced system makes all of us pay."
— Glenn Harris, President of Race Forward and Publisher of Colorlines

Racial Justice

Racial Justice is a vision of a society where racial hierarchies no longer exist. In this society,  all people (Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, and whites), have the dignity, resources, power, and self-determination to fully thrive.

Racial Equity

Racial Equity is a process of eliminating racial disparities so everyone can have the same outcomes. It is the intentional and continual practice of changing policies, procedures, systems, and structures by prioritizing measurable change in the lives of people of color and other marginalized populations.

The Distinction Between Racial Equity and Racial Justice

Racial equity is moving towards the vision of racial justice. Racial equity focuses on measurable milestones and outcomes that can be achieved on the road to racial justice. Racial equity is, therefore, necessary but not sufficient for racial justice.


Diversity is having a variety of racial identities or characteristics (e.g., African Americans, Native Americans, Latinx). It’s a quantitative measure of representation.


Inclusion is full access, authentic representation, empowered participation, true belonging, and power sharing. It is the qualitative measure of representation and participation. 

The Distinction Between Diversity and Inclusion

You can have diversity without inclusion (e.g., tokenism, assimilation), but you can’t have inclusion without diversity. Focusing on inclusion gets you further than just focusing on diversity.


Equity is a measure of justice that recognizes each person’s different circumstances. It ensures that resources and opportunities are allocated in a way that allows everyone to reach an equal outcome (e.g., marginalized groups get support so that their wellbeing matches that of others).


Equality is sameness; everyone gets the same thing. Because of the focus on everyone getting the same opportunities and resources, equality often ignores the realities of historical exclusion and the power differential between whites and other racialized groups.

The Distinction Between Equity and Equality

Equality uses the same strategies for everyone. But people have different circumstances, so they are not likely to get the same outcomes. In contrast, equity adopts the “targeted universalism” approach to achieve universal goals—it uses differentiated and targeted strategies to address the needs of different populations to ensure fair outcomes.
Equality-focused strategies don’t work for, or benefit, everyone. For example, teaching different learners the same way does not work—each learner must be taught in a way that is appropriate for them.

Note: You can have diversity (variety) but not equity (fairness). For instance, you may have a diverse classroom or school, but if children of color are disproportionately suspended or placed in remedial classes, then you don’t have equity. Focusing on diversity without addressing equity can be superficial and problematic. 

Racial bias can be enacted by both individuals or institutions.

Explicit Racial Bias or Conscious Bias

Explicit Racial Bias or Conscious Bias refers to attitudes and beliefs people have that cause them to discriminate against a person or group that has different characteristics than they have. It’s also known as overt and intentional racial bias.

Implicit Racial Bias or Unconscious Bias

Implicit Racial Bias or Unconscious Bias refers to stereotypes or attitudes that cause individuals to unknowingly discriminate against people with different characteristics than they have.

Individual Racial Bias

Individual Racial Bias is bias by an individual or group of individuals towards another individual or group of individuals. Institutional Racial Bias is bias by institutional practices, policies, or cultural norms that disadvantage people of color. An individual’s bias can be a manifestation of institutional bias if they are acting in an institutional capacity (e.g., a teacher or police officer).

Debiasing Strategies

Interventions to mitigate, prevent, or eliminate bias often focus on individuals rather than institutions, where interventions are most needed. However, debiasing strategies focused on individual change (e.g., “just be aware of your bias”) have dubious impacts and success. Strategies should be focused at the institutional level where they can help prevent and remove opportunities for bias by instituting practices, policies, and protocols that require institutional actors to address institutional racism

What is Racism?

Racism is unfair treatment (discrimination, oppression, antagonism, or harassment) directed toward a person or group of people based on their nationality or ethnicity to the benefit of persons of another nationality or ethnicity.

Racism can be individual or systemic, and it is important to distinguish between the two.

While addressing individual racism is essential, it is insufficient in changing the material conditions of people’s lives. Systemic change-focused approaches address root causes, which can result in more transformative and lasting change.

Individual Racism includes internalized and interpersonal racism. 

  • Internalized Racism lies within individuals. It’s the private beliefs and biases about race that reside inside individuals’ minds and bodies. For White people, this can be internalized privilege, entitlement, and superiority; for people of color, internalized oppression. Examples include prejudice, xenophobia, as well as explicit and implicit racial bias. 
  • Interpersonal Racism occurs between individuals—the bias, bigotry, and discrimination based on race. Once we bring our private beliefs about race into our interactions with others, we are now in the interpersonal realm. Examples include public expressions of prejudice and hate, microaggressions, bias, and bigotry between individuals.

Systemic Racism includes institutional and structural racism

  • Institutional Racism occurs within institutions. It involves unjust policies, practices, procedures, and outcomes that work better for White people than people of color, whether intentional or not. An example is a school district that concentrates students of color in the most overcrowded, under-funded schools with the least experienced teachers.
  • Structural Racism refers to the racial inequities across institutions, policies, social structures, history, and culture. These inequities are deeply rooted and embedded in our history and culture, and our economic, political, and legal systems.

Structural racism highlights how racism operates as a system of power...

with multiple interconnected, reinforcing, and self-perpetuating components, which result in racial inequities. An example is the “racial wealth gap,” where Whites have many times the wealth of people of color, resulting from the history and current reality of institutional racism in multiple systems.

How Structural Racism Works: 

Imagine two neighborhoods.

In one neighborhood are the Smiths, a family of four. The Smiths’ community is stagnating, with abandoned homes, failing schools, and over-policing. Most of their neighbors, including themselves, are people of color.

In the adjoining neighborhood are the Jones, another family of four. The Jones’ community has plenty of fresh food markets, a robust bus system, parks, health centers, and good schools. Families flock there because all these services translate to economic opportunity and good health. Most of the families in this neighborhood, including the Jones, are White.

The racial composition of their neighborhoods did not just happen on their own. Who lives in which neighborhood, and whether that neighborhood has decent housing, good schools, and well-paying jobs is determined by multiple institutional policies and practices. Whether intentional or not, these policies and practices have often discriminated based on race, which is why we see so much difference in life outcomes across racial groups.

For example, in King County, Washington, there is a 10-year life expectancy difference between zip codes where residents are predominantly White and zip codes where residents are mainly people of color.

We call this reality structural racial inequity.

Learn more about Racial Equity and how to incorporate racial equity practices in your organizing and work by taking one of our training sessions.

To learn how you can create an equitable and multiracial democracy, attend our trainings.