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What Are Overt and Covert Types of Racism?

Characteristics of two types of racism.

Key points

  • Racism is the use of racial prejudice and racial discrimination as forms of power.
  • Overt racism is based on evidence, data, patterns, and/or history.
  • Covert racism is subtle and unspoken—and often more difficult to recognize and grapple with than overt racism.
KM L/Pexels
Source: KM L/Pexels

“Racism is a simple ego trick of believing in validating the self by validating one’s group and at the expense of others. It’s a reflection of fear.” — Christian Sundberg, author

“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” ― James Baldwin, author

Racism can be defined as the use of racial prejudice and racial discrimination as forms of power against individuals, groups, and/or entire societies; the dehumanization of individuals or groups based on race/culture; the abuse of political, social, legal, financial, informational, emotional, and/or physical power to control, subjugate, marginalize, or exclude people of specific cultural backgrounds[1].

There are many dimensions of racism (i.e. overt, covert, conscious, unconscious, institutional, systemic, internalized, etc.). This post will define and identify the key characteristics of overt and covert racism.

Overt Racism

Overt racism can be defined as the practice of racism that is racially oriented based on evidence, data, patterns, and/or history.

Examples of overt racism include the following, which often overlap:

  • Hate crimes
  • Hate speech
  • Systemic racism
  • Institutional racism
  • Discriminatory policies and laws
  • Economic exploitation
  • Racial profiling
  • Police brutality
  • Media, social media, and Hollywood negative racial stereotypes
  • Gaslighting/racelighting. Persistent negative bias and narratives about an individual or a group based on race, ethnicity, cultural background, and/or national origin.
  • Anti-immigrant sentiment and attacks
  • Xenophobia

Covert Racism

Covert racism can be defined as the practice of racism that is subtle and unspoken. It is often difficult to discern for sure that racism is being practiced: The victim of this type of racism often feels uneasy, excluded, ignored, silenced, rejected, marginalized, or exploited without necessarily knowing why. Expressions of covert racism can be conscious or unconscious. For instance, a perpetrator of sales/customer service prejudice can either be fully cognizant of his or her racial discrimination, or unaware of one’s own socialized bias. Either way, covert racism is still practiced and perpetuated.

Examples of covert racism include the following, which may also overlap:

  • Implicit hiring discrimination
  • Implicit glass ceiling at work
  • Implicit networking/opportunity discrimination
  • Implicit housing discrimination
  • Implicit police protection discrimination
  • Implicit legal rights discrimination
  • Implicit healthcare discrimination
  • Implicit banking/lending discrimination
  • Implicit sales/customer service discrimination
  • Microaggressions. Counseling Psychology Professor Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.” Examples of microaggressions include microassaults (i.e. intentional or unintentional racist jokes or stereotypes), microinsults (i.e. intentional or unintentional condescension towards marginalized groups), and microinvalidations (i.e. denying racism exists or has harmful effects on society, denying one's own relative privilege in society)[2][3][4][5].

Overt racism is often easier to recognize and deal with than covert racism. Incidents of overt racism tend to be clearer in the perpetrator’s intention, communication, and acts of aggression and abuse. Incidents of covert racism tend to be much more subtle, ambiguous, and insidious. Those who commit acts of covert racism may feign innocence, disclaim racist intentions, and argue plausible deniability when questioned about their motives and actions.

For tips on how to handle racism-related stress, see references below.

© 2021 by Preston C. Ni. All rights reserved worldwide. Copyright violation may subject the violator to legal prosecution.


Ni, Preston. How to Successfully Handle Gaslighters and Stop Psychological Bullying. PNCC. (2017)

Ni, Preston. Are You Highly Sensitive? How to Gain Immunity, Peace, and Self-Mastery!. PNCC. (2017)

Ni, Preston. How to Reduce Anxiety & Increase Certainty in Difficult Situations – A Practical Guide. PNCC. (2016)

[1] Ni, Preston. With Dignity and Honor: Understanding Racism, Unlearning Racism. 2nd. Ed. Burgess Publishing/Pearson. (1997, 1998)

[2] Sue, Derald Wing. Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. Wiley. (2010)

[3] Sue, Derald Wing, et al. Racial Microaggressions In Everyday Life: Implications For Counseling. The American Psychologist 62:4. (2007)

[4] Nadal, K. A Guide to Responding to Microaggressions. Cuny Forum. (2014)

[5] Yoon, H. How to Respond to Microaggressions. New York Times. (2020)