Understanding racism

Racism is a complex concept. On this page you will find some definitions and the necessary background information to help you understand racism better.

Some definitions

  • Race: According to geneticists, there is only one race among humans. However, certain ideologies have classified individuals according to their physical appearance, e.g., skin colour (white race, black race, etc.) or skull shape, which has led to the creation of a hierarchical order among them. In the anti-racism law of 30 July 1981, the Belgian legislator has retained this term by placing "alleged" in front of it. Unia uses this term in quotation marks.
  • Racism: ideology that refers to a hierarchisation of groups of individuals in order to create an inequality between the dominant group and the others. There must be a prior relationship of domination of one group over another.
  • Racial Discrimination: According to the New York International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965), racial discrimination is "any form of distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life".
  • Moral Racism vs. Structural Racism
    • So-called "moral," or "deliberate," or "primary" racism occurs between individuals. They commit acts or make hateful statements against individuals on the basis of their skin colour, origin, ethnicity, descent or nationality because they have prejudices or cultivate more or less explicit stereotypes, feelings or ideologies of superiority.
    • "Structural", "institutional", authoritarian or systemic racism occurs at the level of society, institutions and the state. It manifests itself in discrimination or in highly stratified inequalities (for example according to origin). It is more difficult to pinpoint as racism, but tends to be manifested by its consequences, even if the mechanisms that cause these consequences may remain diffuse. Some states have explicitly included racist provisions in their constitutions or legislation. This is then referred to as state racism. Examples include the apartheid system that existed in South Africa until 1991 or the so-called "Jim Crow" laws in the southern states of the United States.
  • Fragility and white privilege 
    • White privilege: this concept originated in the United States and refers to the advantages whites enjoy as a majority group in a society where they enjoy a privileged position socially and economically. These privileges exist as an unconscious norm and represent “normality.” An example of white privilege: I can take a controversial position in a debate without this controversial choice being linked to my origin. However, being part of the dominant group does not exclude that certain marginal groups of this population group share an unfavourable socio-economic situation with certain minority groups.
    • "White fragility" refers to the hypersensitivity of whites to accusations of racism: when asked to consider for a moment how their behaviour might perpetuate structural racism (from which they also benefit), they interpret it as an accusation of moral racism.

The different forms of racism

Expressions of racism and xenophobia must be combated, regardless of the form they take and the persons or groups against whom they are directed. The criteria included in the anti-racism law are defined in neutral terms. The Belgian legislator and Unia therefore adopt an inclusive approach when dealing with individual situations. This applies, for example, to the criterion of skin colour, making the use of the expression "anti-white racism", which structurally refers to a dominant majority group in our society, irrelevant.

However, racism may be given a certain name when it is aimed at a minority group or one or more members of that group.

A purely universal and undifferentiated approach to racism takes too little account of the specificities of the different forms of racism.

A distinction can be made between:

  • Anti-Semitism: refers to the criterion "descent". It is hatred or disdain for Jews or alleged Jews that notably translates into derogatory, dehumanising stereotypes or conspiracy theories. NB: According to case law, the denial or approval of, among other things, the Shoah (see the Negationism Act of 23 March 1995) can be equated with anti-Semitism.
  • Islamophobia: currently refers to the criterion of "national or ethnic origin" as well as that of "Islamic religious belief" (whereby both anti-racism and anti-discrimination laws are often invoked). It is seen as contempt, hostility or hatred towards persons of Arab or North African, Moroccan or Turkish descent or against persons presumed to be from these regions.  However, this should not be equated with the right to criticise religions. Indeed, the Belgian Criminal Code does not include the term blasphemy.
  • Afrophobia: refers to the criterion "skin colour". It is contempt, hostility or hatred towards people of African descent, which manifests itself in the form of a sense of superiority based on the history of slavery and colonisation, resulting in stereotypes and prejudices.
  • Anti-Gypsyism: refers to the criterion of "ethnic origin". It is contempt, hostility or hatred towards Roma and Travelers, which manifests itself in the form of prejudice and is based on ignorance and mistrust of a particular culture and way of life, particularly living in mobile homes when it comes to Travelers.
  • Asiaphobia: refers to the criterion of “national origin”: this contempt, hostility or hatred is mainly directed against people of Asian or alleged Asian descent. This translates into prejudices and pejorative expressions. Asiaphobia also has its roots in colonial history. Phenomena such as "Yellow fever" (sexual preference for Asian women) are a part of this.
  • Xenophobia: is hostility towards, contempt or hatred for what is foreign, towards foreigners, especially in the case of refugees, asylum seekers or migrants.

Note: What these phenomena have in common is hatred, contempt or hostility. In this way, discrimination in the strict sense (an unjustified difference in treatment) can be identified and prohibited, without it necessarily involving hatred, contempt or hostility. In such case, we then speak of racial discrimination, but not racism in the strict sense, afrophobia or asiaphobia, discrimination based on religion, but not necessarily islamophobia, discrimination based on nationality, but not xenophobia, and so on.

Similarly, there can be discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation without it being characterised ipso facto as homophobia.

For a further explanation of the concepts: see the Discrimination Lexicon (FR).

A brief history of racism in Europe

Racism has evolved over time and the means of combating it have become more extensive. This timeline gives you a brief overview of this evolution over the past centuries.


‘Milestones’ in the development of racism in Europe

Reactions from society

16th and 17th centuries

An essentially Christian view of the world

Slavery for economic purposes, but legitimised by the Church because it was accepted in the Bible.

People were convinced of the superiority of Europeans and their religion, forced conversions

18th century

A "racial" view of the world

  • Pseudo-scientific classification of people, and hierarchisation on the basis of culture and "race" (skin colour)
  • The heyday of slavery

19th century

Scientific racism

  • Pseudoscientific disciplines: on racial inequality  (Gobineau); survival of the fittest (Spencer)
  • Rise of Anti-Semitism (Dreyfus Case, Protocols of the Elders of Zion)
  • Colonialism

20th century


  • Nazism. Genocide of European Jews (Shoah) and Romani (‘Gypsies’) (Porajmos)

After World War II

  • Rejection of scientific racism
  • Decolonisation


Universal Declaration of Human Rights

  • "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights."


Fall of the colonial empires, in some cases accompanied by violence


United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination

  • Member States undertake to prohibit and eliminate racial discrimination in all its forms (Article 5).


Emergence of cultural racism

  • Cultures do not mix, the differences between people are too great
  • Revival of the idea of superiority among neo-Nazi groups, first racist and anti-Semitic crimes, negationist statements (Faurisson), tolerance threshold in the municipalities


The Belgian law against certain forms of racism and xenophobia enters into force on July 30 (following the UN Convention)


Rise of anti-Muslim racism (Islamophobia)

Founding of Unia

  • The Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism, now Unia, is created


The Negationism Act

  • Prohibition of gross minimisation, denial, justification or approval of genocide by the Nazi regime


Revision of Article 150 of the Constitution

  • Criminalisation of press offenses motivated by racism or xenophobia

21st century

Rise of right-wing extremism

  • Far-right and xenophobic parties gain importance across Europe.
  • Attacks on mosques, synagogues, reception centres for asylum seekers.
  • Explosion of hate speech on blogs, forums and social networks.

New forms of antiracism

  • Black Lives Matter
  • Call for decolonisation of public space