Racism toward Indigenous people is common and has awful consequences. For example, anti-Indigenous racism is linked with poor academic performance, depression, and even death in Indigenous people.

Can people be taught to abandon their racism? The short answer is yes, but some types of education work better than others.

Organizations across Canada and other countries use education to try to reduce racism. You might have taken "diversity training" or "cultural awareness training" at your job or school. Even though these types of training are common, researchers know surprisingly little about what works when it comes to reducing racism. So, we wanted to test what type of education reduces racism the most.

Racism Takes Different Forms

We first needed to consider what racism is, exactly. Racism is a negative bias toward a person based on their race, which includes biased thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

There are many types of racism. We focused on two in our research. One is the type of racism people usually think of—racism that happens between two people (interpersonal racism) such as when someone uses a racial slur. Another is racism that happens within an institution (systemic racism). For example, some of our earlier research found that universities are designed to support the needs of White students, but not the needs of Indigenous students. Both types of racism cause harm.

Systemic racism is the foundation of past and present attempts to destroy Indigenous peoples' cultures. For example, residential schools funded and operated by the governments of Canada and churches until 1996 were designed to destroy Indigenous cultures. The large number of Indigenous children currently in foster care in Canada is another example of the destruction of Indigenous cultures. In many cases, Indigenous children are removed from their families and put into foster care with non-Indigenous families because of poverty. But the reason poverty is higher in Indigenous communities than non-Indigenous communities is systemic: racist government policies provide less funding to Indigenous communities than non-Indigenous ones.

In addition to systemic biases undergirding residential schools and built into foster care systems, Indigenous people have also experienced (and continue to experience) widespread interpersonal racism, such as when workers at residential schools used racial epithets or when a social worker removes a child because they assume an Indigenous mother is unfit without sufficient cause. Such experiences of interpersonal racism are linked to a host of negative outcomes, including hating one's own culture and parental distress.

Which Type of Racism to Teach?

We wanted to know if people's own biases would be more affected by learning about interpersonal or systemic racism. To study this, we conducted online experiments with 1,738 first-year psychology students at the University of Manitoba. We collected data at several times, to see how the educational interventions worked across time.

We split participants randomly into three groups. The first group didn't learn anything about racism. The other groups watched a brief educational video about residential schools and Indigenous children in foster care, but one group's video included an additional discussion of interpersonal racism, and the other group's video included an additional discussion of systemic racism. Over the next few months, we conducted several surveys to gauge everyone's degree of anti-Indigenous bias.

Overall, learning about either interpersonal racism or systemic racism tended to have positive effects, improving participants' thoughts and feelings about Indigenous people and indirectly increasing their pro-Indigenous behavior such as watching an additional educational video about Indigenous experiences.

However, our results also showed that teaching people about systemic racism was the better education initiative, leading people to express less racism. Teaching about interpersonal racism didn't just underperform—it backfired! People became less aware of White privilege over time when they learned about interpersonal racism. Both educational initiatives had less impact over time.

How to Reduce Racism

Our findings highlight how educational interventions can be designed to reduce racism. First, because we found that the benefits of education can wane over time, educational interventions to reduce racism should be recurring (though they should not simply repeat the same training each year as we suspect this would cause attendees to take them less seriously). 

Second, our findings clearly highlight that teaching about systemic racism is especially beneficial. In fact, emphasizing interpersonal racism, which is likely the focus of many existing interventions, can make matters even worse.

Third, there is no shortage of ideas about how to address racism. However, our research illustrates the importance of rigorously testing existing interventions to see if they work, if they have weak points, and if they produce lasting change.

We still have many questions. For example, why does learning about systemic racism work better? Does learning about systemic racism work better with all people or just undergraduate university students? What else might we add to educational interventions to make them even more effective? New studies may further clarify which methods are best for reducing racism toward Indigenous people.

For Further Reading

Efimoff, I. H. & Starzyk, K. B. (2023). The impact of education about historical and current injustices, individual racism, and systemic racism on anti-Indigenous prejudice. European Journal of Social Psychology, 53, 1542-1562. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.2987

Efimoff, I. H. & Starzyk, K. B. (in press). An example of embedding indigenous research approaches into social psychology: A mixed methods program of research to reduce anti-Indigenous prejudice. SAGE Research Methods: Diversifying and Decolonizing Research Case Studies.

Iloradanon H. Efimoff is a Haida and White scholar at Toronto Metropolitan University who studies how to reduce racism toward Indigenous people in Canada.

Katherine B. Starzyk is a Polish and Canadian scholar at the University of Manitoba who studies intergroup relations, including progress toward reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada.