Racism is systemic, but it is operationalized in the actions and attitudes of individuals and groups. Microaggressions, for example, are actions: common, everyday offenses that communicate hostilities and prejudices that often arise out of stereotypes. And implicit biases are attitudes: social cognitions that are deeply subconscious--”not accessible through introspection,” according to the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. Aversive racism, by contrast, describes both attitude and action. It is a “subtle, unintentional form of bias that can have pernicious effects,” according to psychologists Samuel L. Gaertner and John F. Dovidio.
Aversive racism is unintentional in that its perpetrators don’t feel they have prejudices or are acting out of them and often self-describe as liberal and without racial bias (Gaertner and Dovidio). But yet they hold deep within them aversions--strong feelings of “dislike, opposition, repugnance, or antipathy”--to people of certain racial or ethnic groups. The key distinction in this term has to do with averting, a “turning away or preventing.”
The term was used in psychologist Joel Kovel’s pivotal book, White Racism: A Psychohistory (1970). Subsequent researchers on the phenomenon found, across many studies, that many White people failed to help Blacks in emergency situations, hire or admit Black people, and treat Black folks equally under the law while still seeing themselves as holding egalitarian values (Gaertner and Dovidio). “Conscious values and unconscious negative feelings” operate simultaneously in the aversive racist (Gaertner and Dovidio). Even though their acts may seem subtle, passive, or at least hard to detect, they often have the same effect on their target that more overt forms of racism do.
Gaertner, Samuel L. and John F. Dovidio. "Understanding and Addressing Contemporary Racism: From Aversive Racism to the Common Ingroup Identity Model." Journal of Social Issues, vol. 61, no. 3, Sept 2005, pp. 615-639.
Kovel, Joel. White Racism, a Psychohistory. Pantheon Books, 1970.
"Understanding Implicit Bias." State of the Science: Implicit Bias Review. Kirwan Institute, Ohio State, 2015. http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/research/understanding-implicit-bias/. Accessed 8 July 2020.