This article provides a general background to this special focus section of the journal on ‘racial interaction and isolation in everyday life’. It reviews both the geographic literature on segregation and the psychological literature on the contact hypothesis, and calls for more research on how, when and why racial isolation manifests at a microecological level; that is, the level at which individuals actually encounter one another in situations of bodily co-presence. Some conceptual and methodological implications of this extension of the segregation literature are described. The social psychological signifi cance of the racial organisation of such ordinary activities as eating in cafeterias, relaxing on beaches and occupying public seating are also explored. The focus of the argument is that everyday boundary processes may maintain the salience of racial categories, embody racial attitudes and regulate the possibility of intimate contact.