Words Matter: A Racial Justice Glossary

March 2, 2017

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Wrestling with a Legacy of Injustice

The fight for racial justice dates back to well before our country’s founding, and yet somehow it’s still difficult to talk about, even hundreds of years later. Racism is embedded in our nation’s founding documents, and yet it can be a struggle to discuss how it continues to affect all of us today.

Is it possible that part of the problem has to do with terminology? Raise your hand if you’ve ever been confused by some of the terms you’ve heard on TV or read in an article. We’re with you! That’s why we decided to come up with a racial justice glossary—now we can all be on the same page as we continue working together on this critical challenge confronting American society. Compiling this list helped us, and we hope it helps you too.


  • Ally

    A person who supports groups (as defined by race, gender, sexual orientation, or something else) other than their own; a person who seeks to further their own education regarding the oppression those other groups face and commits to ending that oppression. Being an ally starts with empathizing with others and understanding their struggles, while also recognizing and reckoning with the privilege you may enjoy as part of your own life.

  • Bias

    A personal outlook that may lead to judgment based not on facts or experience but on irrational and often illogical belief—otherwise known as prejudice. Bias is learned, which means it can be unlearned, through personal efforts and education.

  • Bigotry

    A form of intolerance and prejudice that glorifies one group and puts down or even vilifies others.

  • Civil Rights / Civil Liberties

    Civil rights refers to the inherent rights of all citizens (such as the right to free speech or the right to vote), and civil liberties refers to the freedom of citizens to exercise those rights without undue interference from the government.

  • Ethnocentrism

    A belief that one’s own culture is superior to all others.

  • Equality / Equity

    Equality refers to the attempt to treat people fairly by giving everyone the same thing, which really only works if people need the same thing. Equity concentrates on giving people what each of them actually needs. Some people don’t need much help; others need a lot—so the amount of the help provided cannot possibly be equal. You have to ensure equity before you can hope for equality. Marriage equality, for example, is about everyone in our country having the equal right to marry who they love (something everybody deserves and needs). Racial equity, on the other hand, is about ensuring that society works fairly for all ethnic and racial groups (something we need to continue to fight for, because white people have access to opportunities that are not available to people of color).

  • Group Identity

    A sense of belonging to a particular group, usually defined by (but not limited to) race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and so on.

  • Implicit Bias

    Everyone is biased in some way. We can’t avoid it, and having biases doesn’t mean we’re bad people. The key is to try to recognize them and push back against them. Implicit (or unconscious) bias, however, can be challenging to spot and respond to—it’s the kind of bias a person is not aware of. It’s not easy to root these biases out, and meanwhile they continue to influence how we feel about other people (often with respect to race, sexuality, gender, etc.) and situations. If we notice a disconnect between what we believe and say and how we actually behave, then implicit bias may be at work—and it’s on us to do something about it. 

  • Intersectionality

    Intersectionality first emerged in the context of feminism (acknowledging that while all women face sexism, the sexism that black women face is uniquely challenging, because it also involves racism), but has more recently come to refer to the complex and ever-shifting way that many different varieties of discrimination overlap, accumulate, and intersect. The term is also now being used to discuss how different causes (such as racial justice and environmental justice, for example) are joining forces in the recognition that they share common values and face common threats.  

  • Jail / Prison

    Jails are facilities, run by local governments, where people who have committed minor crimes are held for no more than a year. Prisons, run by states or the federal government, hold inmates who have been sentenced for more than a year after being convicted of more serious crimes. State prisons hold those who have broken state laws and federal prisons hold those who have broken federal laws. Overall, the US has more jails and prisons than colleges. In fact, although the US has only 5% of the world’s population, it accounts for 25% of the world’s prisoners. 

  • Privilege

    Unearned benefits or rights extended to people in a particular group. Basically, having privilege makes life easier, all else being equal, than not having privilege. For example, life, for many reasons, can be challenging for white women, yet white women enjoy white privilege. Life for black women is more challenging, because of racism. Similarly, life as a gay white man can certainly be hard, but life as a gay black man is harder. Of course, being privileged doesn’t mean you can’t be an ally; the first step is to recognize your privilege, and the next step is to work toward dismantling the system that grants privilege to certain people and not others.

  • Racism

    The belief that one race, usually one’s own, is superior to all the others. And that this “superior” race deserves to impose its will on the others.

  • Stereotypes

    Stereotypes are your brain’s attempt to categorize and make sense of the many people you encounter in the world. They are judgements or characteristics you attribute to specific groups of people — races, genders, age groups, etc. — that may or may not be true for any one specific individual. A stereotype becomes a bias when you believe that these judgements and characteristics apply to all people within a given group. Stereotypes are overly simplistic and limit our ability to understand the vast diversity of the human experience.

  • Systemic / Institutionalized Racism

    Sometimes called institutional or structural racism—the kind of racism that is embedded in the structure of society, in its organizations and government and social institutions. It reflects the values and assumptions of the dominant group, rendering the values of other groups either subordinate or invisible. Systemic racism may be difficult to recognize and even harder to correct. Many people working within, and making decisions on behalf of, this societal structure do not see themselves as racist, and yet their unconscious actions serve to reduce opportunities for members of marginalized groups.

  • White Supremacy

    The idea that the white race is innately superior to all other races and that white people should rule the people of those other races. Note: if you hear the term “alt-right,” think “white supremacy.”

  • Xenophobia

    The fear, often leading to hatred, of people from foreign countries… or really of anything foreign or strange.