“But all our phrasing — race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy — serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience,” writes journalist and social commentator Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his 2015 article Letter To My Son. “That it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.”
The trans-atlantic slave trade. The holocaust during World War II. The 1955 killing of Emmett Till (and Rosa Parks’ iconic protest 100 days later). The US civil rights movement. Apartheid in South Africa. George Floyd.
All these events and personalities have two threads running through them: race and racial equity. For centuries, humanity has had conversations, policies, protests, movements, ideologies, even wars, because of these subjects.
Like many other global issues — climate change, gender-based violence (GBV), poverty, and so on — figuring out what these issues like race and racial equity are, why they are important, and why we all need to take action for a better world, can be hard.
For example, equality and equity seem like similar words that mean the same thing, but they don’t and it's important to know the difference as we work toward creating a world where the most vulnerable are protected and supported most effectively.
To paraphrase our more in-depth explainer on the difference between these two words, equality is giving everyone the same amount of resources, whether they need it or not; while equity is giving everyone the resources they need to be on the same level as everyone else (in other words distributing resources according to who needs them the most).
Race and racial equity are such complex things to think about because they cut across social, geographic, cultural, industrial, and economic lines. They mean different things in South Africa, for example, than they do in the United States or in Europe.
But everyone needs to have some understanding of race and racial equity to help us see the value of taking action for social justice and standing against oppression in our lives, and in our communities. So where do you start?
We’ve put together a list of just some of the key words and phrases often used when describing elements of race and racial equity, to help get you started on learning about and understanding the importance of these terms and these ongoing discourses in which they play a part.
Intersectionality is a concept created by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a Black feminist scholar, in 1989. Crenshaw used intersectionality to explain how levels of discrimination are connected.
According to her, different types of inequity within race, sexuality, and class can create a more complex type of discrimination.
"These observations reveal how intersectionality shapes the experiences of many women of color. Economic considerations [like] access to employment, housing, and wealth, confirm that class structures play an important part in defining the experience of women of color vis-à-vis battering,” she wrote in her 1994 paper Mapping The Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.
“But it would be a mistake to conclude from these observations that it is simply the fact of poverty that is at issue here,” she continues “Rather, their experiences reveal how diverse structures intersect, since even the class dimension is not independent from race and gender."
Black activists, scholars, and individuals now use intersectionality to explain how other forms of discrimination are associated with racism. It is important to understand intersectionality to understand how different systems of oppression can enable and uphold each other.
2. White Supremacy
Definition: "The belief that white people constitute a superior race and should therefore dominate society, typically to the exclusion or detriment of other racial and ethnic groups, in particular black or Jewish people." — Oxford Dictionary.
White supremacy is the belief that white people are superior to every other race. It might sound extreme but this belief actually shows up across our social, economic, and political systems that allow white people to dominate other races.
White supremacy is also not only upheld by white people, and can manifest in other non-white communities where whiteness or proximity to whiteness is celebrated.
"The most common mistake people make when talking about racism (White Supremacy) is to think of it as a problem of personal prejudices and individual acts of discrimination," Elizabeth "Betita" Martinez, an American organizer and activist, wrote in her essay What Is White Supremacy. "They do not see that it is a system, a web of interlocking, reinforcing institutions: political, economic, social, cultural, legal, military, educational, all our systems."
3. White Privilege
Definition: "Inherent advantages possessed by a white person on the basis of their race in a society characterized by racial inequality and injustice.” — Oxford Dictionary.
White privilege is the advantage that comes from living in a racially unequal society. Because white people are seen as superior, they are automatically afforded privileges and opportunities that non-white people are not given access to.
"You might be a white person and still be poor with a lack of access to education or face a language barrier in the workplace. It doesn't mean you can't be disadvantaged in other ways. It just means with respect to that one particular thing — your race and skin color — you do have the luxury of not being able to think about it," J.T. Flowers, a 26-year-old rapper and activist told the BBC in 2020.
Because white privilege can be overlooked by people who are privileged, it takes conscious effort to accept and acknowledge it. Acknowledgment is the first step.
Definition: "Each of the major groupings into which humankind is considered (in various theories or contexts) to be divided on the basis of physical characteristics or shared ancestry." — Oxford dictionary.
Race is the grouping of people according to their physical and social characteristics. Every human being can be categorized into one or more races and for hundreds of years, race has been used as a way to discriminate and treat people unfairly.
"It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences," wrote Audre Lourde in her book, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches.
It is important that while we celebrate our cultures and ancestry, we remember that our differences should unite us.
Definition:"The policy or practice of opposing racism and promoting racial tolerance." — Oxford dictionary.
In his book, How to Be an Antiracist, Black scholar and activist Ibram X. Kendi says: "The opposite of racist isn't 'not racist.' It is 'anti-racist.' What's the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an anti-racist.”
He adds: “One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist."
In a world where everyone that is not white is often discriminated against, it is important for white people to actively work towards being anti-racist.
This means "taking stock of and eradicating policies that are racist, that have racist outcomes, and making sure that ultimately, we’re working towards a much more egalitarian, emancipatory society," according to Malini Ranganathan, a faculty team lead at the Antiracist Research and Policy Center.
Definition: "Prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group." — Oxford dictionary.
As a result of the influence of white supremacy in the word today, proximity to whiteness is generally considered good and commendable in many parts of the world. This commonly shows up around us in the form of skin tones: people who have lighter skin tones are often treated differently than darker skinned people because of a perceived proximity to whiteness.
Colorism affects non-white people in many areas including education, health care, entertainment, and even in their communities.
"Colorism is a social system [that] permeates all facets of society and culture. And what it is, essentially, is a social hierarchy or a stratification, where people with lighter skin tones are at the top of the hierarchy, especially if…their light skin coincides with things like straighter hair or lighter eye colors," Dr. Sarah L. Webb, founder of Colorism Healing, told Forbes in January.
She added: "And people with darker skin tones and kinkier hair textures, broader features, are relegated and marginalized to the bottom of the hierarchy…and it depends on your gender, your [social & economic] class, more or less."
Definition: "Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism by an individual, community, or institution against a person or people on the basis of their membership of a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized." — Oxford dictionary.
Racism is simply the marginalization of people who are not white by the racial hierarchy that favors white people. It is a problem all over the world and it shows up in different areas of people's lives.
People who are not white are discriminated against in education, health care, the entertainment industry, politics, and more because other people in positions of power in those spaces — and the systems that themselves drive and enhance power — are prejudiced against their racial or ethnic group.
"The defining question is whether the discrimination is creating equity or inequity. If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racist," Ibram X. Kendi, a scholar and activist said in his book, How to Be an Antiracist.
8. Systemic Racism
Definition: "Policies and practices that exist throughout a whole society or organization, and that result in and support a continued unfair advantage to some people and unfair or harmful treatment of others based on race." — Cambridge dictionary.
Systemic racism refers to the existing policies and practices in society designed to have racist outcomes and supports discrimination against people who aren't white. These systems are seen in education, health care, housing, politics, and many other areas of society.
White people benefit from systemic racism but it also prevents people who are not white from having privileges and access that white people have.
“The major insight about systemic and institutional racism is that there is no such thing as ‘a little bit of racism’ or ‘pockets of racism’ or ‘random incidents of racism’ isolated from the rest of society. Whether you realize it or not, racism is systemic, pervasive, and embedded within the core of all of our major institutions," Dr. Crystal Marie Fleming wrote in her book,How To Be Less Stupid About Race.
Addressing and dismantling systemic racism is important in tackling racial inequity because we can't be equal when there are practices and policies in place that make it hard for groups of people to survive and thrive.
9. Cultural Appropriation
Definition: "The unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society." — Oxford dictionary.
Cultural appropriation happens when people outside a culture use items, language, practices, symbols, and other elements in a disrespectful way to the culture they are copying from. It is dangerous because it reinforces stereotypes about other cultures and contributes to their oppression.
Cultural appropriation is most common in music, fashion, and pop-culture. While it is okay to appreciate other cultures, it is important to understand the difference between appropriation and appreciation.
"The reality is that adjudicating between cultural appreciation and appropriation is never simple, and that is because cultures are vast, complex, historically determined, and ever-changing," says Joshua E. Kane, a lecturer and chair of the College of Integrative Sciences and Art (CISA) Antiracism Textbook Taskforce at Arizona State University.
"Sharing in each others’ cultures is not only good; when done right, it is important and helps build community,” Kane adds. “But cultural sharing is best when done mindfully. And cultural appreciation is best when it is not ephemeral or fad-inspired."
Definition: "The action of making amends for a wrong done, by providing payment or other assistance to those who have been wronged." — Oxford dictionary.
Reparations are compensation and restitution paid to someone or a group of people who have had crimes committed against them.
For example, many minority communities have been exploited by white people through colonization, slavery, and other terrible forms of oppression. As a result, these groups and communities are demanding reparations for all they have suffered and continue to suffer, many generations later.
"Justice requires not only the ceasing and desisting of injustice but also requires either punishment or reparation for injuries and damages inflicted for prior wrongdoing," said Amos Wilson, an activist, scholar, and professor of psychology.
"The essence of justice is the redistribution of gains earned through the perpetration of injustice,” Wilson continued. “If restitution is not made and reparations not instituted to compensate for prior injustices, those injustices are in effect rewarded."
Definition:"A person or organization that cooperates with or helps another in a particular activity." — Oxford dictionary.
An ally is someone who recognizes their privilege and works with people who are not white to address inequality.
Many people who do not themselves experience the oppression of minority groups and communities may support and help amplify when the people in those marginalized groups speak up for themselves. Others might lend their resources and time toward ensuring an equitable world. These are allies.
"What we really need white people to do is consciously, consistently, and intentionally unlearn racism," said Nova Reid, an activist and the author of The Good Ally.
"Being an ally means being able to recognize this,” Reid continues. “To me, an ally is a person who advocates and works alongside the Black community, who uplifts communities for a shared common goal driven solely by the cause — not so that they can look good."
Definition: "The practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from under-represented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce." — Cambridge dictionary.
As racial and ethinc minority groups continue to fight for better representation and diversity, some organizations and people want to look diverse instead of doing the work to actually be diverse. This results in tokenism, which is simply uplifting a few people from a minority group to give the appearance of diversity.
Tokenism does not actually help the minority group involved because no lasting change is ever made.
“Tokenism is about inserting diverse characters because you feel you have to; true diversity means writing characters that aren’t just defined by the color of their skin, and casting the right actor for the role,” actor America Ferrera wrote in a 2016 essay about diversity for Deadline Hollywood.