A Glossary Of Anti-Racism Terms All Activists & Allies Should Know

In light of ongoing protests for racial justice and against police brutality, many young people are starting to have conversations about race with their friends and family members. Whether you’re an activist who has long been steeped in anti-racist work or someone who wants to be a better ally, it is useful to have a firm grasp on anti-racist language before trying to talk about it with someone who is new to the topic. To help you get started, below you’ll find a glossary of anti-racism terms all activists and allies should know.

Talking about race, privilege, power is often not easy or comfortable, but it is extremely necessary. In order to talk about these subjects in an accessible way, you first need to familiarize yourself with some key terms and phrases. That way, you will be better equipped to answer questions about everything from white privilege to defunding the police. This glossary is meant to be a starting point, and to learn more about anti-racist work, there are many reading lists and resources that can help you dive deeper into each of the below topics.

Here are some important terms and phrases you may encounter as you engage in anti-racist work, accompanied by definitions to get you started. This list is not exhaustive, and will be updated.

Abolition

While some activists advocate to defund, but keep, police forces, some activists advocate following that with abolition, which seeks to dismantle the prison-industrial complex (PIC) entirely.

According to activist group Critical Resistance, PIC abolition aims to eliminate imprisonment, policing, and surveillance as responses to harm. Instead of investing in more police and prisons, abolitionists want to get rid of these things entirely, in favor of restorative and transformative justice.

Anti-Blackness

Anti-Blackness refers to systemic racism and oppression specifically against Black people, which includes the devaluation of Black lives, casual violence against Black people, and the unwillingness to acknowledge their humanity.

Anti-Blackness is in part overt racism against Black people; this is the type of racism that is blatantly visible, whether through slurs, hate crimes, police brutality, or other targeted attacks. The second part is covert or unspoken systemic racism, which plays a major role in Black people’s socioeconomic status in the United States. (See “institutional racism” above.) Unlike overt racism, covert racism typically hides behind existing laws and institutions, and often takes on a guise of “political correctness” to seem palatable. Covert anti-Blackness manifests in everything from racist housing laws and Black maternal mortality rates to the disproportionate damage imposed by climate change on predominantly Black neighborhoods. In both its overt and covert forms, white and non-Black people of color may perpetuate anti-Blackness in their communities and institutions.

Anti-Racism

The commitment to identifying and fighting racism in any form, including in yourself and your own life. It is an active stance, as opposed to simply “not being racist.” According to Ibram X. Kendi, the author of How To Be Antiracist, being non-racist implies neutrality, and neutrality in the face of racism simply upholds existing racist systems.

BIPOC

An acronym for Black, Indigenous, People of Color. Activists have started using the term BIPOC more frequently than “people of color” to highlight the disproportionate forms of oppression faced by Black and Indigenous people, while still building solidarity among all people of color.

However, this term should not be used when speaking to or about a specific group of people — if the issues you’re discussing specifically affect, say, Black people, make sure you say that, rather than use an umbrella term like "BIPOC" or "people of color."

Black Lives Matter

The #BlackLivesMatter movement and network was launched in 2013 by three Black organizers: Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi. Seven years later, Black Lives Matter is both a rallying cry and an activist network demanding justice and humanity for Black people — not only in light of police killings, but also in fields ranging from education and housing to electoral politics and health care. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” refers to the fact that Black lives should matter, but that existing systems and institutions do not currently treat them as though they do.

Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation is the act of taking fashion, music, style, or other trends from another culture. More specifically, cultural appropriation refers to when someone from a dominant culture takes elements from the culture of a group that has historically been oppressed or marginalized and uses them for the dominant group’s benefit. (This is what distinguishes cultural appropriation from acts of cultural exchange.) Examples of cultural appropriation including donning a Halloween costume depicting Indigenous people, or sporting looks that “borrow” Black hairstyles.

Defund the Police

Activists who advocate to defund the police demand that instead of putting more money into policing in order to reform it, governments should direct that money away from the police and into other resources, like education, health care, and housing in marginalized communities.

This concept does not call for immediately eliminating police, and it does not mean that there will be no one responding to calls for help. Instead, activists want resources that currently go toward policing to instead be used to address specific community needs and prevent the root causes of crime, thereby eliminating the need for police.

Institutional Racism

Institutional racism looks at the big picture of how racism is enshrined in systems at every level of society, and affects people of color in all aspects of their lives. You may also hear the related terms “structural racism” and “systemic racism” to describe how the social structures and systems in place today were designed to benefit people in positions of power — namely, straight cisgender white men. Institutional racism has manifested in things like voter suppression, the disproportionate incarceration of Black and Latinx people, and the War on Drugs.

Internalized Racism

Internalized racism describes what happens when people of color accept or normalize the racism in the society around them, often due to the racism and stigma they have experienced. People who internalize racism may not know they are doing it, but doing so may cause them to hold negative beliefs about their own identity, race, and community. While the experience of internalized racism will differ depending on a person’s individual community, on a systemic level, internalized racism is often the product of systems that reward people of color for upholding or colluding with systems of whiteness, power, and privilege. People of color can’t force white people to confront their own racism and privilege, but they can work on their own internalized racism.

Intersectionality

Intersectionality refers to the overlap of systems of oppression — including sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. — and the way they disproportionately affect people with intersecting identities. (For example, the unique ways in which Black women are subjected to both racism and sexism.)

The theory of intersectionality was developed by lawyer and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. In 2020, Crenshaw defined intersectionality in an interview with TIME as “a lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other.” Today, activists commonly use the term intersectionality to describe the ways in which different forms of oppression interact with and exacerbate one another.

Microaggression

Microaggressions are subtly discriminatory incidents, statements, or other experiences. Examples of racist microaggressions can include being asked to explain your origins, being compared to other people of your race, or assumptions about your intentions based on your race and appearance. Unlike explicit racial slurs or racist attacks, microaggressions manifest in more insidious ways, and can have a lifelong negative impact on physical and mental health, particularly when they happen frequently and the effects are compounded. The term “microaggression” was originally coined by Dr. Chester Pierce in 1970 and subsequently used by Columbia professor Derald Sue.

Race vs. Ethnicity

Race and ethnicity overlap, but they are not the same thing. Ethnicity is an anthropological term used to refer to people in a certain geographic region or the descendants of those people who share cultural markers like nationality, language, and culture. Race, on the other hand, refers to physical, social, and biological attributes, like skin color. Jennifer DeVere Brody, Stanford University’s director of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity, told Oprah Mag in 2019 that “race is something we believe to be heritable, and ethnicity is something learned; however, this masks the history of how race has been used to create these concepts for political power.”

White Privilege

This term refers to the way in which institutions and systems give white people an advantage due to the color of their skin. The term “white privilege” does not signify that white people do not experience poverty or other hardships. Instead, it indicates that any systemic difficulties a white person encounters will not be the result of their skin color.

White Supremacy

White supremacy refers to the concept and social practice of treating whiteness as preferential or superior. However, the term goes beyond individual beliefs that white people are superior, and includes systems of oppression and exploitation based in this assumption.

White supremacy includes the historical enslavement and genocide of BIPOC, as well as more modern manifestations like redlining, voter suppression, and patterns of thinking that devalue non-white people. In a 2017 document for the Catalyst Project — an anti-racist center for political education in the San Francisco Bay Area — Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez, an American Chicana feminist organizer and educator, wrote that it is important to talk about white supremacy in the context of a system, rather than simply of “personal prejudices and individual acts of discrimination.”

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