As our health and social pandemics continue to open the cracks and inequities in our world, the vocabulary for discrimination of all forms has exploded into our public spaces. To some, it has all been new. To others, who have been connected or working in the critical social sciences, or race, gender, identity and sexuality studies or social justice and change spaces or any interdisciplinary social sciences where issues of inequities have long impacted service delivery and outcomes (think healthcare, housing, social work etc), it is everyday language and experience. Regardless, the terms and language are dizzying. If you take systemic racism alone, here are some, but by no means all, of the terms you need to know (see below and here).

Each of these carry with them different emotional charge for different people, running the gamut of anger, shame, blame, guilt, denial, fatigue…and hope. I certainly have been riding the emotional roller coaster on any given day, depending on the interaction I am in or the context of the day. Over the past few months, I have prepared and delivered talks on these issues, sat on panels, facilitated conversations and coached and supported other leaders to think about diversity, inclusion and addressing systemic racism in their unique contexts. In all this, I have both affirmed the need for understanding the systemic racism dictionary and advocated to keep it simple.

Here’s why we need to understand the lexicon of systemic racism:

It not about you, it’s about our collective societies

The purpose of the language surrounding systemic racism is to make transparent the societal inequalities that would otherwise be hidden. Humans are meaning-making beings and we get to understanding through language. If we do not have language for our experiences, we cannot articulate them and therefore lose our ability to make meaning of them and choose our response. We lose our agency. That means that the only way to shift systemic issues that impact us as a collective society is to name, understand and make choices to reinforce the patterns and experiences that serve us, or shift the ones that don’t. To do this, we must first understand the waters we are swimming in as a collective society that has given these issues room to grow. If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that systemic racism is a pattern that continues to hurt our world and is a pattern that we must change. We therefore need to make systemic racism and its impacts the object of our study. We don’t have to like the language associated with systemic racism. We just need to understand it enough to choose it as-is, or choose alternatives, or reframe to create different contexts and pathways to work from.

However, a  trap we fall into in the systemic racism/racial equity conversation is to quickly reject the language that makes us uncomfortable and use individual identity (intersectionality and positionality) to negate systemic issues. People can do this in two ways. First, by focusing on their own experience as a proxy for the collective truth. This is what happens when people say or imply: I’m not racist, so therefore these issues cannot be as widespread as I am hearing. Or recently in a session when a participant pointed to someone in one socially marginalized identity group who said the issues do not affect them and asked the ‘room’ why others could not also behave that way. Or second, by pointing to individual exceptions of Indigenous, Black and People of Colour (IBPOC) as evidence that success is possible for all. This exceptionalism view denies three core issues (1) that these exceptions are achieved despite systems of oppression in place as the data shows us, (2) that exceptions to norms exist across all races and (3) that these same success stories can tell you all the ways that they have experienced racism in spite of their achievements. Bottom line, the issues inherent in systemic racism are grounded in historical facts about how our society has developed and sustains race-based systems of privilege and oppression. The language surrounding systemic racism are terms seeking to help us understand how that has happened and how systemic racism continues to be upheld. Becoming aware of this is not an individual indictment. It is an invitation to choose a different way and to be part of the solution.  

Language and public discourse are powerful – we cannot address what we cannot see, acknowledge and understand…

Once we have language and understanding of the issues, we can see all the ways that systemic racism affects individuals and society. We can notice how everything from cosmetics to university entrance and workplace psychological testing to air travel (when we could still fly!) are designed for the privilege and convenience of white dominant peoples and countries. We can see how our language and public discourse consciously and unconsciously upholds mainstream norms and how all others are asked to accept, assimilate and conform to those norms. When we can see it, we can question it and we can change it. These issues have been sustained in public discourse, Racial myths and tropes have been made alive because of words, language, story and our global colonial heritage…and they need to change in our public consciousness and narratives likewise.

It’s about survival, safe spaces for thriving and anti-racism…

Birds of a feather flock together. We say this aphorism to capture the reality that living beings seek affinity. It is a survival instinct. It is the same reason why children who are in the out-groups in schools will seek out each other. We humans naturally seek the comfort of the familiar and this is exacerbated in a society where entire people groups are not affirmed in the mainstream. This is what happens when groups who experience systemic racism organize by affinity groups. Thus, subgroups and subcultures can and will form as people look for comfort and physical and psychological safety. Groups can then draw resilience, strength, identity and belonging needs – essentially all their unmet needs in society, within the subgroup and from there can choose to interact with the mainstream society from a better place of personal agency and affirmation. This tendency to differentiate can be labelled reverse racism or labelled as a risk of radicalization as has sometimes occurred with the Black Lives Matter organization and movement. Both arguments are in themselves racist ideas. First, an affinity group can only be racist when it’s core purpose, agenda or reason for being is to oppress another people group based on race. This actually defines white supremist groups that exist explicitly to uphold white dominance in the world by oppressing other races. Black affinity groups predominantly exist to center support and community and anti-racism in society, therefore, are not racist organizations unless they espouse a racist agenda. Second, as far as radicalization, the truth is ANY in-group can be radicalized. Therefore, to say for example that a Black affinity group is a radical organization simply because they are organized around blackness, is racist. A white affinity group that exists to uphold anti-racism in society would likewise not be a racist organization.

It’s all about Belonging

But won’t all this further divide us, you ask? I’d say that is the risk and reality we are living with even now. In our already divided societies, where half of us believe we need social change and half of us are ok with status quo, we are already living with this divide. I would advocate to flip the question. How can we use the moment to connect us, to remember that this is about shared humanity. And that’s where my advocacy for simplicity comes in. After you are overwhelmed or have an emotional reaction to the language that is helping us understand and unpack systemic racism…remember this…it is all about our human need for love and belonging. Psychology 101 teaches us through Maslow’s classic hierarchy of needs that once our physiological and safety needs are met, we all have a human need for belonging. We also call this love or connection but the bottom line is that in our humanity, in our design as social beings, we need each other. When we are denied that connection, it impacts our self-esteem and ability to actualized to our fullest potential, individually or within people groups and ultimately as entire societies and humanity. For too long, we have designed societies that have allowed those with social markers of power and privilege to thrive, while those without those markers  bear the burden of society’s progress. When it comes to racism, this is true across racial groups and gets replicated as internalized oppressions within people groups that then vie among themselves for survival of the fitness (think colorism, ethnic rivalry, xenophobia, tribalism…). The redesign of our world systems is already underway to create a more just and equitable society for all. And remember, the most fundamental reason why this is required is our human need for belonging.

  • Diversity and inclusion (D&I)
  • Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI)
  • Reconciliation, Equity and Inclusion (REDI)
  • Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI)
  • Indigenous, Black and People of Colour (IBPOC or BIPOC. Also  BAME – Black, Asian and minority ethnic – if in the UK)
  • Systemic racism
  • Structural racism
  • White supremacy
  • Colonialism
  • Power and privilege
  • People of colour
  • Equity-seeking /equity-deserving
  • Marginalized
  • Racialized
  • Anti-black racism
  • Anti-racism
  • Allyship
  • Unconscious bias
  • Microagressions
  • Oppressions
  • Intersectionality (The whole list (here and elsewhere) + Misogyny, Sexism, Homophobia, Transphobia, Ageism, Classism, Ableism…)