Key Terms and Definitions

This is a work in progress on terms that are often used in discussions on equity, diversity and inclusion. Thoughts are added as I learn more.

Race. Race is a social and power construct based on what humans look like on the outside. These are called phenotypes. Phenotypes come from the interaction of genes with environment. Because those phenotypes generally join genes to the environments where one’s ancestors are from, the idea of race is easily misconstrued as genetic. But, historically, it has been used in ways that have nothing to do with genetics (Alexander, Gilroy, Yancy). So, when I say I am Black, it has nothing to do with genetics and in fact like so many other people, I have never actually seen what my DNA tells me about where my ancestors lived.

Understanding race requires a historical rhetorical viewing. In understanding race as a construct sedimented in gendered contexts, we must look at the origins of the categorization in the United States. Race is a system built to distinguish those who could be capital from those who could be owners.

When I say I am Black, I am acknowledging the social position I was born to here in the US. I am acknowledging all the people who are in this with me and I am claiming my history of struggles and successes. Sadly, part of those struggles has been reminding other humans that we do indeed belong to the same species or scientific race. Race is often conflated with other identifiers like nationality, ethnicity and even religion. Being Muslim is increasingly more like the social construct of race in the United States but it is not phenotypic and most people can easily change that descriptor by deciding to be something else so in that way it is very different from what we generally think of as race. Nationality and ethnicity are also mutable but not nearly so ascriptive as religious affiliation. These histories of race and nationhood are covered extensively in Nell Painter’s A History of White People and Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities.

People of Color. The term “people of color” is connected to race historically as it was originally used to delineate anyone whose ancestry included people who were non-European. In the United States, this would by and large have meant people with African ancestry. However, that meaning came to include conflation over time. Generally speaking, when someone uses the term people of color today, that person is referring to someone who does not enjoy the privileges of whiteness in the United States. Those privileges can be deactivated via a number of vectors. For instance, many people who are from South America may in fact have European ancestry but find that they are not given the same socio-cultural privileges in the United States as citizens here who are considered white. This may be enacted by perceived accent or difference in commonly identified last names which effectively can mean that person of color means anyone who does not present as the average white citizen of the United States or an honorary thereof. In a strange twist of rhetorical meaning, it seems color itself is one of many factors that can render a person non-white or a person of color. Other factors might include country of origin (not just continent), accent detection, profession, economic status, perceived assimilation readiness, hair texture, eye color, and a host of other characteristics that are socially constructed to race people. For the purpose of this project, people of color will refer specifically to people who experience the traditional constructs of standing outside white privilege. As that privilege was originally constructed to literally contain people of African descent and literally push out indigenous people here in the United States, people who fall into this category may often be conflated with Black and brown people whether they identify that way or not. This is further codified by the practice in certain societies of offering particular groups of people “honorary white” status wherein someone of non-European descent could explicitly by law or policy enjoy the privileges of a white person i.e. Japanese people in both the Nazu honorary Aryan system and South Africa’s apartheid system.

Class. There is the lengthy body of literature that iterates class in terms of Western systems of social order from antiquity through modernity. These iterations have grown into crystallized communist representations and capitalist ones. The most common reifications of those ideas are in the expressions of class as a matter of wealth and access to monetary resources in frames of upper, middle and lower classes. Various other idioms point to these as well including proletariat or working class (typically presumed to mean low or lower-middle class), bourgeoisie, and more recently in Western society, the one percent or ruling class. These notions of economic status seem to spring forth relative to control over means of production or closeness to those means. However, Marx’s theoretical ground cannot fully capture class well enough for the benefit of the project here without the addition of race as an understanding.

In the United States, and in many other raced societies, race is a historical foundation of class. The two concepts are intertwined at the dawn of American capitalism where race becomes the means for establishing class through hundreds of years of forced labor. Enslaved Africans’ closeness to the means of production and control of it was structured based on the invention of race designations and systems. We tend to think of race as being a matter of black and white or varying classifications that mirror distinctions put forth by those categorizations. But race, in the United States, is first and foremost about economic position and was delineated carefully in that manner. The system of economic stratification was propped up on the ownership and usage of people and ownership or use of other human beings was in turn propped up by racial categorizations ranging from the one-drop rule deeming anyone with “black blood” as being Black to the octoroon and quadroon designations that identified levels of blackness and assigned economic and social privileges accordingly. For the purposes of this project which is steeped heavily in United States history and the experiences of people in the post-enslavement eras of the United States, class is inextricably linked to race and poverty is commonly a comorbidity of Blackness. Class is raced.

This is not to suggest that there are not people of other races who experience the struggles of the American lower class but rather that the origin of that class is in enslavement and proximity to it. Owners where the upper class and pinnacles of whiteness. The ability to purchase other people was the class and race goal of achievement. The inability to purchase other people was the lower class. As with any system, there are exceptions. White people (many of whom were only considered white in more recent American imaginaries of communities) were owned by other white people and black people were sometimes owners of other black people. But the impulse was to normalize the notion that to be enslaved, lower class or economically powerless was synonymous with Blackness and in fact a predisposition. (citations needed).

Gender. Gender, like race and class, is also a social construct. Gender is the performance of a role or set of roles that a society deems appropriate for the assignment one holds. Simone de Beauvoir unpacks this in her magnum opus, The Second Sex declaring “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” (citation needed). As with the binaries of Black and white, gender has often been represented in dual foci of male or female. Like the phenotype relationship to race, gender has a relationship to sex and then genital anatomy observed at birth. Once the observation of the sex is noted at birth, many families begin to delineate roles for a child based on that observation. There are cases in which the observation is incomplete or wrong such as the guevedoces of The Dominican Republic who were assigned the sex of female at birth and then developed penises at about 12 years of age, hijras of South Asia many of whom are intersex, and the case of the 19th century French intersex person (previously called hermaphrodite) Herculine Barbin whose memoirs were translated and published by Michel Foucault. These cases support a notion of biological sex as less polemically defined than the assignments of binary gender roles would imply. Furthermore, gender as a set of roles has become less polemically defined over time as well. Gender is a performance of those roles. Because those roles have traditionally been separated in terms of public and private lives including the public vs. private aspects of work, inheritance and property ownership, gender roles also have class implications. In the United States, women’s class roles have been by proxy of men. The right to change this and enter the public sphere for economic as well as other self determination reasons was fought for in women’s movements documented throughout American history. These movements came to prominence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries during the suffragist movements to gain women’s right to vote.  The suffragist movement was one informed by and supported by many of the same women who had participated in the abolitionist movement. The experience and legacies of slavery that continued the structural racism of unbearable sharecropping arrangements, Jim Crow laws, and other systems had taught Black women that their gender roles were not socially constructed in the same way that white women’s were.

In many ways, gender was raced. The epitome of purity and womanliness were the domain of white women and pitted in direct contradiction to the roles of Black women as being more brutish and not only less womanly or feminine but even less human. As is the case with most constructs, the categorizations exhibit some notable departures from the norm. Indeed, these few and far between departures are what often cause people to miss the dominant structures as they focus on isolations and rare incidents. The system was often built along gender lines. As it became more and more dangerous and costly to grow human capital by enslaving people in African societies and forcing them to move to the United States, owners began to consider alternatives. The most popular of these was to produce one’s own livestock. Relying upon several systems of reproduction assurance, owners needed categorizations to make clear distinctions in livestock and roles in the means of production. Gender offered this at many levels of the system.

This often persists today in perception of womanhood that are based in the “fineness” of northern European idealism wherein femininity (and thus beauty) is defined in relationship to whiteness.  Gender is a site of socio-economic oppression amplified and multiplied by factors that stem from racialization and colorism. Gender is raced.

Feminism. An impulse to do something about the socio-economic inequality experienced by women because of repressive ideas of gender roles and the idea of a woman’s place is often referred to as feminism. However, not all feminism has acknowledged the inequality of gender as a raced social construct. The term feminism refers to the general idea that the gender roles of women and men (assigned via physical observations or biological imperatives) are equally entitled to human rights. This is put forth extensively in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Feminism is generally applied as a term describing the suffrage movements discussed above, though the term, attributed to sociologist Charles Fourier may not have been widely used outside of France and England at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

“My own definition is a feminist is a man or a woman who says, yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better. All of us, women and men, must do better.” (Adichie)

Womanism. The term womanism refers to a movement that embraces the principles of feminism but rejects the cultural defaults that tend to go along with its practice and illustrations. Womanism embraces equality of the sexes but also recognizes a hegemony that is layered by more than sex and gender. Womanism also recognizes and embraces nature as a component of human rights.

Critical Race Theory. Critical Race Theory (CRT) scholars seek to expose race as a fundamental element of injustice in the United States. Such injustice is not only present in highly visible circumstances such as police brutality (Chaney and Robertson; Jeffries and Jeffries) but also in more nuanced circumstances such as corporate hiring and promotion (Rocco). CRT scholars propose that in examinations of injustice, in the United States at least but elsewhere as well, the role of racism must be an assumption not a question. CRT posits that whiteness is performed and reinforced pervasively in American society and supports not only racial oppression but other forms as well. In this sense, CRT also proposes that challenges to inequity must be done in the space of coalitions and cross-structural activism.

Minority. We generally think of minority as being synonymous with people of color. This is a particularly narrow social view. In terms of population, people of color make up most of the world’s population. However, within the context of the United States, people of color have historically made up less of the population than those who are considered white. They have also been in positions of less economic and social power making it easier to push their concerns and representation to the margins of society where they are easily ignored or abused. While the numeric dynamic of this is changing, the power one is not. Many social scientists estimate that by 2050 the U.S. white population will be less than half of the total population making them a technical minority. However, that trend does not share a positive correlation with the share of wealth and power. Instead, social science predictions indicate that the marginalization will continue. (Pew)

Margin. In intersectionality literature, the margin is a metaphoric space along the outskirts of the important text and narrative. The margin is the edge or border. In some contexts it is an addition to the portion of a thing that is important. To be marginalized means to be relegated to the unimportant space or the space where the after thoughts occur. Marginalization of people suggests that they do not matter to the important parts of society. Intersectionality recognizes this and points out that there are those people who are forced to exist even at the outskirts of the margins, the outermost corners because they are pushed away from the main body by a multiplicity of factors.

The intersection is a space where marginality is assumed to be finite but is not. There are infinite opportunities to be marginalized which in turn creates infinite opportunities to be unbound and create further space even within the margins. Intersectionality also leaves open infinite opportunities to create community within the margins and push back against the power of the intersecting oppressions. The ability to come together along the margins and create community is nothing short of the ability to create and enact freedom but as Coretta Scott King indicated, this freedom is not to be taken for granted. King explained that freedom requires constant care and attention and it is up to each generation to re-cognize it, re-construct it and re-member its components. I am a descendant of the Crenshaw generation both intellectually and temporally. I have benefitted from their work both in the academy and in the broader public sphere. The structures that Crenshaw identified as mechanisms of intersectional oppression are still in existence.

Oppression. Oppression is the maintenance of margins, systems, laws and policies that serve the purpose of continuing historical regimes of power. Oppression is in the way a society works. In the United States oppression is often enacted along lines of identity that have historically been part of the exclusion from power. This means that systems, laws and policies are in place to maintain a status quo wherein people who are non-white, non-male and otherwise outside acceptable social orders, are kept from power. In a capitalist society, the end goal of this as well as the means by which it is accomplished is primarily economic oppression. This means that the economic positions of undesirables is subjugated by cutting off access to routes of prosperity. This includes property ownership, education, and political participation. Oppression occurs along those lines as well as many others and is expressed in the form of racism, sexism and other systemic identity based subjugation in order to enforce classism.

Discrimination. When people make individualized decisions that perpetuate and sustain the systems described above, this is defined as discrimination. As an example, the existence of policies at mortgage companies and municipalities that allowed for minority communities to be “redlined” wherein neighborhoods of color were systemically rated lower in value than white ones is an example of a system of oppression. A realtor’s decision to prevent Black homebuyers from making bids on homes in certain communities or of property owners to refuse sale to Black buyers is an example of discriminatory practice within a system of oppression.