Activist Terms Explained — Part One

Quote bubbles with activist terms

We understand that we approach this work in progressive movement spaces from many walks of life, so we thought it would be helpful to take a moment to align on definitions for words that we frequently use and how we use them. We share definitions in context and in relation to one another and this is largely a curation of definitions from folks and resources that we know and love, so we’re linking as we go along! 

There are lots of terms we want to walk through, so consider this post Part One. Here we will cover the different goals of activism, terms related to identity activists speak about, and the social systems of oppression that activists navigate.

Feel free to shoot us any questions or comments to Let’s begin!

Start Here: Social Justice 101

Social Activism and Community Organizing

These terms often get conflated because often an activist is also a community organizer, but their roles are in fact distinct. So let’s review how we understand them — 

Climate justice activist Anjali Appadurai defines activism in her Ted Talk as challenging authority: “the practice of addressing an issue, any issue, by challenging those in power.”

On the other hand, “community organizing is a democratically-governed long-term process by which people are brought together to act in their common self-interest to identify community problems and solutions, and to take action by engaging existing power structures to make those solutions a reality.” (Source: ECON). 

In The Purpose of Power, Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza writes, “The mission and purpose of organizing is to build power. Without power, we are unable to change conditions in our communities that hurt us. A movement is successful if it transforms the dynamics and relationships of power.” 

Equity, Equality, and Liberation

A series of three images depicting three scenarios. Three people of different heights are each standing trying to watch a ball game. The first image depicts equality. The second equity. The third liberation.Image Credit: Collaboration between Interaction Institute for Social Change and Center for Story-Based Strategy | Artist: Angus Maguire

From Nicole Cardoza, the Anti-Racism Daily:

The framework starts with this illustration on the left. Three people of different heights are each standing on a box behind a fence, trying to watch a ball game. The boxes are all the same size. As a result, the first person can easily see above the fence. The second person can just see above the fence. And the shortest person, despite the box, still can’t see at all. This represents how equal distribution of resources across communities with different needs doesn’t yield even outcomes. Proponents of “equality-based” interventions think that this is fairer. But it doesn’t consider the unique needs of each population involved.
In contrast, the equity side changes how the boxes are distributed to ensure everyone can see over the fence. In the image, the shortest individual is standing on two boxes, the middle-height person on one, and the tallest without. It’s a simple way to advocate for needs-based distribution that creates a similar outcome for all. Some examples of this in real life may include offering financial aid based on a family’s income. Another could be prioritizing those immunocompromised first to get access to vaccines. Note that the same number of boxes were used in both illustrations, indicating that the same resources can be distributed more effectively.
The third image in the illustration series removes the barrier altogether. The fence is gone so that everyone can see the ball game without any aid, regardless of height. Entitled “liberation,” it reflects the notion that “instead of working against the constraints, why don’t we just remove them altogether?” This line of thinking is common in more liberal calls for change. When people call to abolish the criminal justice system, they emphasize that we need to think beyond the current system entirely. The creators of the illustration note that this image “introduces the idea that narrative assumptions often hide in plain sight.” 

Power, Privilege, and Oppression

Every person’s power and privilege are impacted by social identities (more on this below), whether through advantage or disadvantage. Power, privilege, and oppression are a complicated dynamic in which some communities hold greater manufactured ability in the economic, social, and political sense to marginalize and control other communities.

Power is the capability or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events. Privilege is having unearned benefits because of an identity you hold, whether that be of resources, opportunities, institutions, or representations. We all hold some type of privilege; it is not a binary but rather a range we fall on and between. On the other hand, oppression is “a system that maintains advantage and disadvantage based on social group memberships and operates, intentionally and unintentionally, on individual, institutional, and cultural levels” (Scripps). 

How Oppression Operates – Cycle of Oppression

Illustration of the cycle of racism and oppression. Source: What is Racism? – Dismantling Racism Works

It’s important to note that privileges and intersections of domination are ever changing as our relation to others is changing. What advantages we have, don’t have, and wish to have are contingent upon the ways in which we navigate our social and cultural spaces.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, or DEI as it is commonly referred, is a phrase that broadly outlines the efforts an organization takes to create a more welcoming environment for marginalized identities.

The following definitions come from Independent Sector:

Diversity includes all the ways in which people differ, encompassing the different characteristics that make one individual or group different from another. While diversity is often used in reference to race, ethnicity, and gender, we embrace a broader definition of diversity that also includes age, national origin, religion, disability, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, education, marital status, language, and physical appearance. Our definition also includes diversity of thought: ideas, perspectives, and values. We also recognize that individuals affiliate with multiple identities.
Equity is the fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all people, while at the same time striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of some groups. Improving equity involves increasing justice and fairness within the procedures and processes of institutions or systems, as well as in their distribution of resources. Tackling equity issues requires an understanding of the root causes of outcome disparities within our society.
Inclusion is the act of creating environments in which any individual or group can be and feel welcomed, respected, supported, and valued to fully participate. An inclusive and welcoming climate embraces differences and offers respect in words and actions for all people. It’s important to note that while an inclusive group is by definition diverse, a diverse group isn’t always inclusive. Increasingly, recognition of unconscious or ‘implicit bias’ helps organizations to be deliberate about addressing issues of inclusivity.

Terms Related to Identity that Activists Speak About 

Our identities shape how we think about ourselves, how we relate to the world, and how the world relates to and views us. While there are many ways that society has categorized people over time, YW Boston highlights the “Big 8” social identities. These include race, gender, age, ability, sexual orientation, religion, immigration status, and class.  Our identities are composed of these individual categories. The way that these social identities overlap and effect one another, creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage is called intersectionality.


Intersectionality, coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw is defined as “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classim) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups.”

In an interview with Vox, Crenshaw said, “Intersectionality was a prism to bring to light dynamics within discrimination law that weren’t being appreciated by the courts. In particular, courts seem to think that race discrimination was what happened to all black people across gender and sex discrimination was what happened to all women, and if that is your framework, of course, what happens to black women and other women of color is going to be difficult to see.”

For more, watch: 


Race, Ethnicity, and Culture

Race is a social construct aimed at categorizing and grouping communities of people together based on shared perceivable characteristics. Ethnicity is a grouping of people who identify with each other on the basis of shared attributes like a common national or cultural tradition. And culture refers to the shared meanings and behaviors between groups of people as a collective community. It has an underlying code, social, moral, economic, and political, for when individuals choose to participate in that community they tacitly agree to the unspoken rules of conduct.

While we’re here — what does BIPOC mean? According to The BIPOC Project (creators of the term BIPOC), “we use the term BIPOC to highlight the unique relationship to whiteness that Indigenous and Black (African Americans) people have, which shapes the experiences of and relationship to white supremacy for all people of color within a U.S. context.” It’s important to note that this is an intentional difference from using POC (aka People of Color) in order to recognize that not all people of color face the same levels of injustice. “By specifically naming Black and Indigenous people, we are recognizing that Black and Indigenous people face the worst consequences of systemic White supremacy, classism, and settler colonialism” —The Sunrise Movement.

Sex, Gender, and Sexuality

The following definitions and graphic come from Trans Student Educational Resources:

  • Gender Identity – One’s internal sense of being male, female, neither of these, both, or another gender(s). Everyone has a gender identity, including you. For transgender people, their sex assigned at birth and their own internal sense of gender identity are not the same. Female, woman, and girl and male, man, and boy are also not necessarily linked to each other but are just six common gender identities.
  • Gender Expression/Presentation – The physical manifestation of one’s gender identity through clothing, hairstyle, voice, body shape, etc. Many transgender people seek to make their gender expression (how they look) match their gender identity (who they are), rather than their sex assigned at birth.
  • Sex Assigned at Birth – The assignment and classification of people as male, female, intersex, or another sex based on a combination of anatomy, hormones, chromosomes. It is important we don’t simply use “sex” because of the vagueness of the definition of sex and its place in transphobia. Chromosomes are frequently used to determine sex from prenatal karyotyping (although not as often as genitalia). Chromosomes do not always determine genitalia, sex, or gender.
  • Physically Attracted To – Sexual orientation. It is important to note that sexual and romantic/emotional attraction can be from a variety of factors including but not limited to gender identity, gender expression/presentation, and sex assigned at birth.
  • Emotionally Attracted To – Romantic/emotional orientation. It is important to note that sexual and romantic/emotional attraction can be from a variety of factors including but not limited to gender identity, gender expression/presentation, and sex assigned at birth. There are other types of attraction related to gender such as aesthetical or platonic. These are simply two common forms of attraction.

The Gender Unicorn by Ladyn Pan and Anna Moore.


The following definitions and breakdown of the LGBTQIA+ acronym come from LGBTQIA+ Info

  • Lesbian – Lesbian is a term used to refer to homosexual females
  • Gay – Gay is a term used to refer to homosexuality, a homosexual person, or a homosexual male
  • Bisexual – Bisexual is when a person is attracted to two sexes/genders
  • Trans – Trans is an umbrella term for transgender and transsexual people
  • Queer/Questioning – Queer is an umbrella term for all of those who are not heterosexual and/or cisgender. Questioning is when a person isn’t 100% sure of their sexual orientation and/or gender and are trying to find their true identity.
  • Intersex – Intersex is when a person has an indeterminate mix of primary and secondary sex characteristics
  • Asexual – Asexuality is when a person experiences no (or little, if reffering to demisexuality or grey-asexuality) sexual attraction to people. Note the A does not stand for “ally.”
  • + – the “+” symbol simply stands for all of the other sexualities, sexes, and genders that aren’t included in these few letters

Social Systems of Oppression that Activists Navigate 

Throughout her writing, bell hooks has used the term “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” to describe the power structure underlying the social order. In an interview she gave in 2015, she explained, “that phrase always reminds me of a global context, of the context of class, of empire, of capitalism, of racism and of patriarchy. Those things are all linked — an interlocking system.” Let’s break those terms down.

Imperialism and Colonialism

The dictionary defines imperialism as the policy, practice, or advocacy of extending the power and dominion of a nation especially by direct territorial acquisitions or by gaining indirect control over the political or economic life of other areas.

Kanishaka Sikri teaches us that “Colonialism refers to the dispossession, marginalization, and oppression of certain geospatial areas by other people, communities, and nations. This can be physical settlement, commonly referred to as settler colonialism; military occupation of an area; resource extraction and exploitation; trade imbalances; and forceful state coercion.” Furthermore, what is important to note is that the long-term result of such massive dispossession is institutionalized inequality. Colonization produces an unequal power relation which benefits the colonizer at the expense of the colonized.

White Supremacy and Racism

Racism is best understood in context of the level it’s being expressed – personal, institutional, cultural, and structural. These definitions are informed by Maggie Potapchuk, Sally Leiderman, Donna Bivens, and Barbara Major in Flipping the Script: White Privilege and Community Building

  • Individual racism – think: interactions between people. Individual racism refers to the beliefs, attitudes, and actions of individuals that support or perpetuate racism. Individual racism can be deliberate or unintentional, but their intent does not excuse their exercise. 
  • Institutional racism – think: within institutions and systems of power. Institutional racism refers specifically to the ways in which institutional policies and practices create different outcomes for different racial groups. The institutional policies may never mention any racial group, but their effect is to create advantages for White folks and oppression and disadvantage for people of color.
  • Cultural racism – think: cultural norms and values. Cultural racism refers to representations, messages and stories conveying the idea that behaviors and values associated with White people or “Whiteness” are automatically “better” or more “normal” than those associated with other racially defined groups. It shows up in advertising, movies, history books, definitions of patriotism, and in policies and laws. 
  • Structural / systemic racism – think: the whole system. Often used interchangeably, systemic and structural racism encompass the entire system of White domination, diffused and infused in all aspects of society including its history, culture, politics, economics, and entire social fabric. Structural racism is more difficult to locate in a particular institution because it involves the reinforcing effects of multiple institutions and cultural norms, past and present, continually reproducing old and producing new forms of racism. Structural racism is the most profound and pervasive form of racism – all other forms of racism emerge from structural racism.

Racism is different from racial prejudice, hatred, or discrimination. Racism is when the power elite of one group has the power to carry out systematic discrimination through the institutional policies and practices of the society while shaping the cultural beliefs and values that support those racist policies and practices.

Three Expressions of Racism

Three Expressions of Racism illustration. Source: What is Racism? – Dismantling Racism Works

Dismantling Racism Works defines White supremacy as “the idea (ideology) that white people and the ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions of white people are superior to People of Color and their ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions. While most people associate white supremacy with extremist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazis, white supremacy is ever present in our institutional and cultural assumptions that assign value, morality, goodness, and humanity to the white group while casting people and communities of color as worthless (worth less), immoral, bad, and inhuman and ‘undeserving.’ Drawing from critical race theory, the term ‘white supremacy’ also refers to a political or socio-economic system where white people enjoy structural advantage and rights that other racial and ethnic groups do not, both at a collective and an individual level.”

Capitalism and Inequality

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines capitalism as, “a way of organizing an economy so that the things that are used to make and transport products (such as land, oil, factories, ships, etc.) are owned by individual people and companies rather than by the government.” It is the belief that private individuals own the rights to capital and labor. Capitalism is the basis for our economy in the U.S. and has been adopted by most of the world’s largest economies.

Karl Marx presented the belief that capitalism is the exploitation of the many by the few. He believed that it is a system based on gross inequality, and that it requires various tools to divide the majority–racism and all oppressions under capitalism serve this purpose (Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor). Marx saw two sides to the transaction of capitalism; the owners and the laborers. He believed that the selfish nature of capitalism encourages owners of capital to exploit the laborers.

Other related terms and their definitions:

  • Unfettered capitalism speaks to the need for large corporations to only be accountable to driving growth and profits for their shareholders at the expense of all other stakeholders and the planet. It speaks to the financial incentives to cause harm (think: cigarettes, predatory lenders, the opioid epidemic.) And it speaks to the mass accumulation of wealth and growing inequality.
  • Racial capitalism, as theorized by Cedric Robinson, argues that this system was built and flourished through the exploitation of people through slavery, imperialism, and genocide.
  • Neoliberalism is a model of capitalism that operates through the privatization of public goods, deregulation of trade, diminishment of social services, and emphasis on individual freedoms.

Patriarchy, Misogyny, and Sexism

We are sure many can relate when we say that bell hooks deserves full credit for shaping our understanding of patriarchy. She defines patriarchy as “a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.”

From her phrase “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy'', she says, patriarchy is the system that we learn the most, even if we never know the name. This is because “patriarchal gender roles are assigned to us as children and we are given continual guidance about the ways we can best fulfill these roles.” 

Kate Manne, author of Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, argues that sexism is the ideology that supports patriarchal social relations, but misogyny enforces it when there’s a threat of that system going away. She emphasizes that misogyny is not about male hostility or hatred toward women — instead, it’s about controlling and punishing women who challenge male dominance. Misogyny rewards women who reinforce the status quo and punishes those who don’t.