Social Justice Definitions

Here are some important definitions for understanding social justice. ACT for Social Justice has compiled definitions from various sources, and we have also adapted some definitions. They are arranged alphabetically. We will be continually updating and adding to this collection of definitions, so check back periodically.

Ableism is the normalization of able-bodied persons resulting in the privilege of perceived “normal ability” and the oppression and exclusion of people with disabilities at many levels in society. Normalized bodies are those that are considered in the planning and designing of society under capitalism, because those bodies are deemed profitable to those who rule capitalist society. Ableist thought leads to the planning and designing of communities in ways that deny access to people with disabilities. (Colours of Resistance)

Ally is someone who makes the commitment and effort to recognize their privilege (based on gender, class, race, sexual identity, etc.) and work in solidarity with oppressed groups in the struggle for justice. Allies understand that it is in their own interest to end all forms of oppression, even those from which they may benefit in concrete ways. Allies commit to reducing their own complicity or collusion in oppression of those groups and invest in strengthening their own knowledge and awareness of oppression. (Racial Equity Tools)

Capitalism is a system of domination based on class in which the ruling class owns and controls the resources of the society. Capitalism creates the wealth and power for the ruling class through the exploitation of land, waged and unwaged labor, and the oppression of non-ruling class people. (Challenging White Supremacy Workshop)

Class can be defined as relative social rank in terms of income, wealth, status, and power. A class group is a group of people who share similar roles in the economic system as particular kinds of workers, owners, and/or buyers/sellers/traders/consumers. Class is also the culture, knowledge, skills, and networks that come along with being part of a particular class group. In the U.S., and many other places, class is closely intertwined with other forms of hierarchy, especially race and gender. In fact, the U.S. economic system is so deeply based on racial stratification that race could be thought of as an aspect of class, and class as an aspect of race. The same could be said of gender, especially before the 1980s or so and continuing in some ways through the present. (Think Again Training)

Classism is the policies, attitudes, behaviors and beliefs that discriminate against and are used to disempower working class and poor people. Classism is one way within a capitalist system that the concentration of power and wealth is maintained. It perpetuates the belief that people are poor because they are lazy and stupid, rather than exposing the nature of the capitalist system that relies upon exploitable classes to thrive. (Catalyst Project)

Culture is a social system of meaning and custom that is developed by a group of people to assure its adaptation and survival. These groups are distinguished by a set of spoken and unspoken rules that shape values, beliefs, habits, patterns of thinking, behaviors and styles of communication, and are usually specific to ethnic, racial, religious, geographic, economic, or social groups. (adapted from Racial Equity Tools)

Cultural Competency is being aware of one’s own cultural identities and views about diversity, and continually learning about and interacting with cultures other than your own in a way that is respectful and responsive. Awareness, attitude, knowledge and skills are important in the ongoing process of culturally competency. (ACT for SJ)

Discrimination (behavior) is the differential allocation of goods, resources, and services, and the limitation of access to full participation in society based on individual membership in a particular social group; the unequal and differential treatment of others based on prejudiced thoughts or attitudes, usually resulting in negative or hostile actions towards minority groups in areas of education, employment, accommodation, health care, and access to goods and services. (adapted from Teaching for Diversity)

Diversity is a concept that encompasses acceptance and respect for the uniqueness of each individual. Each person is impacted by many things in life including the social group they are born into or in some cases have chosen – race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, physical abilities, religious beliefs, political beliefs, other ideologies. Diversity practice is the process of understanding each other and moving beyond simple tolerance to embracing and celebrating the rich dimensions of diversity contained within each individual. (adapted from University of Oregon)

Equity is a human rights principle that means people put in what they can and get back what they need. In health care it means people get the health care they need and pay what they are able. In restorative justice it means people put in what they can and get the support they need to restore justice where harm was done and reenter society as a full person. (ACT for SJ) Racial equity is the condition that would be achieved if one’s racial identity no longer predicted, in a statistical sense, how one fares. When we use the term, we are thinking about racial equity as one part of racial justice, and thus we also include work to address root causes of inequities not just their manifestation. This includes elimination of policies, practices, attitudes and cultural messages that reinforce differential outcomes by race or fail to eliminate them. (Racial Equity Tools)

Gender Binary System is a system of exploitation, which dictates that there are two acceptable genders (male/female) and regulates what it means to be a man or woman (masculine/feminine). A gender regime informs our understandings of our bodies, our assigned and acceptable “roles,” and the punishments that come with challenging those roles… A gender regime is policed and upheld by heterosexism and patriarchy and closely linked to white supremacy and capitalism. (Amy Sonnie)

Heterosexism is an ideological and social system of compulsory and assumed heterosexuality, based on binary gender, which denies and persecutes any non-heterosexual form of behavior, identity, relationship, or community, and privileges straight people/people who present gender in a normative way. Patriarchy relies on heterosexism to enforce strict gender roles and definitions. Heterosexism upholds “nuclear” families and punishes other family structures and reproductive choices. (Catalyst Project)

Intersectionality is the theory that attends to the complexity of identity and experience as constructed by multiple, interlocking systems of power (such as racism, classism, sexism…) for the purpose of understanding and shifting those systems of power. (Davey Shlasko, adapted)

Oppression is the systematic and pervasive nature of social inequality woven throughout social institutions as well as embedded within individual consciousness. Oppression fuses institutional and systemic discrimination, personal bias, bigotry and social prejudice in a complex web of relationships and structures that saturate most aspects of life in our society. (Teaching for Diversity)

Patriarchy is an economic, political, cultural and social system of domination of women and transgender people that privileges non-transgender men. Patriarchy is based on binary definitions of gender (male/female) with strict gender roles. It also relies upon rigidly enforced heterosexuality that places male/straight/non-transgender as superior and women/queer/transgender as inferior. Patriarchy shapes and is shaped by white supremacy, capitalism, and the state. Together, they form interlocking systems of oppression. (Catalyst Project)

Prejudice (thought) is a pre-judgment in favor of or against a person, a group, an event, or an idea. A negative prejudgment is often called a stereotype. Stereotypes (thought) are false, overly simplistic, or unfounded assumptions about a group of people that results in disregard for individual differences amongst group members; usually, negative preconception that characterizes each member of that group as being one and the same. (Adapted from Colours of Resistance and Carleton College)

Privilege is unearned social power accorded by the formal and informal institutions of society to ALL members of a dominant group (e.g. white privilege, male privilege, etc). Privilege is usually invisible to those who have it because we’re taught not to see it, but nevertheless it puts them at an advantage over those who do not have it. (Colours of Resistance)

Race is a made up social construct, and not an actual biological fact, that artificially divides people into distinct groups based on characteristics such as physical appearance, ancestral heritage, cultural affiliation, cultural history, ethnic classification, and the social, economic, and political needs of a society at a given time. (Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice)

Racism serves the purpose of maintaining white supremacy and privilege. Racism by whites against people of color is not only those individual acts of hate, but also a system of exclusion, discrimination and criminalization, which ensures that the elites (while mostly white, the elites are now people of color as well) can maintain their power. Race Prejudice + Power = Racism. (ACT for SJ)

3 expressions of racism
  • Personal: The way in which we perpetuate racism on an individual basis. Examples:
    calling someone a racist name, making a racist assumption.
  • Cultural: The norms, values, or standards assumed by the dominant society which
    perpetuate racism. Examples: thin, blond, white women as the basis for our
    society’s standard of beauty; women on welfare are assumed to be black or brown
    and are portrayed as irresponsible while white collar fraud in the business
    community is costing the US $200 billion a year, requiring people to speak English
    as a way of deliberately destroying community and culture.
  • Institutional: The way in which institutions – Housing, Government, Education,
    Media, Business, Health Care, Criminal Justice, Religion – perpetuate racism.
    Examples: people of color under-represented and misrepresented on television,
    racially biased standardized tests used to determine who will be admitted to
    higher education programs and institutions, historic and ongoing breaking of
    treaties with indigenous American Indian communities, reliance on low-paying
    immigrant labor by farms and factories. (Changeworks)

Social Justice. A socially just world meets everyone’s basic needs (food, housing, health care, education, job, social security) in a dignified way; treats people from every background with dignity and respect; supports the development of all people to their full potential; guarantees equitable distribution of resources; makes sure all people are physically and psychologically safe and secure; and ensures everyone has a voice in the decisions that affect them.  (adapted from Class Action)

Solidarity is walking with people struggling for their liberation, because we can see how our struggle and our liberation is connected. Charity may relieve the momentary effects of oppression, but it does nothing to change the power relations that cause the oppression. It does not empower the oppressed to liberate themselves from their oppression. (ACT for SJ)

White Privilege is perpetuated in the US by both individual and institutional racism that prevents non-white people from receiving equal access to all levels of society. It is a term to identify the privileges, opportunities, and advantages offered by the American society to anyone who is accepted as “white” (or white enough), and serves as an exemption in many particular cases from certain societal burdens or liabilities. It manifests itself in a number of ways, such as, better housing, education, economic opportunities, higher wages, etc. (Jonathan Barnes)

White Supremacy is a historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations, and peoples of color by white peoples and nations of the European continent, for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power, and privilege. (Challenging White Supremacy Workshop)