Critical Terminologies: Race, Racism, Power, Privilege, Intersectionality, Whiteness

The Centre for Race and Culture (CFRAC) creates programming and education centered around race, culture, power, and justice, but what do these terms really mean? The following definitions lay out the perspective from which CFRAC operates.

Race: Race is a relational and dynamic category, socially constructed for political and economic interests over groups of people. It loosely refers to a group of people distinguished from others often by physical characteristics such as colour of skin, shape of eyes, hair texture or facial features. It is important to remember how much the idea of race has shifted since its development: 100 years ago, race was used as an explanation for social and cultural differences between people. Now, the biological and genetic ideas of race have been largely disproven, but there is no doubt that race persists as a powerful social and political construct.

Racism: A system of power and violence that structures opportunity and assigns value based on the social construct of race where privilege is afforded to whiteness. A system that unfairly disadvantages Black, People of Colour and Indigenous Communities while subsequently unfairly advantaging communities and individuals embraced by whiteness.

Power: Power is a relational term that essentially characterizes one’s ability to get what they want. It describes the relationship between people and communities and its operation can only be understood within the social, political, and economic context in which it operates. Power allows one group to name and classify subordinate groups and to subject them to differential treatment.

Privilege: Privilege is unearned social, political, and economic power accorded by the formal and informal institutions of society to members of a dominant group (e.g. white privilege, male privilege, class privilege etc.). Privilege is usually invisible and taken for granted by 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. Those with privilege benefit directly from the oppression of ‘others’, those cast out of the norm.

Intersectionality:  Intersectionality acknowledges that as human beings, our identities are complex and never one-dimensional. In our work, intersectionality describes how an individual can face multiple threats of discrimination when their identities overlap a number of marginalized identities, such as race, gender, age, ethnicity, health and other characteristics. Discrimination and oppression on each body will therefore be experienced differently, and each of those experiences is equally valid.

Whiteness: Whiteness is a social construct born out of colonialism that characterizes the force holding social, political, and economic power. Naming whiteness enables us to map, challenge, and ultimately dismantle oppressive power structures. Whiteness, like race, is relational and dynamic.


Click here to download a handout describing and defining these key terms.

Click here to download a handout dedicated to the concept of Intersectionality.