10 social justice words you need to know

Op-eds Opinions Uncategorized

Have you ever been confused by the words “unceded”, “intersectional”, or “cultural appropriation”? Have you ever had lunch with your friends in the humanities and thought they were speaking in a different language? Or have you ever been unsure about why someone’s Halloween costume is offensive?

I have. It can be really hard to understand or engage in social justice conversations when we don’t understand the words people use or the context for how they emerged. Most of us didn’t learn these words in high school and may not have even learnt them in our university classes, unless we are in social work, Indigenous studies, or similar disciplines. But all of us — even gender studies students and their professors — have to learn about the terms and ideas somewhere if we want to have a better understanding of our society.

Here is a quick guide to ten social justice terms that you may hear on- or off-campus and where they came from:


Unceded is a term used in reference to land that was never formally surrendered by First Nations peoples to the Canadian government through an established and negotiated treaty.

  • The Royal Proclamation of 1763 started a process of treaty negotiation between First Nations and the Crown that ended in 1923.
  •  The federal government then made it a criminal offence for a First Nation to pursue land claim settlements, and so treaty negotiations were incomplete in some parts of Canada, including most of British Columbia.
  • Even in cases where First Nations signed a treaty, the Crown always had a bigger legal and monetary advantage and many of the treaties that were signed are deeply unjust.

Example: “The University of Victoria campus is on the unceded territory of the Lekwungen peoples, who have lived here long before any one of European ancestry.”



Intersectionality is a term used to describe the overlapping social identities that we all carry and how these multiple identities intersect and relate to systems of oppression and discrimination.

  • These identities can include race, social class, gender, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, age, physical and mental abilities, mental health, and religious or spiritual affiliations.
  • The term was first coined in 1989 by American civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw, who built on the work of other African-American, queer, and/or female activists in the 1980s.

Example: “When Taylor Swift says she is a feminist, we have to also consider the intersectionality of her identities as a young, physically able, conventionally attractive, White-American, cisgender woman in the highest social class.”


Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation occurs when elements of a minority culture are adopted or used in a non-respectful way by members of a dominant culture.

  • Often those elements are used outside of their cultural context, in an exploitative manner for financial or social gain, and/or against the direct wishes of members of the minority culture.
  • Cultural appropriation can include members of the dominant culture using the minority cultures’ traditions, food, fashion, music, language (including using African-American Vernacular English), symbols, and technology without permission from members of the minority culture.
  • Cultural appropriation is different than cultural appreciation because appropriation does not usually include a meaningful sense of mutual understanding, equality or respect on the part of the dominant culture.

Example: “Yassss, Kylie Jenner’s cornrows are so lit! All my guy-friends wish she was their bae.” 

“Wow, when you talk like that, you sound like a one-woman cultural appropriation machine.”



Privilege refers to the rights or advantages that only certain people (or groups of people) benefit from within a society.

  • These rights or advantages can include access to education, health care, and housing, as well as emotional or psychological advantages, such as personal self-confidence or a sense of belonging.
  • The concept of privilege was introduced in 1903 by African-American sociologist and historian W.E.B. Du Bois. He wrote in an essay about how White-Americans were able to enjoy the privilege of not thinking about effects of racial discrimination, whereas African-Americans were very much aware of being discriminated against due to the dominant society perceiving them as belonging to a different race.
  • In 1988, Peggy McIntosh, a White-American feminist and anti-racism activist, published an essay where she accounted the forty-six privileges that she, as a White person, enjoyed in the United States.

Example: “As someone who was born in Canada to a family that has been here for seven generations, I benefit from the privilege of knowing more about how our healthcare system works than new immigrants or refugees.”



Cisgender, or ‘cis’ for short, is a term for a person whose gender identity is the same as the sex they were assigned at birth, which is usually based on external physical anatomy. Transgender, or trans, is a term for people whose gender identity is not the same as the sex that they were assigned at birth.

  • Whatever our gender identity is, we can express ourselves however we want to when it comes to gender: through our hair, clothes, nail polish, or mannerisms. Cisgender and transgender are just two of many ways that we may identify our gender.
  • Cisgender people within our society are typically more privileged (see #4) compared to transgender people. This privilege comes from the widely-held belief that a cisgender identity is more “normal” than a transgender identity (see #7 for an example of cis-heteronormativity.)
  • In 1965, psychiatrist John F. Oliven coined the term ‘transgender’ to replace the term ‘transsexualism’ as he deemed it misleading. In 1992, transgender activist Leslie Feinberg published a pamphlet that identified transgender as a term that encompasses all forms of gender that do not conform with the conventional societal norms.

Example: “I identify as a cisgender man because I was assigned male at birth, raised as a boy, and I consider myself a dude.”


Settler Colonialism

Settler colonialism is when governments use the immigration of settlers to eliminate the Indigenous communities in a specific territory, through establishing the settlers as racially superior.

  • Governments and settlers may do this through systematic genocide, creating laws that prevent Indigenous people from owning land or influencing the government, absorbing the Indigenous peoples into the dominant culture, and/or by violently driving the Indigenous communities out of their homelands.
  • The European colonialism of the Americas started in the 10th century with the Norse settlers and accelerated in the 15th century with the Italian conqueror Christopher Columbus and English colonizer John Cabot.

Example: “Canada is a country founded on settler colonialism. The British and French governments encouraged their citizens to settle in the traditional territories of the First Nations peoples. Then the Canadian government forced Indigenous children into residential schools where they were unable to speak their language or engage in traditional activities. In many cases, children experienced physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse. This was the government’s solution to the so-called ‘Indian problem.’”



Heteronormativity is the widely held belief that people fall into two distinct sexes (male and female) and that heterosexuality as a sexual orientation is the norm.

  • This term is usually used to mean cis-heteronormative, where people are expected to be attracted to a person of the opposite gender.
  • It assumes that the alignment of biological sex with a person’s internal view of their gender identity and the gender role that society expects of this person.
  • In 1991, this term was popularized by Michael Warner, a literary critic, social theorist, and professor of English Literature and American Studies.

Example: “Why would we assume that just because I am a woman, I would get married to a man? That’s so heteronormative.”



Diaspora is a term for people who have been dispersed from their original homeland.

  • This term usually refers to the historical mass dispersion of people against their will.
  • The most prominent example being the African Trans-Atlantic slave trade of the 16th-19th centuries when African men, women, and children were taken from their homelands to be sold by Western European slave traders into generations of indentured servitude.
  • The term comes from the Greek verb διασπείρω (diaspeirō) or “I scatter”. The first time the word diaspora was used and recorded in the English language was in 1876 and became more widely used by the mid-1950s.

Example: “My parents are from Pakistan and immigrated to Ontario in the ‘90s, so our family are considered part of the Pakistani diaspora.”



Xenophobia is the deep-rooted fear and distrust of things or people that are considered foreign or unfamiliar to the perceiver.

  • Usually this term is used when people feel that their entitlement to governmental benefits are being subverted by the rights of people they perceive to be “foreign”.
  • The word comes from the Ancient Greek words ξένος (xenos), or “strange”/”foreigner”, and φόβος (phobos), or “fear.”

Example: “Don’t you think it’s so weird how all those international students only ever talk in Mandarin?”

“Not really. It’s probably their first language. Also, that’s a pretty xenophobic thing to say.”



Ally(ship) is a verb to describe the actions taken by a person in a privileged position who supports and seeks to uplift those who are less privileged than them.

  • While many people may think of or use the term “ally” as a noun, it is in fact a constant decision-making process undertaken by people in privileged positions to act in a way that is representative of their allyship with racialized and marginalized peoples.
  • You can usually spot an ally by their keen ability to know when to listen to people who typically not given a voice; by their awareness of how much space they are taking up in a conversation; and by how they challenge themselves in a continual process of unlearning and relearning.

Example: “After reading this list of words, I am going to do the work myself of learning about all the nuances within each of the terms that the author of this article was not able to delve into because it is not her job to teach me how to be an ally.”


Now that you have made it this far, it’s important to note that not everyone agrees on the definitions I have offered. Moreover, these terms are constantly evolving as our understanding of ourselves, our societies, and the ways we interact with each other change. Nothing in the realm of social justice is ever static, but thankfully, knowing every bit of history behind these terms is not necessary for turning our social justice values into actions.

In fact, I don’t want to turn you into “that person,” who might be inclined to launch into a 30 minute soliloquy about their opinion on some social justice-related topic. Instead, I presented the terms above to help you enter into conversations about immigration, sexuality, discrimination, and other such issues without feeling alienated by the jargon that is often associated with those conversations. These conversations are especially important in Canada, as we often buy into the myth that Canada is a haven of inclusivity and diversity.

The best way we can embody our values of being socially just is to use those words to engage — not repel — other people in respectful and critical chats about how we can all do better.