terminologies of oppression


oppression: A pervasive system of supremacy and discrimination that perpetuates itself through differential treatment, ideological domination, and institutional control. Oppression depends on a socially constructed binary of a dominant group (though not necessarily more populous) as being normal, natural, superior, and required over the “other”. This binary benefits said group, who historically have greater access to power and the ability to influence the process of planetary change and evolution.

On a personal level, oppression expresses itself through beliefs (stereotypes), attitudes, values (prejudice), and actions (discrimination) used to justify unfair treatment based on distinct aspects of one’s identity, real or perceived. These can be internalized and directed towards the self or externalized and directed towards those we interact with on a day-to-day basis.

On a positional level, oppression expresses itself through default positions of power within an organized group, both formal and informal (i.e. companies, families, peer groups, unions, grassroots organizations, etc.) Specifically, it is the denial of accessing and holding positions of power based on the belief that one lacks experience in and/or is incapable of fulfilling (or learning how to fulfill) certain roles and responsibilities based on assumptions related to their identity. This also includes the assumption that someone sharing identity with a dominant group is automatically capable, regardless of experience.

On an institutional level, oppression expresses itself through the denial and limitation of resources, agency and dignity based on one’s social identity. This includes policies, laws, and practices that are enforced in and by an institution (i.e. hospitals, governments, universities, prisons, non profit organizations, etc.) made for the benefit of the dominant group with little to no consideration of or care for the longer term harm inflicted on marginalized individuals and groups. In turn, institutions have the power to shape and control cultural narratives that reach individuals on a global scale, regardless of whether they directly interact with such institutions.

When all three levels are working together, a system is formed, and produces concentrated violence directed towards a marginalized group for the purposes of social advantages over (perceived) scarce resources. The result is the exploitation of marginalized groups. Aside from physical harm and outright death, oppression is also felt emotionally. Oppressive attitudes and behaviours cause intergenerational trauma by dividing individuals from one another, and keeping people from personal fulfillment or the means to survive.

ageism: A system of oppression that produces social and physical barriers based on one’s age, particularly those deemed especially young or especially old. Unlike many systems of oppression, ageism contains two binaries. One of them benefits adults at the expense of children, teenagers, and youth; while another binary benefits middle-aged individuals at the expense of elders and seniors.

cis / cisgender: A term used to describe individuals who, for the most part, identify as the gender they were assigned at birth by their doctor and by society. Why do we say ‘cisgender’ instead of ‘non-trans’? Because referring to cisgender people as ‘non trans’ implies that cisgender people are the default and that being trans is abnormal.

cisheteropatriarchy: In its wider definition, patriarchy is the manifestation and institutionalization of male dominance over women and children in the family and the extension of male dominance over girls, women, and gender nonconforming people in society in general. Patriarchy is deeply connected with cissexism and heterosexism through the perpetuation and enforcement of the gender binary.

cisism / cissexism: A system of oppression that produces social and physical barriers based on one’s gender identity, specifically individuals who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth and/or within the gender binary of (cis) man and (cis) woman. Cissexism also depends on a binary of cisgender and transgender, erasing and invalidating the vast spectrum of gender expression and gender identity.

Example: washrooms being gendered to exclude individuals who do not identify with/in the gender binary, and/or do not “pass” within the gender binary of man and woman.

classism: A system of oppression that produces social and physical barriers based on one’s real or perceived economic status or background. It is associated with but not mutually exclusive to capitalism. While we may describe classes as poor/low income/working class, middle class, and upper class, a binary also exists within classism. This binary exploits poor, low income, and working class people for the benefit of middle and upper class individuals.

See also: ageism, ableism

cultural appropriation: Cultural appropriation is the adoption or the theft of icons, rituals, aesthetic standards, and behaviour from one culture or subculture by another. It generally is applied when the subject culture is a minority culture or somehow subordinate in social, political, economic, or military status to the appropriating culture. This “appropriation” often occurs without any real understanding of why the original culture took part in these activities or the meanings behind these activities, often converting culturally significant artefacts, practices, and beliefs into “meaningless” pop-culture or giving them a significance that is completely different than they would originally have had. It is important to acknowledge that there is a lot of grey area surrounding cultural appropriation resulting in the conflation of issues, i.e. indigenous peoples of turtle island willingly sharing their cultural heritage.

dis/ableism: A system that produces social and physical barriers based on one’s abilities (mental, neurological, intellectual, emotional, and/or physical) and one’s contributions to “productivity” within a capitalist and colonial framework. Dis/ableism depends on a binary, exploiting disabled individuals for the benefit of abled individuals. Disabled people are subject to social stigma, isolation, and systemic barriers to resources, and are targeted with violence and oppression.

disability: Any ability, impairment, or body that is (or is being perceived) outside what is “normal” or “abled”. It includes bodies that move, think, sense, behave, communicate, and look “unacceptable” or “unproductive”.

dyadic: A word used to refer to people who are not intersex. Like the term cisgender, it was created to avoid othering of intersex people by referring to non-intersex people as “normal.”

ethnocentrism: It is judging another culture solely by the values and standards of one’s own culture. The view of things in which one’s own group is the center of everything, and all others are scaled and rated with reference to it. The ethnocentric individual will judge other groups relative to their own particular group, especially with concern to language, behaviour, customs, and religion. These ethnic distinctions and subdivisions serve to define each ethnicity’s unique cultural identity. Ethnocentrism may be overt or subtle, and while it is considered a natural tendency of human psychology, it has developed a generally negative connotation.

heterosexism: A system that produces social and physical barriers based on one’s sexual orientation, specifically individuals who are questioning, lesbian, non-labeling, bisexual, asexual, queer, pansexual, gay, or identify in any other way that is not heterosexual/straight. Heterosexism depends on the binary of straight and gay, making invisible the vast spectrum and fluidity of sexual orientation. It also enforces, and is enforced by, the gender binary.

Example: questioning, lesbian, non-labeling, bisexual, asexual, queer, pansexual, gay, or identify in any other way that is not heterosexual/straight not receiving appropriate and relevant sexual education and therefore increasing their risk to negative health consequences.

homonormativity: A view that homosexuality (and by extension any alternative sexualities and/or genders) is preferable to heterosexuality. Gay and lesbian capitalists begin to enjoy their hard-won equality (i.e. “gay marriage”, adoptions, healthcare access, workplace and legal protections) within colonial, capitalist, and imperialist structures where ableism, classism, sexism, racism and many other forms of oppression intersect.

homo antagonism: A tool used by heterosexism to police and enforce heterosexuality and make invisible the diversity of sexual orientations, despite sexual diversity being as natural as it is in many other animal species. It directs concentrated violence and involves active hostility and/or opposition towards those who identify or are perceived as queer, bisexual, asexual lesbian, gay or any sexual identity that is not heterosexual. While some progress has been made, in many parts of the world this historically results in a disproportionate rate of verbal/emotional/sexual/ physical harassment, homelessness, poverty, suicide and death by murder. This can be attributed by a number of factors, one of the main factors being religious fundamentalism.

human centrism / anthropocentrism: The position that human beings are the central or most significant species in the multiverse, or interpreting reality separately and exclusively in terms of human values and experience. It is often considered to be the root cause of problems created by human interaction with the environment; however, it is profoundly embedded in many modern human cultures and conscious acts.

intellectualism: The principle that reason and logic are the ultimate criteria of knowledge, and that deliberate action is a result of a process of conscious or subconscious reasoning. It is the excessive emphasis on abstract or intellectual matters, especially with a lack of proper consideration for emotions. Intellectualism is a major component of the academic industrial complex, and promotes professional knowledge and status over lived experiences.

See also: cisheteropatriarchy

Example: through the system of patriarchy, women are often subjugated and discriminated against because of their perceived emotional processes.

interdependent: A way of saying that the various forms and systems of oppression are not separate, and can’t be isolated into distinct categories, to be addressed on their own. Oppression is a network of intersecting and related forms of domination and the oppression of one group must be resisted alongside the oppression of others.

kyriarchy: The structures of domination working together as a network—not just one group dominating another. Its branches include, but are not limited to, racism, sexism, cissexism, heterosexism, ageism, and ableism. In a kyriarchy, different forms of supremacy on different axes are independent and interdependent. The word considers all parts of the oppressive structure we live in evenly—no one oppression is worse or better or more important than another. We are all subject to kyriarchy, and we all benefit from it; we all share the burden and the blame in different measures and proportions.

misogyny / trans misogyny: A tool used by cis/sexism and cisheteropatriarchy to enforce strict gender roles and expectations on girls and women, both cis and trans. It directs concentrated violence and involves active hostility and/or opposition towards those who do not identify, present, or express themselves as masculine and/or men. While some progress has been made, in many parts of the world this historically results in a disproportionate rate of verbal/emotional/sexual/physical harassment, homelessness, poverty, suicide and death by murder.

mononormative: The assumption that human beings are naturally monogamous creatures, and that monogamy is required. It is in actual fact a social construct. Polyamory is defined in various ways by various people, but the kernel of it is that it is “living by the principle that it is possible to love more than one person at a time without deception or betrayal.” We should not necessarily conflate queer and polyamorous communities. And although mainstream media visibility of polyamory is growing, it is selective in what it portrays. Mononormativity and polynormativity intersect with individualism, capitalism, feminism, LGBT activism, politics, law, and also personal accounts of discrimination and privilege.

objectification: Used to describe the treatment of a being as a thing, disregarding their personality or sentience. Objectification occurs if any of the following factors are present:

  • instrumentality – if the being is treated as a tool for another’s purposes
  • denial of autonomy, inertness – if the being is treated as if lacking in agency or self-determination
  • ownership – if the being is treated as if owned by another
  • fungibility – if the being is treated as if interchangeable or replaceable
  • violability – if the being is treated as if permissible to damage or destroy
  • denial of subjectivity – if the being is treated as if there is no need to show concern for the ‘object’s’ feelings and experiences

privilege: Access to power enjoyed by a dominant group, giving them economic, political, social and cultural advantages at the expense of members of a marginalized group. It reduces the likelihood and/or provides more tools for someone from said dominant group from facing or to better cope with various forms of exclusion, marginalization and violence that would otherwise be guaranteed.

racism: A system that produces social and physical barriers based on ethnicity and ethnic heritage, real or perceived, specifically by an ethnic group who historically dominates in all levels of society. Racism depends on a binary of a superior ethnic group, usually lighter in skin colour, over another, minimizing the reality that ethnicity, language, and culture are complex and that many people are also mixed ethnicities. It is important to understand that “race” is a social construct designed to benefit the oppressor, and for that reason it exists. (White supremacy is responsible for creating, perpetuating and maintaining the notion of “race” and racism itself.)

sexism: A system that produces social and physical barriers based on gender, specifically for girls and women. Sexism historically conflates one’s sex (our genitalia, anatomy, chromosomes, hormones, and reproductive organs) with our gender (our gender expression and gender identity) and depends on the gender binary of women and men. This binary also erases intersex and trans girls and women.

See also: cisheteropatriarchy, cisgender, cissexism, trans antagonism

sex work: A term that is used by current and/or former sex workers and social justice advocates to validate sex work as a trade that requires appropriate workplace rights and protections. It is used to reduce stigmatism that is often attached to words such as prostitution or wh*ring. Such words are frequently used by sex trade abolitionists who, at times, do not acknowledge their privilege (whether it be through academic work or their lack of personal experience with sex work, etc.) This tends to distract them from complex realities and has been used to conflate the issue of sex work with human trafficking and sex slavery. There is a tendency to focus only on women when discussing sex work, but it is important to recognize that it is an issue that cuts across all genders and cultures. It is important to understand that creating laws that reduce the harm affecting communities involved in sex work is part of the foundation of anti-oppression work.

sizeism: A system of oppression that produces social and physical barriers based on the size of one’s body, specifically weight, height, or both. Different cultures have internalized attitudes towards certain sizes, and depending on where one is in the world, someone may be considered especially tall, short, or fat. Specifically in Western culture, sizeism depends on the binary of thin and fat; “average” height and dwarf. The manifestation of these forms of oppression have been linked to eating disorders, depression and anxiety. Sizeism intersects with the medical industrial complex.

See also: fat oppression, patriarchy, ableism, sexism

Example: fat people having to pay for two plane tickets in order to fit in their seat; doctors diagnosing a fat person’s sickness as being too fat, rather than diagnosing the actual illness, leading to more complicated health problems; assuming all fat people are lazy.

speciesism: A system of oppression that produces social and physical barriers based on one’s species membership, specifically other animal species who are not human. It usually refers to human supremacy, the exclusion of all marginalized animals from the protections afforded to the most privileged animals (humans). It can also refer to the more general idea of assigning value to a being on the basis of species membership alone.

Examples: in different ethnic cultures, valuing the well-being of cats and dogs over cows and pigs; holding other animal species in captivity for human entertainment.

trans antagonism: A tool used by cissexism to police and enforce strict gender roles on trans and gender nonconforming individuals. It directs concentrated violence and involves active hostility and/or opposition towards trans people resulting in a disproportionate rate of verbal/emotional/sexual/physical harassment, homelessness, poverty, suicide and death by murder. Like bi antagonism, this term was created to call attention to the ways that prejudice against trans people differs from prejudice against sexual minorities. There is often trans antagonism in gay, lesbian, and bisexual communities, as well as heterosexual communities.

trans: An umbrella term used to refer to more than one identity within gender identity and gender expression, beyond what is generally assigned at birth: transgender, transsexual, genderqueer, genderfluid, genderfuck, agender, third gender, two-spirit, bigender, pangender, trans woman, trans man, and more.

For Western English-centric people, we often describe these individuals as trans, transgender, nonbinary and/or gender nonconforming. It is important to understand that ethnic cultures around the world historically have their own languages in describing their diverse understandings of gender identity and gender roles.

liberation: A state of being grounded in one’s evolving identity, free movement, free from bias, imposed expectations, control, and violence towards one’s place in the world, including the policing of it. Liberation is an ongoing process and practice of self-governance, accountability, responsibility, and transparency with oneself and within one’s community. It requires ongoing acknowledgement of oppression in all its forms and on all levels of society, reparations, meaningful reconciliation directed by those targeted by oppression, and transformational changes on personal, positional, institutional and systemic levels of society.

[insert your definitions here! (in the comments below!)]

this list was created and generally updated on the unceded and occupied Coast Salish territory – xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), & Səl̓ílwətaʔ (Tsleil-Waututh) nations respectively – and has grown and evolved throughout many nations across the colony of canada. it is by no means exhaustive or complete, and continues to grow from feedback and suggestions from members of the community. feel free to critique and edit. please share widely and link back to us!


24 thoughts on “terminologies of oppression”

  1. I would like you to add colorism, which is a tendency to place people of darker skin tones in a lower hierarchy. Colorism is usually meted out by people of same ethnicities or race, and sometimes even within families. Darker tones are unfavourable, while lighter tones are favoured.

    Another term which I think I coined myself (I am not sure if this already exists) is healthism: I would describe this as prejudice against those who are physically or mentally unhealthy. The stigma and discrimination against people who are unwell can be subtle and downright cruel. I would love to know if there is a more apt term for this.

  2. I would love to see biphobia and monosexism added to the list…for more info and resources on bisexuality, biphobia and monosexism you can take a look at Notes for a Bisexual Revolution by Shiri Eisner! And thanks for all the work on this list!

  3. Is there a term for discrimination against someone’s appearance being deemed “ugly”? If there isn’t it needs be considered.

    1. Lookism: construction of a standard for beauty and attractiveness, and judgments made about people on the basis of how well or poorly they meet the standard.

    2. This seems to be based on beauty standards, relative to any given society, but I think you are referring to “lookism”: cultural construction of a standard for beauty and attractiveness, and judgments made about people on the basis of how well or poorly they meet the standard.

  4. How about hetero-phobia? The believe that Homosexual (or any non-hetero-sexual practices) sexual or cultural practices are superior to heterosexual ones, or that heterosexual sexual or cultural practices are inferior to homosexual ones.

    1. kgill99, I think you can file that under the same umbrellas “reverse racism” aka, it’s not a thing that actually exists. Heterosexuality, just as being white, is the standard, the normative and therefore is does NOT fall under oppression.

  5. I’m wondering how we can acknowledge child abuse more. It seems to get left out. Maybe it falls under ageism, and isn’t real an – ism, exactly. I guess I’m just adding it to the conversation. Child abuse, elderly abuse, abuse in hospitals. …

    1. Sarah, you have a point. And your point encompasses more than adult-to-child child abuse. People treat children as if they have no rights, as if they’re semi-animals. Adults even regard children as if they don’t experience pain and anguish like adults do. For example if a child gets punched by another child, parents sometimes respond mildly with “kids will be kids” whereas if an adult gets punched, the law is more solid in acknowledging that the adult was hurt/injured and that adult has the right to attend school/work without fear of being physically attacked.

  6. Hello! Thank you for your clear and detailed list, it helped me a lot to clarify certain terms and relate them to each other more properly. However, I am wondering whether there is any ‘oppressive ism’ (if you call it like that) for the following case, of which many people are frequently a victim here in the Netherlands (and other centralised countries like France). It’s the prejudice towards people from regions in a country that are culturally in many ways different from the ‘cultural centre’ of that country (e.g. centre of the media). These regions are denegrately called ‘the Province’ (thus these different regions are all thrown in one bucket) and statistics have demonstrated that the accents used by people from these regions are en masse considered as backwards, dumb and/or related to other negative characteristics that might be considered stereotypical of that accent/region/personal name. People from these regions are either made fun of or they are forced to adapt to the ‘central culture’ of the country. I can’t imagine that there is no ‘scientific’ name for this attitude (as I think that ‘capital city arrogance’ is quite inaccurate and too informal). I would call it ‘centrism’ (it would make sense because the phenomenon is especially common in countries that have extreme political and cultural centralisation, but centrism is already meaning something entirely different. Maybe any of you could help me? Thanks in advance!

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