Not the Master’s Tools:
A glossary of terms used in anti-racist feminism

Produced by WS 331 S01 2004 University of Victoria.
Written and researched by Ashley Dryburgh and WS 331.


This glossary is aimed at undergraduate students. It is not meant to be a definitive guide to these terms; rather, it is an introduction to the way they are used, what they mean, and the debates that surround them, minus the heavy jargon that can accompany theory. My hope is that this glossary will spark debate around the usage and meaning of these concepts and provoke thoughtful discussion around this nebulous concept of “anti-racism.”

Language is one of the most powerful tools we as human being have and much work in anti-racism has been done around the use (or not) of certain language. In the society in which I find myself, white, male, heterosexual English is the dominant, colonial language. Language is not innocent; or rather, the way in which language is used is not innocent, especially academic language. I have tried to keep this in mind and decentre whiteness in the language that I use because the unnamed “neutral” language is in fact the invisible centre of whiteness.

That said, I am a white female undergraduate student writing from a “North American” position. My position does not always determine how are what I (or anyone else, for that matter) write(s), but as a white person I have chosen these terms and I wanted to make my position very clear to break that invisible centre. I have consciously tried to write to the margins in this glossary to further disrupt whiteness. This is not meant as an alienation tactic but as an acknowledgment of the ways hegemonic whiteness works and an attempt to challenge it.

I want to keep this glossary interactive. If you have any questions, complaints, rants, suggestions, or comments please email me and I will keep your words in mind when I next update this list. Particularly, if you have any suggestions for other terms, found any of the definitions problematic, or thought I was outright racist I would really like to hear from you.

Think about the concepts and how they affect you in your everyday life. Turn them around in your head and let them stew for a while. I recognize that by simplifying these terms I am losing some of the nuances in their meaning, but I think enough survives to start discussion. Enjoy.

Ashley Dryburgh March 21, 2004.

Questions, complaints, rants, suggestions, or comments?

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A Note on Usage:

Following some entries, there is a list of recommended additional reading. I have included this feature to allow readers to see some of the issues and contentions that surround these terms and to give a more nuanced meaning to them than I could in such a small space. I have drawn on many of the additional readings to help form my definitions. For space, as well as aesthetics, I have only included partial bibliographic information; the complete source is listed in either the Works Cited or Bibliography at the end.

Policies designed to “diversify” work places and to include more women and people of colour into a particular work force. It is a highly controversial policy. Conservatives argue against it because they feel it creates an unequal playing field, reverse discrimination, and people should be judged on their individual merits, not their skin colour. The idea that a worthy white man will not be hired because a man of colour applied for the job is often used as an example. Advocates of the policy assert that being white is a privilege and that affirmative action takes that into account and helps to level out the paying field. However, some anti-racists are against affirmative action because it does not challenge a white/of colour binary and does not move beyond cultural essentialism.

Anti-racism is both a concept and a practice. Alistair Bonnet says it “Refers to those forms of thought and/or practice that seek to confront, eradicate and/or ameliorate racism. Anti-racism implies the ability to identify a phenomenon – racism – and to do something about it” (2000, p. 4). Anti-racists are not merely the opposite of racists because racism in institutional and even the staunchest anti-racist can have internalized racism. As a practice, there are many differing positions and strategies that can conflict, even though the end goal is the same. Generally, anti-racism can take two forms; either a revolutionary politics or a strategy to accommodate racial difference. A further conflict arises because state resources that anti-racism often relies on are used for revolutionary purposes.

Additional Reading:
Gilroy, P. “The end of antiracism.”
F. Anthias & C. Lloyd (Eds.) Rethinking Anti-Racisms.
Bonnet, A. Anti-racism.

Anti-Racist Feminism:
A branch of feminism that highlights and theorizes about the intersectionality of different types of oppression (e.g. racialization, gender, class). Further, it takes issue with the gender blindness of traditional anti-racist work. Anti-racist feminists argue that underlying racism is sexism and that racialized sexism underlies all racisms. Enakshi Dua (1999) highlights some of the tensions around the term. Sometimes called “Black feminism” because the majority of those who write in this area are women of colour, and therefore it has been argued that anti-racist feminism should only be the writings of women of colour or theorizing should start from the position of women of colour (p. 9). This is contentious because it assumes that people put forward ideas based on how they are racialized. “While who we are clearly reflects how we write, such an approach shifts attention away from the ideas and debates that are crucial for the study of [intersectionality]” (ibid).

Additional Reading:
Dua, E. & A. Robertson. Scratching the surface.
Amos, V. & P. Parmar. “Challenging imperial feminism.”

The total social transmission patterns, arts, beliefs, institution, and all other products of human works or thought are traits and products considered as the expression of a particular period, class, community or population. Culture also refers to a way of life of a group. It refers to the predominating attitudes and behaviour that characterize the functioning of a group or organization. The term is often used as a euphemism for race and in this way acts to designate groups of people into essential categories, whether they have knowledge of the culture or not. For example, a fourth generation Irish-Canadian does not necessarily have much knowledge of a particular “Irish” culture, even though they may be racialized as “Irish.”

Cultural Literacy:
An awareness of the morals, knowledge, structures, and beliefs (etc.) of a particular culture. To engage in a culture is to accept and act on its own terms, and to fail to do so is to be culturally illiterate. This creates a paradigm of success that strongly favours the dominant culture, so that, for example, where whiteness is dominant it is usually necessary for racialized individuals to achieve this competency around whiteness to have a chance of being (un)successful in white institutions. In turn, such institutions bestow cultural legitimacy. For example, many first generation Canadians develop a cultural literacy in both their parent’s home culture and dominant Canadian culture.

Cultural Relativism:
Relativism itself refers to the idea that there is no absolute standard of right or wrong, good or evil anywhere in the world. Such judgements are relative to the society or the person who is making them. Cultural relativism posits that every part of a culture can only be understood in context of that culture and therefore a culture cannot be judged by those outside of it. “Any attempt to interpret ethnographic data in terms of values from a different cultural tradition distorts the reality of each people’s way of life” (Koch, 1986a, p. 72). “Culture” here is a euphemism for non-dominant cultures. Relativism is contested because only those who belong to a particular culture can challenge it.

Cultural (Racial) Pluralism:
The idea that political power must be shared equally amongst all groups in a society and all citizens have to take part in creating and enforcing rules of the country (Koch, 1986b, p. 235). In reality, this is not the case. In Canada, the white middle class holds most of the power and determines what the rules are, according to their needs. Further, the definition of “citizen” is contested: not every person who lives in Canada is a Canadian citizen.

Additional Reading:
Yuval-Davis, N. In Rethinking anti-racisms, pp. 44-59.

A school of thought that believes that humans are born with some natural, unchanging characteristics. A reduction of people to their essential parts. For example, males are more aggressive than females. (Note: essentialism does not always take the form of a binary.) Opposite of social constructionism.

Cultural Essentialism:
The tendency to believe that those who belong to a specific culture exhibit morals, ideas, or traits universally, e.g. whites are greedy. Negative characteristics are also applicable. A person born into a culture is born with its designated characteristics. Further, a person is judged to have certain characteristics based on which culture (race) he/she appears to belong to. This notion has been largely discredited, but subtle forms still exist.

A term referring to a new form of racism that has recently started to emerge. Rather than assigning a person to a specific racial group according to the colour of their skin, this new racism examines other phenotypes, specifically of the face. Eye colour and shape, size and shape of the lips, nose and ears, and even cheekbone structure, all give “clues” to the person’s “race.” For example, “Black lips,” “Asian eyes,” and “Greek noses.” However, a “white” face is the norm against which these phenotypes are judged. Additional Reading: Hammonds, E. “New technologies of race.”

An idea that developed out of Marxist theorizing, false consciousness refers to an oppressed group of people unwittingly adopting the views of their oppressors, such as an oppressed group accepting the ideologies “used by the ruling class to justify their oppression” (Robertson, 1986, p. 109).

Additional Reading:
Fanon, F. Black skin, white masks.

Hybridity is a central term in post-structuralist cultural theory and in some variants of globalization theory. It refers to the idea of cultural fusion, unlike multiculturalism which focuses on cultural differences. It rejects the notion of “purity” as in “white” and “black” races. In its new form, it does not refer to “hybrids,” referring to the ideas of “mixed-race,” interbreeding, or the children of parents from different racial backgrounds. Hybridity refers to interculturality as new forms of identification. In anti-racism theory it is seen to be a concept that is disruptive of binaries based on assumed racial categories, understood as real and essential.

Additional Reading:
Anthias, F. In Rethinking anti-racisms, pp. 22-43.

Historian Marvin Perry defines liberalism as a particular feature of modernity which came into popularity after the Enlightenment and the French Revolution based on the principles of humanism and individual liberties (1992, pp. 213-15). Perry notes that liberalism emerged from "the democratic practices and rational outlook that originated in Greece" and "the Judeo-Christian principle of the worth and dignity of each individual" (1992, p. 214). Combined with Eurocentrism, principles of free-market economy and capitalist enterprise, social theories emphasizing personal responsibility verses community or societal accountability and social construction, imperial conquest, and pseudo-scientific racial discourse, liberalism has become an ideal excuse for the wealthy and powerful in white supremacist capitalist patriarchies to ignore social problems (poverty, racism, sexism, etc) and place the 'choice' of liberal individuals at the centre of social order. A classic example is “a homeless person could get off the street if he/she wanted to.” Nira Yuval-Davis notes that theorists recognize contradictions within liberal discourse and this has led to a differentiation between two kinds of liberalism. The first is “committed to individual rights and calls for the absolute neutrality of the state (2002, p. 49). The second type is a liberalism that is promoted by the particular state to achieve an ideology of citizenship that best suits that nation-states’ hegemonic power structure and mythology (ibid). In anti-racism work, liberals place emphasis on individuals rather than the “culture” they belong to as the starting point to fight racism because movements based on culture further perpetuate racism by not challenging cultural essentialism. “The goals aspired to in the liberal framework are equal opportunity in a colour blind society where race should be irrelevant” (Essed, 2001, p. 497). In current US debate, liberals are opposed by radicals.

Additional Reading:
Goldberg, D.T. ”Racial subjects.” pp. 1-13.
Essed, P. “Multi-identifications and transformations.”

Modernism is a conscious departure from tradition that took place in Europe and North America around 1900. During this period, innovative forms of expression and reasoning delineated marked change in science and the arts. The idea of historic shifts (such as the shift towards modernism) is itself a feature of modernism. Postmodernism is the idea that there is no Universal Truth; all aspects of reality are socially constructed. In feminist discourse there is a focus on interrupting, deconstructing, and rejecting taken for granted ideas and paradigms (such as race and sex), while multiple interpretations of reality are recognized according to one’s subjective, lived experience.

Additional Reading:
Goldberg, D.T. ”Racial subjects.” pp. 1-13.
Gilroy, P. The black atlantic.

A complicated term that on the surface means discrimination based on race. Such a simplistic definition does not begin to cover what racism actually is, though. “Discrimination” can take many forms and is different for every person because discrimination does not happen in isolation. In other words, a wealthy woman of African descent living in London will face different discrimination than a poor man who has recently emigrated from Romania to America. Recent theorizing (Essed, 2001; Miles, 1989) has acknowledged that racism is institutional in nature, although it often takes the form of individual acts of everyday racism. Further, racism as an ideology is not fixed in anyway; it is specific to the historical periods in which it finds itself and is always changing and adapting.

Additional Reading:
Miles, R. Racism.
Essed, P. “Multi-identifications and transformations.”

Gendered Racisms:
According to Ania Loomba (1998), "from the beginning of the colonial period to the end (and beyond), female bodies symbolise the conquered land. This metaphoric use of the female body varies in accordance with the exigencies and histories of the particular colonial situations" (p. 152). Thus, the nature of racism takes on a particular form when located in the feminised body: the sexual nature of hierarchal power relations demands both abhorrence for and a desire to possess the female racialized other (Fanon, 1967). The intersectionality of gender oppression and racism also creates an interlocking matrix of systems that operate to determine the placement of racialized females at the bottom of a complex hierarchical structure of white supremacy and patriarchal domination. (hooks, 1994). Myriad pseudo-scientific biological and physiological constructions are used to create a mythology about the particular feminised body of racialized others (i.e. Asian women as the "lotus flower" or the "dragon lady") and the resulting representations by white culture work to reify and buttress this mythological creation. The very real results of these constructions and power dynamics is the overt racialized sexualization of feminised others (often resulting in emotional, mental, and physical violence) and the combined social and economic disadvantages meaning that female racialized others experience poverty and discriminatory work practices more frequently with little opportunity for advancement.

Additional Reading:
Loomba, A. Colonialism/postcolonialism, pp. 151-172.
Dua, E. & A. Robertson. Scratching the surface.

Institutional Racisms:
Racisms (some would argue all racisms) that occur on a level above isolated, individual acts. With the advent of the civil rights movement, many of the overt forms of institutional racism (i.e. segregation laws) were dismantled to be replaced with more subtle forms (i.e. putting students of colour into ESL programs in schools). An awareness that racisms are institutional is one of the first steps needed to begin to fight racism.

Additional Reading:
Miles, R. Racism. pp. 84-86.

Racial Economy of Science:
The benefits of science, both natural and social, have been and continue to be globally distributed unequally. Therefore, the people of the over-developed West have consequently underdeveloped the third world and its inhabitants. Sandra Harding (1993) conceptualizes this cycle and defines it as “institutions, assumptions, and practices that are responsible for disproportionately distributing along “racial” lines the benefits of the Western sciences to the haves and the bad consequences to the have-nots, thereby enlarging the gap between them” (p.2).

Additional Reading:
Harding, S. Racial economy of science.

Racial Formation:
Racial formation is the process by which social, economic and political forces determine the content and importance of racial categories, and by which they are in turn shaped by racial meaning. Racial meanings pervade US society, from the shaping of individual racial identities to the structuring of collective political action. The micro-level (race is a matter of individuality, of the formation of identity) and macro-level (race is a matter of collectivity, of the formation of social structures) of social relations and racial order is organized and enforced by the continuity and reciprocity between these to levels of social relations (taking in to consideration that these categories are reciprocal in our lived experience). So racial formation suggests that racial phenomena penetrate and link these two levels.

Additional Reading:
Omi, M. & Winant, H. racial formation in the U.S. from the 1960s to the 1980s.

Racial Profiling:
A police tactic in which police officers will judge a person as more likely to be a criminal or engaged in criminal activities based on their skin colour. In the U.S., predominantly Black or Hispanic males are targeted and First Nations males in Canada. This can take many forms, from stopping and searching men of colour more frequently or, as in the famous case of the boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, being charged based solely on his skin colour. There is still some debate over whether or not such a policy actually exists because despite plenty of anecdotal evidence, police still deny it. As one conservative puts it, “the ultimate question in the profiling controversy is whether the disproportionate involvement of blacks and Hispanics with law enforcement reflects police racism or the consequences of disproportionate minority crime” (MacDonald, 2001, ¶3).

Additional Reading:
Rothenberg, P. (Ed.) White privilege. pp.108-109

The process by which a person is assigned into a specific racial category based on arbitrary phenotypes such as (but not limited to) skin colour, religion, face shape, or hair texture. Such categories are socially constructed and have certain essential characteristics abut them (see cultural essentialism). Because whiteness is the dominant group (in terms of political power, not population), it is often seen as “invisible” (therefore not a “race”) and is the centre from which all other categories are defined.

Additional Reading:
Miles, R. Racism. pp. 73-77.
Fanon, F. Black Skin, White Masks.

Racialized Sexuality:
Sexualities based on how a person is racialized. In dominant culture, white women have been seen as pure, chaste, and monogamous, whereas women of colour become constructed as “exotic;” in other words, loose, polygamous, and dangerous. This construction also happens in reverse. Some anti-racist feminists argue that racialized sexuality underpins all racisms.

Additional Reading:
Razack, S. (Ed.). Race, space, and the law.

The study of racial differences starting from the essentialist belief that racial differences exist. Paul Gilroy (2000) defines it as “the lore that brings virtual realities of ‘race’ to dismal and destructive life” (p. 11).

Additional Reading:
Gilroy, P. Against race.

Scientific Racisms:
Race consciousness is a modern phenomenon that has been supported and fuelled by religion and science. The idea that humans could be divided into different sub-species that evolved differently over time, and to which different cultural and social traits could be attributed underlies the idea of race as a natural, biological, inherited concept. Scientists attempted to develop instruments and pseudo-sciences to demonstrate that racial differences among humans existed. Craniometry (an attempt to find links between skull size/shape and race and sex) is one such example. Scientists attempted to remove the concept of race from fundamental social, political or economic determinants to argue that the truth of race lies in innate characteristics. In an attempt to identify characteristics, peoples head's were measured to determine brain size, people's (mostly “Black” women’s) genitalia were scrutinized, and every other body part measured and bodies autopsied after death to continue the scrutiny. "Black" people were particularly scrutinized. The Eugenics movement is also a scientific racism.

Additional Reading:
Somerville, S. “Scientific racism and the invention of the homosexual body.”
Harding, S. “Eurocentric scientific illiteracy.”

Generally thought to refer to those who views are different from mainstream ones and who seek to change mainstream society to fit these views. In terms of anti-racism, radicals “seek to diversify the membership and the leadership of institutions by race, gender or other forms of social difference” (Essed, 2001, p. 497). Affirmative action is a good example of this strategy. However, if the logic of radicalism is followed to its conclusion, then only people of colour should be involved in fighting racism. Radicalism acknowledges the importance of cultural assertion in anti-racist work. In current US debate, radicals are opposed by liberals.

Additional Reading:
Essed, P. Multi-identifications and transformations.

A school of thought that believes that the way people think, act, and believe is constructed, often through processes of socialization. These constructions are fluid, some more than others. For example, males have been socialized to be more aggressive than females because of existing ideas of how a “real man” should behave. (Note: social constructionism is not always constructed in a binary.) Opposite of essentialism.

Originally developed out of linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure, structuralism is the complicated theory that the products of culture can be understood in an objective, scientific way. Saussure theorized that “all linguistic practice . . . could . . . be analyzed in terms of a deeper structure rooted ultimately in the human mind” (Innes, 1996, 513). Meaning is structured as a relationship between objects; a “cat” is not a “dog,” “fish,” or “human” much the same way a black person is “black” because he/she is “not white.” Saussure’s essentialist tendencies have been highly critiqued.

Post-structuralism, however, undermines the essentialist concept of structuralism by engaging with the theoretical premise that all is subjective and relevant to a historical context, not biologically determined factors. Post-structuralism refuses a state of historical human 'progress' and challenges notions of constant frameworks by which circumstance can be determined. Post-structuralism recognises that power structures in any given historical context overlap and that myriad intersectionalities emerge that shape and construct experiences and perspectives and the given subjectivity the perspective of (for example) one white woman writer will not mirror that of all other white women writing at that time, cross-culturally, or through differing historical contexts (Weedon, 1987, pp. 36-38).

Additional Reading:
Weedon, C. “Feminist practice and post- structuralism.”
Innes, P. “Structuralism.”

Term coined by bell hooks. The component parts of this concept are most commonly referred to separately. Therefore, this term emphasizes the intersectionality of the concept’s components and reminds us of the simultaneously working and interlocking systems of domination that control reality. This concept also promotes a focus on institutional structures and their social impact, as opposed to the impact of individual beliefs and actions. Furthermore, this term de-centers and scrutinizes whiteness, whereas the term “racism” does not.

Additional Reading:
hooks, b. Outlaw Culture.
hooks, b. Feminism is for everybody.

Works Cited

Bonnet, A. (2000). Anti-racism. London: Routledge.

Dua, E. (2002). Canadian anti-racist feminist thought: scratching the surface of racism. In E. Dua &A. Robertson (Eds.), Scratching the surface: Canadian anti-racist feminist thought (pp.7-34). Toronto: Women’s Press.

Essed, P. (2001). Multi-identifications and transformations: Reaching beyond racial and ethnic reductionisms. Social Identities, 7(4), 493-509.

Gilroy, P. (2000). Against race: Imagining political culture beyond the colour line. Cambridge MA: Harvard UP.

Harding, S. (Ed.). (1993). The racial economy of science. Bloomington: Indiana UP.

hooks, b. (1994). Outlaw culture: Resisting representations. London: Routledge.

Innes, P. (1996). Structuralism. In M. Payne (Ed.), A dictionary of cultural and critical theory (pp. 513-517). Oxford: Blackwell.

Koch, K. (1986a). Cultural relativism. In The Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Sociology (3rd ed.) (p. 72). Guilford: Dushkin Publishing Group.

Koch, K. (1986b). Racial pluralism. In The Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Sociology (3rd ed.) (p. 235). Guilford: Dushkin Publishing Group.

Kolodny, A. (1996). Dancing through the minefield: Some observations on the theory, practice and politics of feminist literary criticism. In M. Eagleton (Ed.), Feminist literary theory: A reader (2nd ed.) (pp. 36-38). Oxford: Blackwood.

Loomba, A. (1998). Colonialism/postcolonialism. London: Routledge.

MacDonald, H. (2001, Spring). The myth of racial profiling [Electronic version]. City Journal. Retrieved March 10, 2004, from

Miles, R. (1989). Racism. London: Routledge.

Perry, M. (1992). An intellectual history of modern Europe. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Robertson, I. (1986). False consciousness. In The Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Sociology (3rd ed.) (p. 109). Guilford: Dushkin Publishing Group.

Weedon, C. (1996). Feminist practice and post-structuralism. In M. Eagleton (Ed.), Feminist literary theory: A reader (2nd ed.) (pp. 36-38). Oxford: Blackwood.

Yuval –Davis, N. (2002). Some reflections on the questions of citizenship and racism. In F. Anthias & C. Lloyd (Eds.), Rethinking anti-racisms (pp. 44- 59). London: Routledge.


Amos, V. & P. Pratibha (2001). Challenging imperial feminism. In Bhavnani, K. (Ed.), Feminism and ‘race’ (pp. 17-33). New York: Oxford UP.

Anthias, F. & C. Lloyd (Eds.). (2002). Rethinking anti-racisms: From theory to practice. London: Routledge.

Dua, E. & A. Robertson (Eds.). (2002). Scratching the surface: Canadian anti- racist feminist thought. Toronto: Women’s Press.

Frank, A.W. (Ed.). (1986). The Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Sociology (3rd ed.). Guilford: Dushkin Publishing Group.

Gilroy, P. (1992). The end of antiracism. In J. Donald & A. Rattansi (Eds.), ‘Race,’ culture and difference (pp. 49-61). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Gilroy, P. (1993). The black atlantic: Modernity and double consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard UP.

Goldberg, D.T. (1993). Racial subjects. Oxford: Blackwell.

Harding, S. (1993). Eurocentric scientific illiteracy – A challenge for the world community. In S. Harding (Ed.), The ‘racial’ economy of science (pp. 3-23). Bloomington: Indiana UP.

Hammonds, E. (1997). New technologies of race. In J. Terry & M. Calvert (Eds.), Processed lives: Gender & technology in everyday life (pp. 107-121). London: Routledge.

hooks, b. (2000). Feminism is for everybody: Passionate politics. Cambridge MA: South End.

Omi, M. & H. Winant. (1986). Racial formation in the U.S. from the 1960s to the 1980s. London: Routledge.

Payne, M. (Ed.). (1996). A dictionary of cultural and critical theory. Oxford: Blackwell.

Razack, S. (Ed.). (2002). Race, space, and the law. Toronto: Between the Lines.

Rothenberg, P. (Ed.). (2002). White privilege: Essential readings on the other side of racism. New York: Worth.

Somerville, S. (1997). Scientific racism and the invention of the homosexual body. In R. Lancaster & M. di Leonardo (Eds.), The gender/sexuality reader (pp. 37-52). London: Routledge.

My particular thanks to Jo-Anne Lee, for teaching such a brilliant course and opening my eyes (as well as suggesting the title), my fellow students of both WS 331 and 334 for helping to write some of the definitions and going on this journey, Kathleen Reed for working her computer magic and putting this onto the web, and Audre Lorde, from whom the inspiration of the title comes. Finally, to everyone who has, will, or is reading this. Together, we can make things happen.