Terms & Definitions

The following is a compiled list of terms and definitions that we can use to better understand and eliminate social inequalities and attendant disparities in the health of the public.

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Ableism: The system of oppression that disadvantages people who do have disabilities. This system of oppression is about the interaction of institutional structures, cultural norms, and individual beliefs and behaviors that work to maintain the status quo and exclude people with disabilities from many areas of society.


Christian hegemony: The dominance of Christian observances, holy days, and places of worship without regard for those of non-Christians. Normalized Christian norms that are accepted as intrinsic to our national identity (Kiviel, 2013)

Cisgender: An adjective describing a person whose gender identity is congruent with their gender assigned at birth. Provides an affirmative way of describing non-trans* gender identities (Aultman, 2014, Enke, 2012, Serano, 2009; Stryker, 2008)

Class culture: The norms, values, and ways of life shared by people with a similar class position. Class cultures develop in response to economic realities as well as other dimensions of experience, and can be thought of as aspects of culture that help people to survive, thrive, and make sense of their roles in the economic system, whether or not people are consciously aware of that relationship (Shlasko & Kramer, 2011; Williams, 2012).

Class: A relative ranking based on income, wealth, education, status, and power (Leondar-Wright & Yeskel, 2007)

Classism: The institutional, cultural, and individual set of practices and beliefs that assign differential value to people according to their socioeconomic class in a social system characterized by economic inequality (Leondar-Wright & Yeskel, 2007, p.314; Fiske & Markus, 2012; Lareau & Conley, 2008)

Color-blindness: Note: We recognize the problematic ableist language of this term, but we also acknowledge it as a term used by scholars to describe an important social phenomenon. Colorblind ideology (purporting to not notice race in an effort to not be racist) asserts that ending discrimination merely requires treating individuals as equally as possible without regard to race, culture, or ethnicity.

Cultural capital: The non-material resources, such as knowledge, language, style, way of life, and self-presentation, that act as personal markers of class (Lareau & Calarco, 2012; Swartz, 1997).


Discrimination: Action based on prejudice. Discrimination is at the individual level; all people hold social prejudices, and all people act on these prejudices in various ways, consciously and unconsciously.


Ethnicity: A social construct that divides people into social groups based on characteristics such as a shared sense of group membership, values, behavior patterns, language, political and economic interests, history, and ancestral geographic location.


Gender assignment: Gender assignment is the assignment of gender that typically occurs simultaneously with the assignment of sex at birth, and based on the doctor’s interpretation of the visual appearance of a baby’s external genitalia, with males assigned the gender of boy and females assigned the gender of girl.

Gender expression: Gender expression is the behavioral, aesthetic, and psychological characteristics by which a person communications their gender identity. One’s gender expression may or may not conform to cultural expectations and may challenge the gender role binary.

Gender identity: Gender identity is how we identify our own gender, typically using terms boy/man and girl/woman, which may or may not align with the sex assigned to one’s body at birth. Most people’s gender identity matches the gender and sex they were assigned at birth (cisgender). However, for some people, their gender identity is incongruent with the gender and sex they were assigned at birth. Some people assigned a male gender at birth identify as girls/women, and some people assigned female at birth identify as boys/men. The spectrum of gender identities is much broader than the simple Western-based woman/man binary.

Gender: A social identity usually conflated with biological sex in a binary system that presumes one has either male or masculine characteristics and behavior, or female and feminine characteristics and behavior.


Health Equity: Attainment of the highest level of health for all people. Health equity means efforts to ensure that all people have full and equal access to opportunities that enable them to lead healthy lives (Healthy People, 2020). Equity is about fairness. Therefore, health equity is about enabling people to attain the highest level of health in a manner that is fair and recognizes their particular needs given social, economic, environmental, and historical conditions that have impacted populations differently. Equity is not equality. However true equity leads to equality. Intersectionality: Intersectionality looks at the way that forms of oppression overlap and intersect; It is the way that intersecting social identities interact to produce injustice. All social identities and other systems of oppression intersect with other social identities and other systems of oppression and position individuals and groups different in the system of racism by virtue of gender, class, sexuality, ability and other social markers. Intersectionality operates on both individual/and system levels. For example, a woman of color who is poor and disabled experiences racism differently than an upper-class, able bodied, heterosexual man of color. At the systemic level, racism and classism are deeply intertwined and interlocking systems that sustain inequalities in such situations as schooling, housing, and criminal justice.

Hegemony: A society’s unacknowledged and/or unconscious adherence to a dominant world view, without any need for external policing, through assumed cultural norms, policies, and practices whose maintenance depends not on any special effort but on “ business as usual”.

Heteronormativity: As a term, it describes the processes through which social institutions and social policies reinforce the belief that human beings fall into distinct sex/gender categories: Male/man and female/woman.

Heterosexism: The cultural, institutional, and individual beliefs and practices that assume that heterosexuality is the only natural, normal, and acceptable sexual orientation.


Meritocracy: Often described as a myth. It is the belief that hard work and talent will always be rewarded by upward economic and social mobility (McNamee & Miller, 2004).


Oppression: When one social group’s collective prejudice and discrimination toward another social group is backed by power at the individual, institutional, ideological, and interpersonal levels. This power transforms prejudice and discrimination into oppression, transforms the relationship between groups as one of dominance and subordination, and results in structural inequality between the two groups.


Prejudice: Attitudes and beliefs involving a tendency to prejudge people, usually negatively and usually on the basis of a single personal characteristic

Privilege: A “system of advantage” that gives people from more powerful social groups access to resources and opportunities that are denied to others (and usually gained at their expense) simply because of the groups they belong to (Goodman, 2001; Johnson 2001; Wildman & Davis, 1996, 2000) Privilege is the other side of oppression.


Racial Microaggressions: Everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, insults, whether intentional or unintentional that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely on their marginalized group membership (Sue et al. 2007)

Racism: A pervasive system of advantage and disadvantage based on the socially constructed category of race. Racism is enacted on multiple levels simultaneously: Ideologically, Institutionally, Interpersonally and Individually. It is a historically based system of active and/or passive actions/beliefs/policies and conceptions that have disparate and oppressive outcomes and confers visible/unacknowledged privilege on the basis of race, systemizing and perpetuating and unequal distribution of privileges, resources, & power between white people and people of color (adapted from Bell, Funk, Joshi, and Valdivia, 2016 & Hilliard, 1992)

Religious Oppression: The systematic subordination of minority religious groups, such as Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Native American spiritual systems/spiritualities, atheists, and agnostics. The subordination of non-Christian religions occurs at all levels of society through the actions of individuals, institutional practices and policies, and cultural and societal norms and values associated with Christianity (Joshi, 2006)


Sex: A designation attributed to physiological and biological factors that foster individual classification as one of the two expected sex categories, male and female.

Sexism: The cultural, institutional and individual beliefs and practices that privilege men, subordinate women, and denigrate values and practices associated with women.

Sexual Orientation: An enduring pattern of attraction that determines the focus of our sexual/erotic drives, desires fantasies, and the inclination or capacity to develop intimate, emotional, and sexual relationships with other people.

Sexuality: This term is broader than sexual orientation because it encompasses not just a pattern of attraction, drives, desires, thoughts, feelings, etc., but our broader sexual experiences.

Social Group Identity: A group of people who share a range of physical, cultural, linguistic and other characteristics, and to which individuals are assigned based on socially constructed categories such as gender, biological sex, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, nationality, socioeconomic class, ability/disability status, and first language.

Stereotype threat: Describes the fear of confirming negative stereotypes about one’s racial, ethnic, gender, or cultural group. The term was coined by Steele and Aronson (1995), whose research showed that black college students performed worse on standardized tests than their white peers when they were reminded, before taking the tests, that their racial group tends to do poorly on such exams. When their race was not emphasized, however, black students performed similarly to their white peers.

Stereotype: A standard/generalized belief, perception, and/or assumption about an individual or group of people. Stereotypes can often times be considered negative, untrue, and not connected to reality.


Transgender Oppression: The hegemony of gender expectations and roles based on a rigid binary of male (masculine) and female (feminine) that is limiting and oppressive to everyone, but especially to those who transgress gender norms.

Transgender: An older but still common umbrella term that may include transsexuals, cross-dressers and other people who transgress the socially constructed confines of gender. As a term of self-identification, it should not be imposed on people.