Words That Make Every Injustice Instantly Easier to Talk About
Feminism, social justice, politics, and shame
Language is hard. It can be both a necessary tool for liberation and also a barrier — something that we go around in circles again and again without making actual progress on a chosen issue. Some people are so focused on how to speak correctly that they never act: trapped in a prison of their own shame and guilt.
The words below are about language, but they are also meant to introduce and expand concepts that make conversation more straightforward. These words will allow you to sidestep certain rhetorical traps and push through into conversations that hopefully let you get more done.
When conservatives are feeling uncharitable, they will sometimes offensively refer to LGBTQ+ individuals as "alphabet people." It's a frustrating dismissal meant to criticize how much diversity with gender and sexuality is being acknowledged nowadays. Still, it hints at a real rhetorical problem: no matter how many people you include at the end of the acronym, someone is always excluded.
The "+ "addition I added above is meant to solve this problem, but it doesn't really because some identities are still valued over others by being there in the first place. The plus sign nods to otherness without necessarily including it. That's why, more and more, I have just been using the Q part of that acronym — queer.
Queer is an umbrella term that can include all-nonnormative sexualities, romantic identities, and genders. Gay men can be thought of as queer. Trans women are queer. Aromantic nonbinary people are queer. (note: some people disagree with this framing and refer to it as a political association as much as relating to gender, romance, or sexuality).
If you are speaking broadly and want to generalize about the LGBTQ+ community, it's best not to exclude people, which is why the queer label is increasingly a handy stand-in.
From rejecting one acronym to embracing another, GSRM stands for Gender, Sexual, and Romantic Minority. It's not so much about specific gender, romantic, or sexual identities but refers to the even broader umbrella of all of these identities that are otherized in our society.
This language is helpful because, depending on how you define queerness, some people may fall outside of it but still engage in romantic or sexual identities that our society stigmatizes. For example, white cisgendered, heterosexual individuals who engage in a kink or are in a polyamorous relationship endure some oppression and discrimination from society. We could say the same for a straight man in a romantic relationship with a trans woman. He's in a straight relationship, but his gender and sexuality can be called into question for the mere association with an "Other."
These people might not necessarily fall under the queer umbrella (though there is plenty of overlap), but they have interests that can sometimes align with the greater community. When the situation calls for it, it's important to have language that includes them.
Many people have a definition of racism where they define it as someone saying something mean to an individual Black or Brown person for being of that race. This is often why conservatives believe that reverse racism toward white people exists because if white people can be mean to Black people about race, surely the opposite can and does happen.
Anti-racists believe racism is not just about individual actions but systems of power. If you are a Black person in this country, you will statistically be poorer, have worse health outcomes, and be brutalized more by the police. This sad state is because the laws and institutions in this country are set up to discriminate against Black and Brown people, regardless of whether or not an individual is racist. You can not have a racist bone in your body and still benefit from and perpetuate racist institutions and policies.
This reality is why many people have started encouraging others to use the term White Supremacy instead of racism because the phrase directly references a system that values a hierarchy based on whiteness. It reframes the discussion away from individualized notions of race toward systems.
-Anti Instead of -Phobic
An annoying debate happens whenever you use a word like homophobia or islamophobia. Someone will inevitably respond, "I am not afraid of gay people. I just don't like them." This counter relies on a juvenile understanding of fear (fear can often manifest as violence), but by the time you get into that conversation, the person has already gotten you to move from the point at hand: that there is a group of people they hate.
We can eliminate this sidestep altogether by categorizing them as hateful instead. They are not homophobic but anti-gay. Not transphobic, but anti-trans (see also anti-fat, anti-muslim, etc.).
Under this framing, you have moved away from defending a word to your interlocutor having to justify their biases. They will still try to wriggle out of this framing by claiming what they really don't condone is "the behavior" (as if there is a meaningful difference), but it's far harder to maintain that position when you can continuously pivot back to what they're against.
Capitalist vs. Worker
We get into many debates about wealth in the United States, but many of them are based on aesthetics rather than actual wealth. Media pundits will label you wealthy if you splurge on coffee, eat avocado toast, talk verbosely, or, in a very sad state of US politics, have little debt (side note: rich people often have lots of debt).
What actually makes you rich in this world, though, is being a capitalist. These are the people who own stuff (factories, natural resources, companies, IP, etc. ) and extract most of their wealth by either renting out that stuff to others, usually to people who don't own stuff, or by paying workers money to extract and package it for them as a good or service.
Capitalists may do work (union-busting and tax evasion require a lot of paperwork, after all), but they do not need to work a traditional job. They make money off of their stuff. Whether that be a landlord extracting rent, a company extracting royalties from media, stock owners collecting residuals, or CEOs transferring the surplus value of their workers' labor over to themselves via overly inflated salaries, the wealth of capitalists is not tied to individual labor but exploitation.
Simply put, everyone else who isn't doing that is a worker. Cut out conversations about coffee and college debt, and focus on how people make their money.
Disabled. You can say it. You won't catch on fire. People have disabilities, and if we want to improve our ableist society (i.e., discrimination based on the belief that non-disabled people are superior), that means being able to talk about them. (side note: this applies to every identity, whether we are talking about Gay People, Black People, or most triggering of all White people. If you can't say the word, there is a problem).
When in doubt, be descriptive (e.g., Sarah has Cerebral Palsy) and use the language appropriately (i.e., don't just call out someone's disability because you are uncomfortable with it). As long as you aren't otherizing someone, it's okay to mention something that is a huge facet of someone's life.
It's best to use the language that someone prefers. Some people will have a problem with the word disabled in the same way that some GRSM people will have difficulty with the word queer. These words have long, complicated histories, and things will sometimes get messy. That's okay.
Also while we are on this subject, cut out ableist language from your vocabulary such as idiot, imbecile, r*t*rded, hearing impaired, dumb, crazy, and cripple. These words are straight-up insulting. Some disabled people may use them, but that falls more in line with how some queer people may refer to themselves as f*gg*ts or how some black people call themselves n*gg*s. It's a way for marginalized groups to reclaim an insulting history, and it doesn't go both ways.
Intersectional feminism is the idea that forms of oppression can connect to make things worse off overall for certain groups of people. For example, Black people are paid less in the United States, but Black women are statistically paid even less than Black men. Race and gender intersect here to systemically put Black Women in a worse-off financial situation.
A rhetorical problem arises when we refer to a few systems of oppression when what we really want to do is refer to all of them at once. Writers will say something along the lines of "white supremacist, colonial patriarchy" when what they want to say is every intersecting oppression. It's the LGBTQ+ problem all over again, except instead of sexual, romantic, and gender orientations, we are talking about unjust hierarchies.
This is where the word Kyriarchy comes in. First popularized by scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, it's a word that quite simply means all intersecting hierarchies, or in essence, the status quo. It's about the nodes of oppression and privilege that people experience the world with and has been likened to a pyramid by Fiorenza.
With this word, a long string of words is no longer needed. If you want to talk about white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative society without breaking out a sea of commas, Kyriarchy is your word.
This last section is not so much a word as a concept. There has been growing frustration from some activists over terms like People of Color (POC) and Black, Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC). This frustration exists because, sometimes, when people want to talk about a group, such as Black people, they use these broader acronyms instead.
Specificity is your friend when referring to groups of people. If you are talking about Black people, then say Black people. If you are referring to Trans-Asian Women, then say that. It's not that these larger umbrella terms we have mentioned don't have their place — they do — but many are using them as a stand-in for an "other," and that can be dehumanizing in its own way.
The point of this article was not to chastise you on how you are doing everything wrong, or be the end all be all of how we should speak. There were many words that I could have also included (allistic vs. autistic, land back, and even socialism, etc.), but decided to axe for time. This article is meant to be more of a jumping-off point, summarizing aspects of feminist, disability, critical race, and labor theory as succinctly as possible.
There may be terms you disagree with or want to learn more about, and I encourage you to research them. The beauty of language is that one person like me doesn't get to decide what it means. It's through conversations we move forward, so talk away.
About the Creator
I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.
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