Talking About Race: Glossary of Terms


Affirmative Action

A program designed to redress past discrimination against certain groups (usually racial/ethnic minorities and women) by increasing the opportunities available to them in areas such as employment and education. These policies are designed to increase the representation of members of these groups in institutions historically controlled by White men.

Civil Rights

Civil rights are the fundamental privileges and freedoms granted to a person or group. These rights are guaranteed by the 13th and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution. As an adjective, the phrase is often invoked in reference to the political movement of the 1950s and 1960s that sought to obtain equitable opportunities and fair treatment for African Americans and other minorities.

Colorblind Racism

“Colorblind racism” refers to the proposition that since the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s, racism is a thing of the past and that there is full equality in the society now that all people have rights under the law. Proponents of “colorblindness”—mostly conservatives— say that the country needs to transcend race by acknowledging the progress made over the past several decades. Race-conscious policies, they argue, stir up resentment among Whites while also promoting a lack of ambition among people of color by holding them to a lower standard.

As support for their claims, they point to the genetic evidence provided by the Human Genome Project that race has no biological foundation as a way to categorize people. They also cite a 1998 statement by the American Anthropological Association that explains “race” as a classification system invented in the 18th century to justify status differences between European settlers and conquered and enslaved peoples, then expanded to support efforts such as the Nazi extermination of Jews.

In August 2002, the American Sociological Association took a stand against such attempts to abolish ‘race’ as untrue and irrelevant. In a statement, the professional society urged social scientists not to ignore race classifications or stop using them as a research tool, even though they may be biological fiction. “Those who favor ignoring race as an explicit administrative matter, in the hope that it will cease to exist as a social concept, ignore the weight of a vast body of sociological research that shows that racial hierarchies are embedded in the routine practices of social groups and institutions,” the society wrote (1).

Cumulative Causation

In structures, causation often involves the interaction between institutions in such a way that increases at each successive stage. In terms of structural racism, considering cumulative causation allows us to understand that it is not just one societal institution that is creating disadvantages for certain groups; instead, it is the interplay between various institutions that blindly creates accumulated disadvantages.


Diversity refers to the quality of being different. Being diverse means that there is variety rather than uniformity of a particular attribute. For example, affirmative action encourages a diverse workforce by striving to employ people from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds.


Ethnicity refers to one’s membership in an identifiable social group that is founded on a particular racial, national, or cultural association. Affiliation with this identity may be denoted by an individual’s adherence to group-specific customs, beliefs, or linguistic nuances. Unlike race, physical appearance is not a significant distinguishing characteristic.


As a verb, framing refers to the way in which an idea is presented and subsequently interpreted. The supporting details, context, and other cues can change the presentation of an idea and consequently affect the way in which the audience perceives the idea. Frames can be used to encourage some interpretations while discouraging others. The concept of a frame is largely attributed to sociologist Erving Goffman in his classic text, Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience.


Integration is broadly defined as the process of unifying parts of a whole. It often refers to uniting people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds so that they may freely associate with one another, as in a society. Integration differs from assimilation, as one must not forfeit his/her own ethnic identity in order to integrate.


Marginalization is the social process of demoting an individual or a group to a peripheral location so that the individual or group possesses minimal power or influence.


“Race” is a relatively modern, complex, social, human construct. Our attempts to group and classify individuals based on this construct often have interesting outcomes. For example, the United States Census Bureau now lists more than 60 possible combinations of six basic racial categories and provides a “write in” area on the census form to accommodate individuals who identify themselves in a way that is not addressed on the form. Research indicates that while there is some genetic variation in human beings, most of the differences are at the individual level and only a very small percentage of genetic variation can be traced to differences between groups. The scientific foundation for race has been called into question for over 100 years.

The following standardized definitions have been used to define race:

  • A local geographic or global human population distinguished as a more or less distinct group by genetically transmitted physical characteristics
  • A group of people united or classified together on the basis of common history, nationality, or geographic distribution. Example: the German race
  • A division of mankind possessing traits that are transmissible by descent and sufficient to characterize it as a distinct human type



Racism is a prejudice that declares that members of one racial group are superior (intellectually, physically, etc.) to another group. This prejudice may lead to animosity and/or discriminatory behavior against members of the perceived unequal or “inferior” group.


Segregation is the act or process of separating people by a particular attribute such as race. Segregation can be a means of discriminating against minority groups by separating them from the amenities and facilities utilized by the majority group. One major goal of the Civil Rights Movement was to end Jim Crow segregation practices.

Structural Racialization

Structural racialization refers to a system of social structures and policies and the interaction of these structures and policies that produce cumulative, durable, race-based inequalities. Structural racialization extends beyond the racist actions of individuals and instead considers how disparities are created and upheld on a macro-level. It is also a method of analysis that considers how historical legacies, individuals, structures, and institutions work interactively to distribute material and symbolic advantages and disadvantages along racial lines.

Transformative Change

This term refers to intentional change that seeks to alter the core of an issue, perspective, or situation in ways that are both innovative and creative. This type of change has wide-ranging ramifications, as it promotes deep understanding and may alter underlying assumptions, processes, and structures.


1 Lehrman, Sally. “Colorblind Racism.” Institute for Justice and Journalism. Posted September 18, 2003. Referenced Nov. 8,2007.

Adapted from “Talking About Race;” The Ohio State University Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. Prepared by Tom Rudd, Senior Researcher; Annette Johnson, Research Associate; Cheryl Staats, Research Assistant; John A. Powell, Executive Director; Andrew Grant-Thomas, Deputy Director.


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