Key Definitions

Key language and definitions to help understand and have conversations about racial justice, racism and systems of oppression

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The Racial Equity Tools Glossary is a comprehensive resource and below are a few additional important terms and definitions.


Cultural competence An examination of one’s own attitude and values, and the acquisition of the values, knowledge, skills and attributes that will allow an individual to work appropriately in cross cultural situations

Denboba, D., Bragdon, J., Epstein, L., Garthright, K., and Goldman, T. (1998). Reducing health disparities through cultural competence. Journal of Health Education, 29(5, Suppl.), 47-53.


Cultural humility A life-long process of self-reflection, self-critique, continual assessment of power imbalances, and the development of mutually respectful relationships and partnerships

M.Tervalon, J. Murray-Garcia (1998). Cultural humility versus cultural competence: a critical distinction in defining physician training outcomes in multicultural education, Journal of health care for the poor and underserved, Vol. 9, No. 2. (May 1998), pp. 117-125


Differences between cultural competence and cultural humility

Cultural competence Cultural humility
  • To build an understanding of cultures to better and more appropriately provide services
  • To encourage personal reflection and growth around culture in order to increase service providers’ awareness
  • Knowledge
  • Training
  •  Introspection
  • Co-learning
  • Enforces the idea that there can be ‘competence’ in a culture other than one’s own.
  • Supports the myth that cultures are monolithic.
  • Based upon academic knowledge rather than lived experience. Believes professionals can be “certified” in culture.
  • Challenging for professionals to grasp the idea of learning with and from clients.
  • No end result, which those in academia and medical fields can struggle with.
  • Allows for people to strive to obtain a goal.
  • Promotes skill building.
  • Encourages lifelong learning with no end goal but rather an appreciation of the journey of growth and understanding.
  • Puts professionals and clients in a mutually beneficial relationship and attempts to diminish damaging power dynamics.


Historical Trauma Historical trauma is the cumulative, multigenerational, collective experience of emotional and psychological injury resulting from cataclysmic events. Events do not just target individuals but a whole collective community. Trauma is held personally and across generations. Even those who have not directly experienced the trauma can feel the effects generations later.


Types of power  in political decision-making and democratic participation identifies three faces or dimensions of power: the visible, the hidden and the invisible

  • Visible power: observable decision-making. Visible power describes the formal rules, structures, authorities, institutions and procedures of political decision-making. It also describes how those in positions of power use such procedures and structures to maintain control.
  • Hidden power: setting the political agenda. Powerful actors also maintain influence by controlling who gets to the decision-making table and what gets on the agenda. These dynamics operate on many levels, often excluding and devaluing the concerns and representation of less powerful groups.
  • Invisible power: shaping meaning and what is acceptable. Invisible power shapes the psychological and ideological boundaries of participation. Significant problems and issues are not only kept from the decision-making table, but also from the minds and consciousness of those affected. By influencing how individuals think about their place in the world, this level of power shapes people’s beliefs, sense of self and acceptance of the status quo. Processes of socialisation, culture and ideology perpetuate exclusion and inequality by defining what is normal, acceptable and safe


Power analysis Power analysis is a process that helps organizations and groups to navigate the different dimensions of power, to understand how social issues are shaped and what change could be achieved to improve the lives of the communities those organizations and groups are working with.


Racial capitalism The process of deriving social or economic value from the racial identity of another person. Example: Administrators at UW-Madison, a predominantly white university, concerned that prospective students will be deterred by the school’s racial homogeneity, authorized the use of Photoshop to add a black student to the photo on the cover of the university’s application brochure. Problems with racial capitalism arise when white individuals and predominantly white institutions seek and achieve racial diversity without examining their motives and practices. Striving for numerical diversity, without more, results in awareness of nonwhiteness only in its thinnest form– as a bare marker of difference and a signal of presence. This superficial view of diversity consequently leads white individuals and predominantly white institutions to treat nonwhiteness as a prized commodity rather than as a cherished and personal manifestation of identity.

Nancy Leong, Racial Capitalism, 126 Harvard Law Review 2151-2226 (June, 2013) (374 Footnotes) (Full Document)


Sovereignty In the United States, federally recognized tribes are considered “domestic nations” with the absolute authority to govern themselves.