To accurately advocate for race, gender and identity issues, it’s important to understand some seemingly complex terms that are used in specific contexts inside and outside academia. Whether you end up using these terms yourself or just need clarification as to their meaning, having these words in your knowledge bank can help you effectively communicate with others.

Cisgender

The Oxford English Dictionary added cisgender to its official lexicon in June of this year. It defines cisgender as “denoting or relating to a person whose self-identity conforms with the gender that corresponds to their biological sex; not transgender.” The Advocate has a much simpler definition in the headline of its article about the term, which may be more easily understandable to a lay audience. The headline reads, “It’s not complicated: Cisgender is the opposite of transgender.”

Both definitions of course say the same thing. “Trans” as many know, is a prefix meaning “across, beyond, or on the other side of.” We use this prefix often in such commonly used words as transportation, transition, and transcontinental. According to The Advocate, the prefix “cis” means “on this side of,” which is an accurate opposition to “trans.” Transgender was added to the lexicon in 2003, making cisgender twelve years overdue. As most advocates instinctively know, cisgender has effectively existed just as long as transgender has, just as there can be no “left-handed” identity without there first being a “right-handed” one.

Hegemony

This word is commonly used in academic circles to describe a country or group’s influence or control over others who lack equal agency. The term largely arises from Marxist theory, which argues that a ruling class can determine the mores of a society through its undue influence on those it subjugates.

For example, in the current political climate in the United States, the government has used the term “terrorism” in a way that influences both U.S. citizens and those of other western countries. Terrorism has largely become associated with brown-skinned individuals who participate in violence against western nations. However, this term isn’t used to describe western violence in Eastern countries or Western violence in home territories.

Heteronormativity

The term heteronormativity may sound like a mouthful, but it can be easily broken up to get a clear understanding of its meaning. “Hetero” is a prefix meaning “different,” or “other.” It is mainly used in the term heterosexual, which defines a person who is sexually attracted to someone of the opposite (different/other) sex. Homosexual, as most of us know, refers to those who are attracted to someone of the same sex. “Normative” is an adjective meaning “of, relating to, or dealing with norms,” according to Webster’s Third.

Heteronormativity, therefore, refers to the sociological hierarchy of gender and sexuality. In this hierarchy, cisgender heterosexuals are at the apex of “normality,” while any “deviation” is registered below. According to the Gender and Education Association, “it is through heteronormative discursive practices that lesbian and gay lives are marginalised socially and politically and, as a result, can be invisible in social spaces such as schools.”

Discursive practices refer to the ways in which people use language in an everyday manner to describe their realities. For instance, to use a racial lens, white is the normative race in America, and as such, it is not often used as an identifier in digital or print media. However, when someone is of a minority race, his or her ethnicity is often used as an identifying characteristic. In its simplest form, someone can be referred to as the “black friend”, the “fat friend,” or the “gay friend,” and each of these would be an example of a discursive practice.

Othering

Othering is a practice in which people define themselves based on the difference of others. An article published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) defines othering as “a process that identifies those that are thought to be different from oneself or the mainstream, and it can reinforce and reproduce positions of domination and subordination.” This practice is largely enforced by hierarchical standards and a belief in polar realities. For example, in Heart of Darkness, author Joseph Conrad uses the backdrop of the Congo to provide a space in which English protagonist Charles Marlow explores his own identity. Conrad magnifies the differences between Western propriety and the darkness of “African savagery” as a way to explore Marlow’s own savage nature. This theme is also central to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, in which English youths find themselves abandoned on an empty island and soon turn into savage “beasts.”

As implied above, othering is separate from clear discrimination, in that the focus is centered internally on the individual who inhabits the “normative” identity. However, othering can have a dangerous effect on the ways in which people amplify differences between themselves and others. This practice often results in exaggerated and inaccurate stereotypes that do much to further the divide between races, cultures, and creeds. The binary basis of othering assumes that categories of people exist within closed parameters that often results in unnecessary fear of the “other.”

Whiteness and White Privilege

The term whiteness is similar to the term cisgender, as blackness became a common phrase long before whiteness did. However, just as in the examples above, something can’t exist without its opposite. The very fact that there is a term to denote a black state of being means that there conversely has to be a white state of being. Whiteness has been even harder to define than blackness, because, since white culture is normative in the United States, it does not stand out against popular backdrop, but rather is that backdrop itself. Whiteness, however refers to “the quality or state of being white,” as defined by Merriam-Webster.

A New York Times article by Nell Irvin Painter reminds us that whiteness has gone through its own metamorphosis that spans centuries and probably will never fully resolve itself: “In the 19th century, the Saxon race was said to be intelligent, energetic, sober, Protestant and beautiful. Celts, in contrast, were said to be stupid, impulsive, drunken, Catholic and ugly.” Painter discusses this fluid definition of whiteness from the 18th century through the present day. According to Nell, when we limit our discussion of race merely to its connection to or disassociation with other races, we miss the transitions present in its own history. It is only through exploring a race’s own journey that we can more accurately discover our position within it.

White privilege builds off this definition of whiteness. Mount Holyoke defines the term as “a set of advantages and/or immunities that white people benefit from on a daily basis beyond those common to all others.” While it may seem derogatory or accusatory, in reality, white privilege is meant to refer to daily advantages afforded to a group of people who did not ask nor consciously choose to receive. In this way it is separate from more action-based nouns, like racism, oppression, and even discrimination. A commonly used example to describe white privilege is the existence of “ethnic hair care” sections in drug stores that are separate from “hair care” sections with no other qualifier. Another common example is a white person’s ability to peruse a department store without being watched or followed by security personnel.

Each of the terms listed above relate to the ways in which those in positions of power and those of the majority have access to language and identities that represent what is considered “normal” in a society. Through understanding these terms, we can discuss advocacy issues in a way that broadens the ways in which we are able to talk about actions, perceptions, and representations of identity. These terms are not meant to be used to point fingers at those who constitute the status quo, but rather to have terms that describe not just individuals who “deviate from the norm,” but also those who inhabit it.