The Words At The Forefront Of Social Justice Movements

social justice words

As a society, we have made a lot of progress toward greater equality. Every decade brings new, hard-fought advancements to the rights of women, minorities, and other marginalized people.

The language we use to describe this progress changes just as quickly, and it can be hard to keep up. So, we’ve collected some of the terms and phrases that make up social justice, which is itself a catch-all phrase for movements that work toward greater equality.

Black Girl Magic

Black Girl Magic and #blackgirlmagic were created to celebrate the accomplishments and general amazingness of black women. It is used as an expression of positivity and empowerment.#blackgirlmagic dates to 2011 on Twitter, though it might have appeared earlier elsewhere. Newly woke Teen Vogue used the expression #blackgirlmagic a lot, especially in 2016, referring to it as a movement. That same year, legendary black magazine Essence released a February issue celebrating #blackgirlmagic. The idea also got a lot of play following the release of Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade, which is about the struggles and triumphs of black women, especially those living in the United States.Black girl magic is usually used between black women as an expression of solidarity. But that didn’t stop then-Presidential candidate Hilary Clinton from saying “…black girl magic is real” at the Black Women’s Agenda Symposium Workshop in 2016.


WATCH: #MeToo And Other Hashtags That Inspired A Movement

The Me Too movement was started in 2006 by Tarana Burke, a black civil rights activist from the Bronx who founded a non-profit organization dedicated to helping victims of sexual assault.

The idea of Me Too was picked up by Latina actress Alyssa Milano who tweeted in 2016 “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” The outpouring was immense, and from there the #MeToo movement went viral. Women, and men, began telling their stories of sexual assault to show how many people are affected and who is responsible.

The #MeToo movement works to hold sexual assaulters accountable for their actions, whether through legal, professional, or social recourse. One of the most well-known men held to account by the #MeToo movement was movie executive Harvey Weinstein, who was basically fired from his own company and is facing extensive litigation for alleged sexual assault and rape.


One of the biggest changes in the past couple decades has been around how we talk about gender and sexuality. In particular, the meaning and connotations of the word queer have changed over time. While queer can mean “strange” or “odd,” it’s more often used as a slur against or self-identifier for non-heterosexual or non-cisgender people.

But, in the late 1980s, writers, scholars, and activists in the LGBT community began advocating for a re-appropriation of the word queer. In 1990, this effort focused on queer as a collective term for gays and lesbians. Queer was seen as a way to refer to gays and lesbians without being gender-essentialist or causing divisions within the community. Later in the 1990s, those not only with alternative sexual orientations but also alternative gender orientations began to refer to themselves as genderqueer.

Whether you’re queer, straight, or something altogether, that’s just one facet of your identity. You’re also from somewhere, grew up a certain way, and have a specific first language. All of these things impact you. The term we use to talk about all the different ways we experience is the world is …


Positionality is the social and political context that creates your identity in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability status. Positionality also describes how your identity influences, and potentially biases, your understanding of and outlook on the world.Positionality was applied to gender and sexuality in a 1988 article by philosopher Linda Alcoff. It’s not really a beach read, but to summarize: She was trying to figure out how feminists could understand women, broadly speaking, when it seems almost everything we know about women comes from a male context. In other words, she investigates how a patriarchal worldview creates blinders when we try to come up with “true” things about gender.

In the 2010s, positionality started spreading out of the academy and into more progressive, queer-identified, feminist media. One aspect of positionality that has received a lot of attention is …

white privilege

White privilege is a term used to describe unearned rights and benefits afforded white people in Western society because of the color of their skin. It’s sometimes also referred to as white skin privilege.

The first usage of white privilege is believed to have been by Peggy McIntosh, a women’s studies scholar and founder of the National SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum. In 1988, McIntosh wrote a paper in which she likened the phenomenon to “an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.”

In the years since, the term white privilege has come to be used to explain power structures inherent in American society that disproportionately benefit white people, while putting people of color at a disadvantage.


Slut-shaming is the practice of disparaging women, and occasionally men, for acting in a manner that violates “norms” regarding sexually appropriate behavior. These denigrations, which are often double standards, range from criticizing women for wearing sexy clothing or having multiple sexual partners to blaming sexual assault and rape survivors for their attacks.

The term slut-shaming spread in part because of the SlutWalk. SlutWalks began in 2011 in Toronto after a police officer giving a rape prevention talk told students at York University that they could protect themselves by “not dressing like sluts.” Students responded by marching in all manner of dress and carrying signs identifying themselves as sluts, all to protest the idea that women’s behavior is the cause of their sexual assault.

Something else feminists hate almost as much as slut-shaming is …


To mansplain is for a man to explain something to a woman in a condescending manner, particularly when the woman is an expert in the subject.

While she didn’t coin the term, author Rebecca Solnit conceptualized and popularized the idea thanks to her April, 2008 essay. In it, she discusses the way men do not see women as credible in a variety of situations, such as when reporting a crime.Mansplain spread from the feminist (and anti-feminist) blogosphere to the Twitterverse (where men would notoriously pontificate to women with tweets beginning actually) to the mainstream media, where journalist Sam Sifton and lexicographer Grant Barrett included mansplainer in a 2010 Words of the Year roundup in the New York Times.

Some men, of course, have taken issue with mansplaining, crying reverse sexism. That sounds like a whole lotta … mansplaining.

problematic fave

problematic fave is a character or person who’s done or said offensive (i.e., problematic) things. Your fave is problematic is a phrase that usually accompanies a cited list of these offensive things. The term is used exclusively in discussions about fandom, celebrities, and media.

The phrase your fave is problematic was largely popularized by a Tumblr blog of the same name, launched on March 17, 2013. The blog features lengthy posts, containing cited examples of a given celebrity’s problematic behavior. The blog’s first post was about comedian Louis C.K., wherein the moderators outlined offensive routines he performed, which included anti-Semitic jokes and the use of slurs.

Naming someone a problematic fave is not a permanent condemnation; it’s a call to do better. People call their favorite actors and characters their problematic faves as a way to acknowledge that the individual has done wrong in the past, but that they still like them despite that.

glass cliff

The glass cliff is a metaphor for putting women and other minorities into leadership positions during times of crisis. It suggests they are getting set up to fail, as if getting pushed over a cliff.

The term glass cliff was coined by Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam, psychology researchers at the University of Exeter. In a May 2004 article Ryan and Haslam argue that the “glass cliff is a dangerous place to be,” because it makes women targets for criticism, resulting in shorter overall tenures in leadership positions.

In the early 2010s, continuing research into the glass cliff found it wasn’t limited to women. Ethnic minorities are also disproportionately put into leadership positions where they are “set up to fail.”

Some examples of women in leadership who faced the glass cliff are Ellen Pao, the former Reddit CEO, and Carly Fiorina, former Hewlett-Packer CEO, both brought on in times of crisis, then blamed and let go when things didn’t turn around as expected.

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