Cultural Awareness Glossary

Ablism: Discrimination based on a person’s ability, coupled with a belief in the inherent superiority of those who do not have a permanent disability.

Acculturation: A socialization process in which groups of individuals come in continuous and direct contact with each other, resulting in changes in the cultural patterns of either or both groups. In principle, acculturation is a neutral term, but in practice, changes tend to occur less in the dominant culture.4

Ally: Someone who recognizes the unearned privilege they receive by being a member of a dominant group, and takes responsibility to bring change to such injustice. Allies include men who work to end sexism, white people who work to end racism, heterosexual people who work to end heterosexism, able-bodied people who work to end ablism, and so on.2

Anti-oppression: Is concerned with eradicating social injustice perpetuated by societal inequalities, particularly along the lines of race, gender, sexual orientation and identity, age, class, ability and religion.

Assimilation: The process whereby a minority group gradually adapts to the customs and attitudes of the prevailing culture and customs and/or vice versa. Cultural assimilation can happen either spontaneously or forcibly. A culture can spontaneously adopt a different culture or older and richer cultures forcibly integrate other cultures. 

Bias: An inclination or preference either for or against an individual or group that interferes with impartial judgment. 

Bisexual: A person whose sexual orientation is directed towards men and women.3 

Cis-gender: A term used to refer to non-trans people, coined in the 1990s as a resistance to “trans” as abnormal.

Classism: Discrimination based on a person’s social class (e.g. education, income, occupation).

Community Building: Refers to the process of building relationships that helps to cohere community members around common purpose, identity, and a sense of belonging which may lead to social or community capital or community change. A variety of practices can promote community building such as: potlucks, block parties, book clubs, commemorative events, festivals, art making projects, and community construction projects.

Cultural Competence Refers to an ability to interact effectively with people of different cultures and socio-economic backgrounds. 

Cultural Diversity:  The unique characteristics that all of us possess that distinguish us as individuals and identify us as belonging to a group or groups. Diversity transcends concepts of race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender, religion, sexual orientation, disability and age. Diversity offers strength and richness to the whole.5

Cultural Humility: A lifelong process of self-reflection, self-critique and commitment to understanding and respecting different points of view, and engaging with others humbly, authentically and from a place of learning.10

Cultural Identity: Refers to the culture with which individuals choose to identify and live accordingly. A person can have many cultural identities that may change with the context or situation, and/or environment they are in.13 

Cultural Resources: Collective expressions, both material and immaterial, that define and strengthen a culture (e.g. arts, architecture, cuisine, collective history). 

Culture:  A learned system of shared meanings, values, beliefs and norms and is expressed in interpersonal interactions, customs, rituals, symbols, art and artifacts and social systems. While most people perceive culture in terms of ethnicity, culture is a concept that is applicable to any social group with commonalities; e.g. street youth, gays and lesbians, etc. 

Discrimination: The unequal treatment of groups or individuals with a history of marginalization either by a person or a group or an institution which, through the denial of certain rights, results in inequality, subordination and/or deprivation of political, education, social, economic, and cultural rights. 

Diverse: Means a variety. It is used commonly and inaccurately, as a synonym for people of color. 

Dominant Culture: The cultural group that shapes and controls through social and economic, cultural, political and religious power. Usually refers to White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) but other groups can also be part of the dominant culture through power gained from e.g. facility with English, education etc. 

Ethnicity: Refers to a sense of identity based on common socio-history, language and geographical, religious, racial and cultural heritage. Although everyone belongs to at least one ethnic group, the term “ethnic” in the dominant discourse usually refers to people of the non-dominant groups. 

Ethnocentrism: Belief in the superiority of one’s race and culture. The habit of judging foreign people or groups by the standards and practices of one’s culture or ethnic group, with a tendency to disfavor alien cultures resulting in a sense of inherent superiority. 

Gender Identity: personal experience of one’s gender which can correlate with assigned sex at birth, or can differ. A person’s self-concept about being male or female or both or neither.

Gender Roles: Society’s arbitrary rules to define clothing, behavior, thoughts, feelings, relationships etc., considered appropriate for members of each sex. 3

Heteronormativity: The belief that people fall into distinct and complementary genders (man and woman) with natural roles in life. It asserts that heterosexuality is the only sexual orientation or only norm, and states that sexual and marital relations are most (or only) fitting between people of opposite sexes.

Heterosexism: The assumption that all people are or should be heterosexual, and that identifying as the heterosexual and having sexual or romantic attractions only to members of the opposite sex is good and acceptable. If these assumptions are made unconsciously, they are called default assumptions. An example is to ask a woman if she has a husband which reinforces the invisibility that lesbians, gay and bisexual people experience.3

Heterosexual Privilege: The unrecognized and assumed privileges that people have if they are heterosexual. Examples of heterosexual privilege include: holding hands or kissing in public without fearing threat, not questioning the normalcy of your sexual orientation, raising children without fears of state intervention, not being asked when you knew you were straight or worries that your children will experience discrimination because of your heterosexuality.3

Homophobia: Irrational fear, hatred, prejudice or negative attitudes toward homosexuality and people who are gay, or lesbian, in both subtle and extreme forms. Homophobia includes behaviors such as jokes, name-calling, exclusion, gay bashing, and violence.3

Homosexual: A term to describe a person whose primary sexual orientation is to members of the same gender.

Immigrants: Individuals who choose to leave their countries of origin to settle in other countries for personal, social or economic reasons.

Inclusion: Creating an environment in which people have both the feeling and reality of belonging, which supports them to work to their full potential.

Internalized Oppression: The process of making oppression internal and personal by coming to believe that the prejudice and stereotypes about them are true. Members of target groups exhibit internalized oppression when they alter their attitudes, behaviors, speech, and self-confidence to reflect the stereotypes and norms of the dominant group. Internalized oppression can create low self-esteem, self-doubt, and even self-loathing. It can also be projected outward as fear, criticism, and distrust of members of one’s target group.

LGBTTTIQQ: Lesbian Gay Bisexual Two-Spirited Transgendered Transexual Intersexed Questioning Queer.

Marginalization: The process in which individuals or entire communities of people are systematically blocked from (or denied full access to) various rights, opportunities and resources that are normally available to members of a different group (e.g., housing, employment, healthcare, civic engagement, democratic participation, and due process).7

Multicultural Awareness: is a greater understanding, sensitivity, and appreciation of the history, values, experiences, and lifestyles of groups that include race, sexual identity, gender etc.

Microaggression: A social exchange in which a member of a dominant culture says or does something, often unconsciously and without intended malice, that belittles or alienates a member of a marginalized group.

Multiculturalism: Multiculturalism ensures that all people can keep their identities, take pride in their ancestry and have a sense of belonging. Acceptance gives people a feeling of security and self-confidence, making them more open to, and accepting of, diverse cultures. 

Norms: Accepted, accustomed and taken for granted ways of thinking, doing and being.

Oppression: The unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power. Often refers specifically to abuse of power with a systemic and historical expression. The combination of prejudice and institutional power which creates a system that discriminates against some groups (often called “marginalized groups”) and benefits other groups (often called “dominant groups”).

People of Color: A North American term used to describe any person who is not white.

Power: The ability to mobilize resources to meet needs (power-with) or to exercise control (power-over, institutional power). Power can also refer to inner strength associated with courage, conviction, creativity and self-discipline (power-from-within).

Prejudice: A judgment or opinion that is formed on insufficient grounds before facts are known or in disregard of facts that contradict it. Prejudices are learned and can be unlearned.

Privilege: Unearned power that gives certain groups economic, social and political advantages in society. Privilege operates on personal, interpersonal, cultural, and institutional levels and gives advantages, favors and benefits to members of dominant groups at the expense of members of other groups.

Queer: Traditionally, a derogatory and offensive term for LGBTQ people. Many LGBTQ people have reclaimed this word and use it proudly to describe their identity. Some transsexual and transgendered people identify as queers, others do not.3

Race: A socially constructed concept used to divide humans into categories according to a set of common visible traits (skin color, shapes of eyes, nose or face). This biological category was developed based on 18th and 19th century Eurocentric ideology of superiority and was used to exert European dominance through slavery, colonialism and imperialism. Recent scientific evidence in genetic analysis shows that there is greater genetic variation within a racial group than across racial groups, thus refuting race as a biological category.1, 9, 11

Racialization: Use of race as a social convenience, depending on society’s whim at the time. Use of race as a primary explanation for an individual’s behavior.

Racism: The use of individual and institutional power to deny or grant people and groups of people rights, respect, representation and resources based on their skin color. Racism may take place on an individual, cultural or systemic level. The latter form is implicit, mostly invisible and can be deeply embedded in society’s institutions, creating unequal power structures.6

Rank:  the sum of inherited and acquired power and privilege. Mindell describes four types of rank: social, contextual, spiritual and psychological.

Refugees: People who flee their country because of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group. A refugee either cannot return home, or is afraid to do so.14

Reverse discrimination: A term often used to put down efforts to create equity in service and employment for marginalized people, through positive action. It is a misnomer to term such equity efforts as ‘reversing’ discrimination because increasing access for marginalized groups does not produce systemic inequality for privileged groups. It does not ‘reverse’ broad social and historical power imbalances. 

Social Activism: Refers to action to make change that ensures inclusion, equity, fairness, and justice. It is intentional action to bring about social, political, economic, or environmental change.

Social Change: Refers to any significant alteration over time in behavior patterns and cultural values and norms. By “significant” alteration, sociologists mean changes yielding profound social consequences. Examples of significant social changes having long term effects include the industrial revolution, the abolition of slavery, and the feminist movement.

Social Justice: Structural change that increases opportunity for those who are least well off politically, economically, and socially. Social justice is grounded in the values and ideals of equity, access, and inclusion for all members of society, particularly for poor communities and communities of color that historically and structurally have experienced social inequities.  

Socially Just Society: Values human dignity, celebrates diversity, pursues a common purpose, embraces individual and collective rights and responsibilities, narrows the gaps between the advantaged and disadvantaged, provides equitable access to resources for health and well-being, eliminates systemic discrimination and accommodate different needs.12

Stereotype: An exaggerated or distorted belief that attributes generalized and simplistic characteristics to members of a particular group, ignoring their individual differences.  

Sexism: Prejudice or discrimination directed at women based on sex.

Sexual Orientation: How someone thinks of oneself in terms of emotional, romantic or sexual attraction or affection for another person.3

Straight: A term often used to describe people who are heterosexual.3

Transgender or Transsexual: A person or someone who does not conform to society’s gender norms of masculine/feminine. A person who has an intense lifelong conviction of being the opposite sex to his or her birth-assigned sex.3

Two-Spirit: An English term coined to reflect specific cultural words used by First Nation and other indigenous peoples for those in their cultures who are gay or lesbian, transgendered or transsexual, or have multiple gender identities. The term reflects an effort by First Nation and other indigenous communities to distinguish their concepts of gender and sexuality from those of Western LGBTTQQI communities.3 

White privilege: White privilege has been described by Peggy McIntosh as “the invisible knapsack of unearned assets which White people can count on cashing in each day, but about which they are meant to remain oblivious.” These are benefits White people receive in a racist society at the expense of racialized people.8


  1. American Academy of Pediatrics. (2000). Race/ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status – research exploring their effects on children’s health: a subject review (RE9848). Pediatrics, 105(6), 1349-1351
  2. Bishop, Ann. Becoming an Ally Retrieved November 21 2008.
  3. Barbara M. Angela, Gloria Chaim, Doctor Farzana, Asking the Right Questions, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 2002
  4. Berry, J. W. (1997). Immigrant, acculturation, and adaptation. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 46(1), 5-68.
  5. Hasting Institute as cited in BC Ministry for Children and Family, 2000a
  6. Henry, F., & Tator, C. (2000). Racist discourse in Canada’s English print media. Toronto: Canadian Race Relations Foundation.
  8. Lopes, Tina & Thomas, Barb. (2006). Dancing on Live Embers: Challenging Racism in Organizations.
  9. Mayor’s Task Force on Lincoln General Sales Proceeds. (1998). Creating the healthiest community in the nation. Recommendations from Mayor’s Task Force on Lincoln General Sales Proceeds. Lincoln, Nebraska.
  10. Online resource:
  11. Tervalon & Murray-Garcia, 1998
  12. The Premier’s Council. (1995). Pursuing Equity – Phase One: Report of the Equity and Access Committee: The Premier’s Council on Health, Well-being and Social Justice
  13. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2001). Mental health: culture, race and ethnicity — A supplement to Mental Health: A report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services
  14. UNHRC. (2001a). Number of refugees, displaced rising as aid declines. UNHCR News (04 October 2001), Available online:
  15. Wallerstein, N., & Freudenberg, N. (1998). Linking health promotion and social justice: a rationale and two case stories. Health Education Research: Theory and Practice, 13(3), 451-457