Understanding Ethnic Studies Jargon


School officials and activists employ an array of new words and phrases to describe their beliefs and goals. If you see and hear these phrases and can’t figure out what they mean, it is by design. Their vocabulary is intended to mislead – to make harmful and extreme ideas sound benign and virtuous and to conceal meaning through ambiguity.

Educators and outside consultants who promote modern-day Ethnic Studies (which is really Liberated Ethnic Studies), use terms that can sound neutral, and even nice, but really mean something different when applied inside classrooms across the country.

Ethnic Studies

When most of us think of “Ethnic Studies”, we think of multicultural education which includes lessons incorporating perspectives of different cultures, teaching tolerance and acceptance, making global connections and being allies of those who come from different backgrounds. This is not what proponents of Ethnic Studies mean. They mean the Liberated or Critical version of ethnic studies which is defined by a focus on white supremacy/systemic racism, connecting to resistance movements, and teaching students to be activists for a specific cause. There is no viewpoint diversity allowed. 

Settler Colonialism/Imperialism

The action or process of settling among and establishing control over the indigenous people of an area. All western or european exploration to North America is considered settler colonialism and imperialism and either has led or leads to genocide of people who are black, of indiginous decent, and persons of color (BIPOC). For example, Christopher Columbus was a settler colonial and is responsible for the genocide of native american people.

Decolonize (as in, opposition to Colonization)

The un-learning or un-doing of what was put in place by colonization/imperialism. For example, to decolonize the American holiday of Thanksgiving, which is typically thought of as a day to give thanks for what one has and the coming together of the pilgrims to America and the Native Americans to break bread, students are taught to use terms like “genocide” and “stolen land” on that day.


The actions of colonialism and imperialism. In Ethnic Studies curriculum, “critiquing empire” might manifest itself in lessons on the struggle and oppression of a native culture by the governing entity, which are white males.

Land Acknowledgement

The honoring of native american tribes whose land was “stolen” from settler colonialism. This usually takes the form of a spoken statement at the beginning of class/school/meetings and may include statements that describe the suffering of indigeonous peoples because of white supremacy.

White Supremacy

The ideology which holds that the white race is superior to all others. The Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum states “Ethnic Studies facilitates cross-ethnic approaches to appreciating the culture, history and contemporary experiences of racialized communities, while simultaneously asking white students to learn about their own histories of resisting white supremacy or racism.


Centering is putting the feelings of a particular identity group above another. For example: White centering is the centering of white people, white values, white norms and white feelings over everything and everyone else.

Restorative Justice

Restorative justice is an approach to justice where one of the responses to a misdeed, broken rule or actual crime is to organize a meeting between the victim and the offender, sometimes with representatives of the wider community. In restorative justice, reconciliation, not punishment, is the goal. The “Western” view of crime and punishment is thought to be a byproduct of colonialism.

Systems of Power and Oppression

A system of oppression is any system designed to hinder a group of individuals (usually a minority) from accessing the resources and privileges available to individuals who are not part of that minority. Five common systems of oppression are: Sexism, Racism, Classism, Heteronormativity, Ableism. 

Dominant/Counter Narratives

A dominant narrative is an explanation or story that is told in service of the dominant social group’s interests and ideologies. It usually achieves dominance through repetition, the apparent authority of the speaker (often accorded to speakers who represent the dominant social groups), and the silencing of alternative perspectives. Because dominant narratives are so normalized through their repetition and authority, they have the illusion of being objective and apolitical, when in fact they are neither. For an example of how this is applied in Ethnic Studies, here is a discussion guide from the University of Michigan.


Intersectionality describes the ways in which systems of inequality based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, class and other forms of discrimination “intersect” to create unique dynamics and effects.

Social Groups 

A social group refers to two or more individuals who share a common social identification, and who perceive themselves to be members of the same social category. Social Groups are often different Ethnic Groups. Other examples of social groups are: Women, LGBTQ+, People with disabilities, immigrants, refugees. While not ethnicities, these social groups are typically included within Ethnic Studies curriculum. 

Critical Consciousness

The ability to act and change your situation in life by understanding your current social and political condition. One’s condition is almost always examined through a lens of  race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or relgion and NOT content of character or individual attributes. 


In Liberated Ethnic Studies, Humanization is the recognition of the dignity of the human qualities of a person. However, it continues to say that in order to reach true humanization, the levers of power (most often the government) must be used to give opportunities to people “who have been marginalized,” which are most often people of a particular race, gender or gender identity group. When the levers of power are not used to help certain intersectional groups, then dehumanization occurs.


In Liberated Ethnic Studies, liberation often describes social movements which aim to achieve equal rights and social justice. The social movements that are taught and supported are ones that are based in Critical Race Theory


A theory put into practice. When “praxis” is mentioned, it is meant to have students of ethnic studies take what they learn and use it to advocate for change (become activists). For example, if students learn about the mistreatment of African Americans or the LGBT community, “praxis” might mean joining a Black Lives Matter protest or a Pride event.


Agreement with individuals of a particular group. A student of ethnic studies might show solidarity with a particular group of people by adopting their values, ideology, rituals and political/social causes.


Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Consortium Glossary

The Four I’s of Oppression