Using “isms” to change conversations about privileges

This is my working definition for using the suffix ism to name the prejudice associated with a different privileges.

Isms are used to form names relating to the benefit though privilege of a certain group described by the root word, or a pattern of behavior or a social norm that benefits members of the group indicated by the root word.

It can be a confusing definition!

Root words

The root words describe the spectrum of a privilege.

I am thinking about the the privileges that I experienced by putting together the following list of  privileges | isms.

  • white (living in NYC, U.S. with documentation as a native English speaker) | benefitting from racism
  • man | benefitting from sexism
  • straight (cisgender and married to a woman) | benefiting from heterosexism
  • able-bodied (and relatively mentally healthy) | benefiting from ableism
  • debt-free and  paid a living wage l benefiting from classism
  • 30 years old | benefiting from ageism

This list is probably incomplete and perhaps wrongly phrased, if there more effective or useful ways to describe these, I am very happy to hear about them.

Individual-level vs. Systemic-level

My use of this model is drawn directly from Race Forward’s Moving the Race Conversation Forward. The report clearly presents research, analysis, and suggestions that “[aim] to reshape and reform the way we talk about race and racism in our country.”

Isms play out like this:

  1. Internal [Individual-level]
    “lies within individuals. These are our private beliefs and biases.”*
  2. Interpersonal [Individual-level]
    “occurs between individuals. These are biases when individuals interact with others.”*
  3. Institutional [Systemic-level]
    “occurs within institutions and systems of power.”*
    like schools
  4. Structural [Systemic-level]
    “is bias among institutions and across society”*
    most obviously in the media*[pt 1, pg 3; Moving the Race Conversation Forward]


pt 1, pg 3; Moving the Race Conversation Forward

A place to start

Between privileges and isms we have tools to have a shared conversation about pushing back against privileges and isms.

Conversations that use these tools to make more justice in the world is the process that I think of as a solidarity of machine. It’s the work of folks with privilege to stand in solidarity with folks who don’t have privilege.

I hope that it’s possible to use the spaces in which you don’t experience privilege to build empathy. Empathy is the power that keeps the machine running.

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