A Quick Reference for Breaking Down Big Concepts
Defining abstract concepts can be a difficult task but one that must be done in order to make sense of what is going on around us. In this article, we attempt to break down some of the major ones for you. Keep in mind that some of these concepts aren’t concrete across cultures; one culture’s definition of race may be wildly different from another one’s.
One of the major issues facing the world today is racism. But what exactly is ‘race’? It is essentially a form of human classification based on shared physical traits, genetics, or ancestry. While the resulting groups that form from these classifications have very little biological difference, they have had a major impact on social relations throughout history and bleeding over into modern day. Much of this impact can be coined as racism.
Racism is prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed towards another person of a different race, based on the belief that one’s own race is superior. It can come in many forms, ranging from subconscious microaggressions to hate crimes. The ramifications from the history of racism has bled into and can still be seen in laws and policies today, which is often called institutional or structural racism. The definition, as used by the Aspen Institute, is a “system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity.” It occurs above and beyond the individual level, and is intertwined with economic, social, and political systems. Generally, it reinforces the ideals and privileges of ‘whiteness’ and disadvantages associated with ‘color’. Structural racism is the result of a history full of colonialism and white privilege.
Which brings us to our next point: what is white privilege? It refers to white people’s historical and contemporary advantages to access. This access can be towards quality education, home ownership, livable wages, wealth, and so on. In a study conducted by Demos and the Institute on Assets and Social Policy (IASP), it was found that in pretty much any situation (college education, family structure, working hours, and expenditure) white people were always on top, and not by twice as much. They made/had nearly five times as much wealth in comparison to their persons of color (POC) counterparts. If you don’t have time to read the full study, a nice summary can be found here.
Another broad issue with numerous implications is gender. Gender is defined as the state of being male or female. It deals less with the biological aspects and more with the cultural and social ones. These include gender roles, pay gaps, how children are raised, toxic masculinity, and other deeply ingrained ideals. Let’s explain these briefly. Gender roles are the ideas that certain things are for boys and certain things are for girls; boys play with action figures, girls play with dolls. Men are breadwinners, women are caretakers. The idea that there is a distinct difference in men and women’s abilities are dated and need to end. Pay gaps: women make less than men, an average eighty cents per dollar. Studies show that the pay gap won’t close until 2152 if this rate continues. Why is there a gap? It’s a lot to go into for this guide, but some answers can be found here and here. For the rest of the listed dated ideals and the ones described above, it all boils down to the same thing: the expectations placed on men and women based on a 1950’s concept of households. Times have changed.
Related to the realm of gender is sexism, which is prejudice, discrimination, or stereotyping on the basis of sex. It tends to be towards women. For example, in one study a researcher found that men talk more than women, even though women are often perceived as the talkers. Several studies have none been conducted that show the same results. Other examples of sexism can be found at the Everyday Sexism Project. It is a platform for people to post about their experiences and concerns with sexism they encounter. As much as people want to try and ignore that sexism exists, it’s staring us in the face in nearly all aspects of life.
As an additional reference, below is a handy infographic to help understand gender, sex, and related concepts:
Class is a hard concept to pin down into a concrete definition. It can be defined in terms of wages, income strata, property, ownership, occupational status, or as a culture of values. For sake of convenience, we’ll define it as such: the system of ordering a society in which people are divided into sets based on perceived social or economic status. Generally, this is done as high, middle, and lower class. Within these sections, people will break it into more distinguished categories: upper middle class, lower middle class, etc. There is no set way or reference for defining one’s class, so it’s more of a personal definition.
Based on the other sections, you can guess where this is going. Classism. Discrimination or prejudice against a person/people belonging to a certain social class. It can be seen “individually through attitudes and behaviors, institutionally through policies and practices, and culturally through norms and values.” It can lead to broad generalizations, such as ‘poor people are lazy’. Institutionally, those that are deemed ‘higher class’ tend to set the norm for what is acceptable. Think of fashion. Big brand names hold power in society and celebrities are always dropping names. If you aren’t wearing those brands, you’re isolated from that group. Although the US is not as classest as some other countries, it still plays a subverted role in our society and culture. It creates confusions, divides, and leaves a big impact.
Associated with this is the privilege of wealth, which is generally had by the upper class. They can afford to do things that not everyone can: leave in disasters, cover an emergency surgery, have vacations, not worry about work. Basically, they don’t have to think about money. Let’s look at a couple of examples. Minimalist lifestyles. They seem nice and have a nice aesthetic. One of the first steps towards this lifestyle is to get rid of duplicates. Extra cups, books, pens, anything. The assumption being made is that you can afford to get a new something whenever the old has run its course or breaks; you can afford to get rid of your stuff. For those that come from lower class backgrounds, their stuff is a sign of their investment. It’s hard to get rid of because that’s the visual of where your money has gone. Another example would be natural disasters. Some people can afford the skyrocketing prices of planes, buses, or gas and can get off safely. When they leave, they’re seen as “self-reliant” and “hardworking”. Those that can’t leave, be it for financial, medical, or transportation reasons, are viewed as “stubborn” and “lazy”. This article lists and gives analysis of why people don’t leave in the wake of natural disasters. Class and the privilege of wealth play out in various aspects of life.
There you have it. The basics of race, gender, and class. This is nowhere near a complete guide, but hopefully the information and the linked sources will lead you to more knowledge. Remember, these are broad concepts. Their definitions always seem to be in flux but their implications are there and very real. Open your eyes and your mind, and look around you. These ideas exist everywhere you look. You just gotta know what to look for.