It only takes a few minutes to call someone out. But by changing and challenging this normalized language, you can actively work against behaviours and ideologies that are racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, elitist, ablist, sizist and overall, oppressive.

Even within activist collectives, oppressive language can still be present. Oppressive slang has become such a part of youth language that it can be difficult to pick apart it’s actual meaning. Though often still dismissed as political correctness, oppressive language is a part of every day activism and living in solidarity that is integral to social justice.

What’s oppressive language

Oppressive language has become such a seamless part of our every day oppressions and oppressive institutions that it can be difficult for some people to even notice. Oppressive language is any word that uses an identity or an identifier of belonging to a certain group (class, race, sexuality, ability, gender, etc) as a negative or undesirable quality. Oppressive language is everywhere in mainstream Canadian society from pop culture to academia.

Genderfrication posted this list from UC Davis’ GBLTQ Centre about some examples of oppressive language and what they accomplish.

When you hear it

It’s important that when you hear oppressive language that you explain why it is offensive and continuing oppression. It’s a form of verbal violence that exposes someone’s privileged view of the world. When people use this kind of language, they aren’t just harming an individual, but contributing to a history of subjugation and oppression that has spanned generations. Every struggle of a marginalized group has a history, a background of accepted and overt discrimination and violence. By using oppressive language, people are adding to that collective experience.

These are important things to explain to someone using oppressive language. One option is to interrupt someone with an explanation about why what they said was violent.

Ie “I raped that exam.”

“Using the word rape so casually takes away from the experience and horror of sexual assault. That thing you said is devaluing a life changing and traumatic event for many survivors. You could even be triggering survivors by saying that. I know you rocked the exam, you should just say that.”

It’s easier for people to understand the human consequences of their words. Language does affect thoughts and how we view the world. By challenging language and making it more inclusive and less oppressive, activists are creating a change they want to see in the rest of society.


Only someone who is a member of a marginalized group can reclaim a pejorative term used against that group. A rich person should not say ghetto. A white person should never say the n-word. This is because the power in reclaiming language is through taking a word that was created by a dominant group as a slur and turning it’s meaning on it’s head, marginalized groups are really reclaiming their power.

Challenging opposition

Sometimes people will argue for their right to use oppressive language. The best way to explain it is as a form of violence. Humour and fun shouldn’t be violent. By asking people to question their language, activists are really demanding people question their biases, prejudices and oppressive ideologies.