Power & Privilege Definitions

INSTITUTIONAL POWER: The ability or official authority to decide what is best for others. The ability to decide who will have access to resources. The capacity to exercise control over others.

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.

STEREOTYPE: An exaggerated or distorted belief that attributes characteristics to members of a particular group, simplistically lumping them together and refusing to acknowledge differences among members of the group.

OPPRESSION: The combination of prejudice and institutional power which creates a system that discriminates against some groups (often called “target groups”) and benefits other groups (often called “dominant groups”). Examples of these systems are racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, classism, ageism, and anti-Semitism. These systems enable dominant groups to exert control over target groups by limiting their rights, freedom, and access to basic resources such as health care, education, employment, and housing.

Four Levels of Oppression/”isms” and Change:

PRIVILEGE: 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 target groups. In the United States, privilege is granted to people who have membership in one or more of these social identity groups:

Privilege is characteristically invisible to people who have it. People in dominant groups often believe that they have earned the privileges that they enjoy or that everyone could have access to these privileges if only they worked to earn them. In fact, privileges are unearned and they are granted to people in the dominant groups whether they want those privileges or not, and regardless of their stated intent.

Unlike targets of oppression, people in dominant groups are frequently unaware that they are members of the dominant group due to the privilege of being able to see themselves as persons rather than stereotypes.

TARGETS OF OPPRESSION: Targets of oppression are members of social identity groups that are disenfranchised, exploited, and victimized in a variety of ways by agents of oppression and the agent’s systems or institutions. Targets of oppression are subject to containment, having their choices and movements restricted and limited, are seen and treated as expendable and replaceable, without an individual identity apart from their group, and are compartmentalized into narrowly defined roles.

Targets of oppression are people subjected to exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence. Targets of oppression are kept in their place by the agent of oppression’s ideology, which supports oppression by denying that it exists and blames the conditions of oppression on actions of the targets.

Targets of oppression have fewer “life chances” or benefits as a result of their membership in a particular social group. As examples, there is a higher likelihood that African American males will be arrested than Caucasian males; there is a greater chance that males will have a higher salary than females; and there is a higher probability that persons using a wheelchair for mobility will have fewer job opportunities than non-disabled people.  

AGENTS OF OPPRESSION: Agents of oppression are members of the dominant social groups in the United States, privileged by birth or acquisition, which knowingly or unknowingly exploit and reap unfair advantage over members of groups that are targets of oppression. Agents of oppression are also trapped by the system of institutionalized oppression that benefits them and are confined to roles and prescribed behaviors. In United States culture, agents have the power to define the “norm” for what is reality and they see themselves as normal or proper, whereas targets are likely to be labeled as deviant, evil, abnormal, substandard, or defective.

OPPRESSION AND POWER DIFFERENTIAL CHARTS: Look over this chart and locate yourself on both sides. Where are you a target of oppression? Where are you an agent of oppression? How are you feeling about this list? Are there surprises for you?

For many of us, it is much more difficult to identify and describe the ways in which we experience the world as agents of oppression, because these characteristics are privileged. Privilege often operates in an unconscious, invisible manner. We believe that part of the process of becoming anti-racist allies involves exploring and understanding how privilege has operated in our own lives.

Think about your behavior when you are introducing yourselves to new acquaintances or groups…what aspects of your target or agent status do you share as part of your introduction? Why or why not?

RACE: Someone has said that “race is a pigment of our imagination”. That is a clever way of saying that race is actually an invention. It is a way of arbitrarily dividing humankind into different groups for the purpose of keeping some on top and some at the bottom; some in and some out.  Ant its invention has very clear historical roots; namely, colonialism. “Race is an arbitrary socio-biological classification created by Europeans during the time of world wide colonial expansion, to assign human worth and social status, using themselves as the model of humanity, for the purpose of legitimizing white power and white skin privilege” (Crossroads-Interfaith Ministry for Social Justice).

To acknowledge that race is a historical arbitrary invention does not mean that it can be, thereby, easily dispensed with as a reality in people’s lives. To acknowledge race as an invention of colonialism is not the same as pretending to be color blind or declaring, “I don’t notice people’s race!” Our world has been ordered and structured on the basis of skin color and that oppressive ordering and structuring is RACISM.

RACISM: Racism is a system in which one race maintains supremacy over another race through a set of attitudes, behaviors, social structures, and institutional power. Racism is a “system of structured dis-equality where the goods, services, rewards, privileges, and benefits of the society are available to individuals according to their presumed membership in” particular racial groups (Barbara Love, 1994. Understanding Internalized Oppression). A person of any race can have prejudices about people of other races, but only members of the dominant social group can exhibit racism because racism is prejudice plus the institutional power to enforce it.

ALLY: An ally is a person whose commitment to dismantling oppression is reflected in a willingness to do the following:

INTERNALIZED OPPRESSION: The process whereby people in the target group make oppression internal and personal by coming to believe that the lies, prejudices, 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.

RELATIONSHIP VIOLENCE: Relationship (or domestic) violence is a pattern of power and control that one person exercises over another in an ongoing, intimate relationship. Many tactics can be used, including emotional, physical or sexual abuse; isolation; economic control; threats; abuse of animals; and using children.

SEXUAL ASSAULT: Sexual assault includes any type of sexual conduct, or sexual contact that is nonconsensual, forced, or coerced when the victim is incapable of giving consent because of her or his temporary or permanent mental or physical incapacity or because of her or his youth.

RAPE: Rape is defined as nonconsensual, forced, or coerced sexual penetration against the will of the victim or when the victim is incapable of giving consent because of her or his temporary or permanent mental or physical incapacity or because of her or his youth.

GENDER: Refers to those rules, norms, customs, and practices by which biologically associated differences between the male and female of the human species are translated into socially constructed differences between men and women, boys and girls which give them unequal value, opportunities and life chances.

Definitions were abridged from:

© Leaven 2003 Doing Our Own Work: A Seminar for Anti-Racist White Women

© Visions, Inc. and the MSU Extension Multicultural Awareness Workshop