Prejudice plus power

How institutional-level forces work to the disadvantage of people of colour, while benefitting white people.
Patricia Bidol-Padva[1] first described racism as prejudice plus power.

Prejudice plus power is an inclusive and academic definition of axes of oppression, e.g., racism, sexism, etc., that stresses the access to institutional and cultural levels of bias that acts, systems, ideologies, and so on must possess in order to be inherently oppressive. This definition was first proposed by Patricia Bidol-Padva[1] in 1970 in her book Developing New Perspectives on Race: An Innovative Multi-media Social Studies Curriculum in Racism Awareness for the Secondary Level.[2]

Prejudice is a "preconceived opinion not based on reason or actual experience; bias, partiality."[3] Power is "the capacity to exert force on or over something or someone."[3] Unlike many layperson or dictionary definitions, this description of oppression as prejudiced opinions combined with access to power is not defined by the institutions in power, e.g., for racism:

Racism is prejudice plus power. On the basis of this definition, while all people can be prejudiced, only those who have power are really racist. African Americans, Latinos, Asians and American Indians the powerless in American society can be and often are most prejudiced toward Whites on an individual basis, but they are not racists at the structural, institutional level. Within this understanding of racism, to be a racist you have to possess two things: 1) socioeconomic power to force others to do what you desire even if they don't want to, and 2), the justification of this power abuse by an ideology of biological supremacy. Keep in mind that what often is described as racism in society today, is really nothing more than prejudice and discrimination. While a Black or Latino person, through the use of a gun and/or intimidation, can force a White person to do as he as an individual desires, this is an individual act of aggression, not a socially structured power arrangement. At present, however, only Whites have that kind of power, reinforced by a belief in an ideology of supremacy, both of which constitute the basis of racism in America today.[4]

As well as for sexism:

[I]nstitutional power: men as a class have it, women as a class don’t.

What this imbalance of power translates to on an individual level is a difference in the impact of a man being prejudiced towards a woman and a woman being prejudiced towards a man. While both parties are human, and therefore have the same capacity to be hurt by the prejudice, whether they like it or not, the men have a whole system of history, traditions, assumptions, and in some cases legal systems and “scientific” evidence giving their words a weight that the women don’t have access to.[5]

What is institutional oppression?

The concept of prejudice plus power frames forms of oppression such as racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism, and other positions of societal disfavor as perpetrated by those in power against those that are not in power. Just disliking someone or not favoring someone because of their race, gender, or other trait is not enough to oppress them; some form of power has to back the opinion that reflects it into multiple aspects of an environment rather than just a relational conflict.

The manifestation of prejudice when installed by those in power into social systems or institutions is called institutional oppression. The positions it enforces are widespread and repeatable because to even participate in acts needed to survive in said society, one must be exposed to those ideas: by household socialization, by the dynamics of who lives where and who one sees, the media presence of those with more social privilege versus those with less, the frequency that some people are hired and for what jobs, the access to health care, transportation, and housing that people have, the favor or quality of education and who gets the most of both, what demographics can be found in high-level positions and what ones are not, who is sexualized and who is not, who is considered uglier and who is not, and these are only just to start.


A common assertion is that this definition of oppression disqualifies those with less social privilege from criticism, eg. only white people can be racist, only men can be sexist, only cisgender people can be transphobic, only able people can be ableist. However, this is a very simplistic understanding and focuses on distasteful concepts i.e. the "right" of those with more privilege to call reverse racism or misandry or protest being called cis. The words of an oppressed class have very little power to cause any sort of detriment to those with social privilege; calling a white person a "cracker" doesn't impact their chances of being hired in the USA, identifying a cisgender person is not linked to the murder rate or medical care denial rate of cisgender people, and a woman proclaiming that men are encouraged to act irresponsibly doesn't change the amount of boys entering higher science or computer education or bear implications for the rape statistics of men and boys. However, for people of color, trans people, and women these things are provably true[citation needed].

Singling out a person with a major axis of privilege may be rude, but the major impact of it is limited to some hurt feelings. Singling out a person without that axis of privilege for systematically disfavored traits supports and normalizes vast systems that take away their life opportunities and often lead to acts of violence against people of their same demographic. These acts, for less privileged individuals are the bulk of microaggressions, or cumulative, frequent small expressions of oppression that can result in internalized oppression and damage to mental-health and well-being that those on axis of greater privilege do not experience.

But are white people really the only ones allowed to be called racist?

No. Because oppression is institutional, it is often internalized by people who must use those institutions to survive. However, it's not the place of people in more privileged positions to police them. So no, (in the USA, at least) even if that black person does seem to be acting in a racist way against other black people, it's not a white person's job to call them out.

Additionally, there are plenty of divisions within areas of disprivilege where multiple axis of oppression intersect that can cause people in a socially disprivileged demographic to exercise what axis they have to suppress others. Within LGBTQA+ communities, cis gay males tend to upstage other demographics, biphobia is highly prevalent, and trans individuals face poor representation and violence. Within civil rights and racial justice communities, women of color, gay women, and trans people of color are routinely othered or face poor support. Within trans communities, transmisogyny, discrimination against nonbinary individuals, and medical sexism, thrives.

Furthermore, if oppression is institutional, different countries and different societies have different institutions. Whiteness, maleness, heteronormativity, able-ness, and other axes of privilege are favored by the widespread institutions inflicted globally by white European colonialism, but in different areas of the world favor may manifest differently, and locally powerful demographics may also take positions of dominance over locally suppressed demographics. Not all oppression is at the hands of white colonialists, but white european imperialism oppresses almost everybody in some way (socially, economically, culturally, in the media, in terms of beauty standards, etc.) in contemporary times.

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