Power & Privilege Definitions

We want to work off the same common language and understand that identities, especially in our trans, gender expansive and queer communities, can evolve quickly and be unique per person. This is only a suggested guide and each person’s identity can be complex and vary in definition and experience.

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.
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.
Negative attitudes, hostility, fear and/or hatred of people who identity or are perceived as being lesbian, gay or bisexual; Homophobia transphobia is manifested in a number of ways, including bullying, harassment, discrimination or violence.
Negative attitudes, hostility, fear and/or hatred of people who identify or are perceived as transgender or who otherwise go beyond the bounds of traditional gender norms; transphobia is manifested in a number of ways, including bullying, harassment, discrimination or violence.
system of attitudes, bias, and discrimination in favor of opposite-sex sexuality, relationships and gender binary behaviors.  It can include the presumption that other people are heterosexual (otherwise known as straight) or that opposite-sex attractions and relationships are the only acceptable behavior and therefore superior.
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.
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:
  • Personal: Values, Beliefs, Feelings
  • Interpersonal: Actions, Behaviors, Language
  • Institutional: Rules, Policies, Procedures
  • Cultural: Beauty, Truth, Right
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:
  • White people;
  • Able-bodied people;
  • Heterosexuals;
  • Males;
  • Christians;
  • Middle or owning class people;
  • Middle-aged people;
  • English-speaking people
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.
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 worldwide 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 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.

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

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