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Oppression, discrimination, and prejudice explained

January 3, 2024

“Oppression is the result of the use of institutional privilege and power, wherein one person or group benefits at the expense of another.” - University of Southern California: School of Social Work (2017)

two people holding their fists up to form a cross

I was proofreading someone’s essay when I read a comment left by a previous proof-reader that really struck me. The essay was about oppression and privilege in the medical community. The comment was, “never say you understand oppression because only those who are actually oppressed do.”

The comment made me think about what oppression really means, and I started to do some research. I think in order to understand oppression, it’s important to understand what discrimination and prejudice mean.

Prejudices are internally held biases. They are preconceived opinions and emotions we have regarding an individual or group, and they can be good or bad. Prejudices are often unconscious, and we are often unaware of our biases or fail to realize the preconceptions that are influencing us.

Discrimination is the externalization of prejudice. It is a manifestation of our internal biases being acted upon in the real world.

I am a Muslim woman, so I will use Muslim experiences to illustrate these two words. A negative prejudice against Muslims would be to immediately associate them with terrorism.  Discrimination would be to pass them through random checking EVERY single time they’re at the airport (random my ass) or an individual not wanting to sit next to a Muslim on an airplane, or getting freaked out when a Muslim pulls out their phone or talks in a foreign language and calling a flight attendant. So in essence, prejudice is the thought and discrimination is the action.

Oppression, on the other hand, is the systematic weight of prejudice and discrimination on the people it affects. That means that prejudice and discrimination are supported and encouraged by the social structure and institutions around you (i.e. the government, community and society at large). You are either harmed or not helped because of your identity. Oppression serves both actively and passively to uphold normative constructions of social power, such as patriarchy, white supremacy, and ableism.

Going back on my Muslim example, oppression would be the government calling a ban on all Muslims from entering the country.

Prejudice, discrimination and oppression feed into each other. Since oppression is systematic, it makes biases (prejudices) normal and it reinforces those biases (discrimination) in individuals. So oppression feeds into prejudice, which feeds into discrimination which feeds into oppression and so on.

So after the government in our ignorant, hypothetical country calls for a ban on all Muslims and wants to put them on a registry, the biases of the people in that country will be reinforced because they will start to wonder why they put people on a registry if that wasn’t something to be concerned about. These biases will manifest as discrimination, which will feed into further oppression.

So what can we do?

Break the cycle!

We can beat prejudice by self-reflecting. Are we letting prejudice, bias and stereotypes shape our thoughts and actions?

We can beat discrimination by standing up and intervening and calling it out for what it is.

We can beat oppression by activism; by organizing and mobilizing, by working together to combat laws, systems and structures that normalize hate and discrimination.

By breaking this cycle, we can create a better world for ourselves and our communities.

Sources used for this article: