Power, Privilege and Oppression 


  • What are power and privilege?

  • What are some of the consequences unearned privilege has on marginalized groups?

  • How are racial disparities manifest in the criminal justice system?

  • How do whites and people of color have different experiences with law enforcement?


We will explore these questions through some videos, readings, discussion and activities.


  • Warm Up

  • Standing Up for Racial Justice 

  • Power and Privilege

  • Privilege Statements

  • "A Mother's White Privilege" Reading and Study Guide



"This is about finding justice for a kid"


Quotes on Social Identity, Power, Privilege and Oppression

Click on the pinterest board to read the quotes. Which ones best help you to understand the concepts of privilege and oppression?

Social Identity, Power, Privilege and Oppression

There is an interesting link between identity and violence. Some parts of a person's identity make it more likely that they will be a victim of violence (direct, indirect or cultural) while other aspects make it more likely that they will be a perpetrator and or that they will benefit from the violence against others.


Our identities are complex and are made up of many different parts. Different aspects of our identity include: sex, gender, race, ethnicity, age, physical and mental ability, class, religion, sexual orientation, etc. These differences – whether visible or invisible – separate us into different groups: usually groups in which one group of people has power or privilege over another group of people.


All interactions take place within a social system of power, not individual power or inner strength but power that is a part of the everyday institutions of a society: the laws, the government, the justice system, the economic system, the education system, religious organizations and the family. In all of these areas, one group has more power and privilege than another, one group controls more than another.


Privilege, as viewed by critical theorists, is an advantage that certain people have simply as a result of being born into a certain society with a certain identity.


According to the Anti-Defamation League:


Privilege is a term for unearned and often unseen or unrecognized advantages, benefits or rights conferred upon people based on their membership in a dominant group (e.g. white people, heterosexual people, males, people without disabilities, etc.) beyond what is commonly experienced by members of the non-dominant group. Privilege reveals both obvious and less obvious unspoken advantages that people in the dominant group may not recognize they have, which distinguishes it from overt bias or prejudice. These advantages include cultural affirmations of one's own worth, presumed greater social status and the freedom to move, buy, work, play and speak freely.


Karl Marx defined privilege as "a special advantage or immunity or benefit not enjoyed by all." It is a kind of luck that comes attached to the social category that they are part of, not to them as individuals. Privilege is given by society and comes in many forms including: better paying jobs and better housing, access to education, physical security, legal protection, health care, greater representation in government and control of the media, church and the economy. When you belong to a group with more power and privilege, it is as if more doors are open to you, whereas if you are born into a group with less privilege in certain areas, it is as if some doors are slammed in your face. This is not to say that you can't move up the ladder, but it will be much harder for those without privilege to achieve what those with privilege can achieve. Also, this is not to say that those with privileges do not deserve them. But those who believe in human rights and equality work toward ensuring that rights and opportunities are available to all, not just a privileged few. 


Below is a chart developed by Paul Kivel that explains how privilege and power works in the US. According to this chart, the identities on the left are those that are the most privileged and therefore benefit most from the system of power, at the expense of the groups on the right.

The groups on the right are what he calls the target groups. The target groups have less power. If you are in a group with less power than someone else, you have less power to protect yourself and if you have less power to protect yourself, you are more vulnerable to discrimination and violence than the people in the other groups. Violence in this case, it not only physical but structural (and cultural) as well. 


When violence comes at a non-power from a power group, we call it oppression. In other words,  oppression is when mistreatment and discrimination go from the power side to the non-power side. What’s most important to understand is that oppression is impersonal. It’s part of the way society is set up. It might not be intentional and it varies to differing degrees in different locations. 


According to this perspective, all of the institutions in our society government, the economy, the justice system, the education system, the media, the church and the family help keep oppression going over and over again. These institutions pass on to us that "this is the way it is." They teach us stereotypes about each other, especially about people in the non-power groups, and they teach those people (non power) to not even be aware when oppression is happening. We even learn to blame those people for what happens to them. This is called blaming the victim.


Examples of blaming the victim:


1. Instead of seeing men as responsible for rape, we may talk about how women "ask for it" by manipulating men or dressing provocatively.


2. Instead of seeing business owners as being responsible for low pay and dangerous working conditions, we may say that workers are lazy, untrained or unwilling to work.

Can you think of some other "blaming the victim" examples?

Works Cited

Kivel, Paul, and Allan Creighton. Making the Peace: A 15-session Violence Prevention Curriculum for Young People. Alameda, CA: Hunter House, 1997. Print.

Privilege Statements

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