Understanding Institutional Oppression

We use an oppression lens because oppression acknowledges the role of institutional power.

Institutional oppression is distinct from other forms of mistreatment, which are sometimes talked about as if they are interchangeable:

  • Implicit Bias
  • Prejudice
  • Discrimination

Implicit bias and prejudice are something that all human beings carry. Implicit bias and prejudice (thoughts) can play out as discrimination (acts).

The implicit bias framework can be very powerful to understand that the prejudice, biases, and stereotypes we hold do not make us “bad” people. They are a result of how we’ve been hurt, lied to, and the misinformation we’ve internalized.

But not all implicit biases have the same impact.

It is important that we acknowledge that a member of a target group’s implicit bias is going to have really different material impacts on others than the implicit bias of a member of the non-target group.

For mistreatment to become an institutional oppression, it must have these three components:

  1. It is in the national consciousness of the dominant group
  2. It is reinforced through a society’s institutions
  3. There is an imbalance of social and economic power

Power is the essential component that distinguishes a mistreatment as oppression.

This is why you can’t have reverse oppression: there’s no such thing. While bias, prejudice, and discrimination can go in any direction, oppression only goes in one direction, based explicitly on the hierarchical relationship to social and economic power.