Prejudice plus power

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"Prejudice plus power" is a redefinition of words like "racism"[1][2] and "sexism",[3] taking on the following form:

There’s no such thing as sexism against men. That's because sexism is prejudice + power. Men are the dominant gender with power in society.[4]

The original[5] definition of "racism" is something like "prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior."[6] The narrower definition of "prejudice plus power" requires one ethnic group to be in a dominant position on a societal level over other ethnic groups and posits that this revised version of the word "racism" can only apply to them, due to their having more power to institute and take advantage of their racism. This version describes another type of racism. In fact, since this version of the word "racism" is applied at the group level, it often leads to the "logical" conclusion that all members of the dominant group are de facto racists.[7]

The phrase institutional racism, where discrimination is a systemic consequence of old prejudices,[8] aligns more closely with the "prejudice plus power" paradigm, particularly when institutions are involved in the exercise of power.[5] This term was coined in the book Black Power in 1967,[9][10] is uncontroversial, unambiguous, and does not conflict with an existing definition.

Another view of racism considers it not as a power imbalance, but as an ignorant and tribal expression of fear and hate, towards any race or ethnicity.[11] In this view, the phenomenon of racism is seen as the collective problem of society and mankind, something that each and every human being is capable of and has a responsibility to remain vigilant against. Power imbalance only factors into the extent of the consequences.

Whether you agree or disagree with the definition, words can have many meanings at the same time. The use of racism to mean "prejudice plus power" by however many academics does not disqualify other definitions of the term any more than psychiatrists defining the term "depression" as a specific disorder disqualifies using it to mean being extremely sad. "Prejudice plus power" as used by some academics is what is called a stipulative definitionWikipedia, used primarily for academic research to literally simplify discussions and text, not to "replace" other definitions of the word in common usage. Whichever definition is used is only relative to the argument at hand and is important to establish prior to discussion for the point of distinction.[12]


The word "racism" originated around 1936, "when a new word was required to describe the theories on which the Nazis based their persecution of the Jews".[13] Earlier, this was called "racialism", "race hatred", or "race prejudice".[14] The word "sexism" was coined in 1968 by Caroline Bird,[15][16] with the definition:

There is recognition abroad that we are in many ways a sexist country. Sexism is judging people by their sex when sex doesn’t matter.

Sexism is intended to rhyme with racism. Both have been used to keep the powers that be in power. Women are sexists as often as men.

Notably, both of the original definitions defy the prejudice plus power definition — that came later: the phrase "prejudice plus power" was created in 1970 by Pat Bidol[17] and popularized by Judith H. Katz in her 1978 book White Awareness: Handbook for Anti-Racism Training:[18]

It is important to push for the understanding that racism is 'prejudice plus power' and therefore people of color cannot be racist against whites in the United States. People of color can be prejudiced against whites but clearly do not have the power as a group to enforce that prejudice.

Another example of the rationale behind the expression dates from 1973 (as given by the National Education AssociationWikipedia),[19][20]

In the United States at present, only whites can be racists, since whites dominate and control the institutions that create and enforce American cultural norms and values... blacks and other Third World peoples do not have access to the power to enforce any prejudices they may have, so they cannot, by definition, be racists.

All white individuals in our society are racists. Even if a white is totally free from all conscious racial prejudices, he remains a racist, for he receives benefits distributed by a white racist society through its institutions. Our institutional and cultural processes are so arranged as to automatically benefit whites, just because they are white.

Criticisms of the definition[edit]

Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn't matter which color does the hating. It's just plain wrong.
—Muhammad Ali[21]

Power can come in many forms other than oppression of minorities[edit]

If a minority individual happens to be the hiring manager for a position then that individual has power over those applying for a job regardless of their race or the race of the applicants. Refusing to hire anyone who was not of the same race as them would logically be a demonstration of both prejudice and power and thus should count as racism even using a prejudice plus power definition despite the person being part of the minority race. Similarly someone from a traditionally 'underpowered' group may have power over someone from a majority group due to such situations as position, wealth, friends and contacts, knowledge or skills, physical strength, or any number of other situations. It's disingenuous to claim just because one is of a minority group they can never be in a situation where they have power over others in some form.

A more extreme example of this argument claims that bigotry and hatred possess a form of power in and of themselves. It's possible for one to feel saddened, hurt, or angered by hearing bigotry and hatred spouted at them regardless of the relative power of the individual demonstrating that hatred. If the mere act over vocalizing bigotry provides one the power to emotionally harm another then anyone vocalizing prejudice would therefor have already meet the prejudice plus power definition required to be defined as a racist or sexist.

"Single cause, single solution" fallacy[edit]

In An Examination of Anti-Racist and Anti-Oppressive Theory and Practice in Social Work Education, senior lecturer in sociology Marie Macey and senior lecturer in social work Eileen Moxon wrote;[22] edifice of theory and action has been constructed on the simplistic 'explanation' of racism as being the outcome of power plus prejudice. Not only does this inaccurately assume a single cause and type of racism but it dangerously implies that there is a single solution to the phenomenon (Gilroy 1990; Husband, 1987; Miles, 1989).

The view that racism is an attribute of the monolithic category of people termed 'white' who hold all the power in society is equally confused and confusing. At one level of abstraction, it is true that a certain sector of the (white, male) population holds much of the economic and decision-making power in British society. It is also true that some members of this group are statistically likely to be racially prejudiced. However, though this knowledge should inform social work education, it has limited utility at the operational level of social work or, often, in the everyday lives of black and white service workers.

Furthermore, if a Pakistani Muslim male refuses to have an African-Caribbean or Indian Hindu female social worker for reasons which, if articulated by a white Christian would be condemned as racist, one has to ask what the point is of denying that this refusal stems from racist (or sexist or sectarian) motivations? Similarly, if one compares the structural position of a white, working class, homeless male with that of a black barrister, would the statement that 'only whites have power' make sense or be acceptable to either of them?

...the approaches [of anti-racism theory] are theoretical and thus closed to the canons of scientific evaluation and because the discourse itself prohibits the open, rigorous and critical interrogation which is essential to theoretical, professional and personal development.

This view of race and power only works if all white people are treated as active members of a cohesive body called "white people". True, whites have had — and still have — huge statistical advantages. However, it is unreasonable to believe that possessing white skin gives one "access to the power" to change institutional and cultural processes, and as such, it is unfair to attribute racism to all whites. As such, asserting that all whites are racist simultaneously devalues the work of white antiracists and lends credence to the ridiculous idea that anti-racists just wanna hate on whites.

Prejudice and power are not causally connected[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Correlation is not causation

David Pilgrim, curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, has this to say on the conflicting definitions of racism:[23]

Can blacks be racist? The answer, of course, will depend on how you define racism. If you define it as "prejudice against or hatred toward another race," then the answer is yes. If you define racism as "the belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race," the answer is yes. And if you define racism as "prejudice and discrimination rooted in race-based loathing," then the answer is, again, yes. However, if you define racism as "a system of group privilege by those who have a disproportionate share of society’s power, prestige, property, and privilege," then the answer is no. In the end, it is my opinion that individual blacks can be and sometimes are racists. However, collectively, blacks are neither the primary creators nor beneficiaries of the racism that permeates society today.

Obviously this would apply to any racial group that happens to be disadvantaged in a given area. Some of the more obvious examples in the world would include Indians living in Uganda during the rule of Idi Amin, white people living in Zimbabwe during the rule of Robert Mugabe, or the Ainu people of Japan.

Pilgrim, who is Native American, goes on to describe how he as an adolescent attending a previously all-white junior high school in the seventies, was pelted with stones by white passers-by. He points out that many of these bigoted whites were poverty-stricken and so lacked power: "To argue that one must have power in order to be racist is to suggest that the man in Prichard, Alabama who called me a 'red nigger' and threw a rock at me was not a racist. A different explanation is that his poverty and lack of power made him susceptible to anti-black racism." He goes on to relate how facing this prejudice caused him and his fellow black youth at the school to hate the poor whites in a similar capacity:

The quirky part of this story is that there were two groups of people, both desperately poor and treated as outcasts, who used their hatred of the Other as bonding mechanisms. I want it said loudly and clearly that we can define racism in many ways, but it is, in my opinion, intellectually disingenuous to define it in a way that trivializes the role that racial hatred plays. Certainly, not all racism is hate-driven, but to ignore the connection between racial hate and racism is to reduce the concept of racism to a useless theoretical abstraction.[23]

Reliance on word games[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Equivocation

Unsurprisingly the attempt by a handful of academics and activists to redefine a word in a certain ideological frame has been criticized, since this is not how words are typically defined and it makes their argument utterly unfalsifiable. Rationalist Scott Alexander, after quoting someone who insists that racism only refers to prejudice plus power, argues:[24]

I can't argue with this. No, literally, I can’t argue with this. There's no disputing the definitions of words. If you say that "racism" is a rare species of nocturnal bird native to New Guinea which feeds upon morning dew and the dreams of young children, then all I can do is point out that the dictionary and common usage both disagree with you. And the sources I cited above have already admitted that "the dictionary is wrong" and "no one uses the word racism correctly".

In the comments he goes on to argue why it is disingenuous to use a word like "racism" in a way most people don't:

As long as these are called by the same word, they allow that word to be dangerous.

If I started calling people who liked little kids and got along with them well “pedophiles”, then even though this is appropriate Greek derivation, the people whom I called pedophiles might reasonably ask me to stop, especially if I kept doing it publicly. “I promise I’m keeping the two definitions straight in my head” isn’t much consolation if somebody overhears me using it. And if I refuse to stop, you’re reasonable to wonder whether I have some ulterior motive.

Incitement of bigotry and racial tension[edit]

In The Pedagogy of the Meaning of Racism: Reconciling a Discordant Discourse,[5] Carlos Hoyt, Jr. argues that the revised definition "charges white people with being de facto racists ... while providing an exemption to black people from being held accountable for racist beliefs". He advises that teachers use more specific, nuanced terms, such as "Race-based Oppression" or "Institutional Race-based Oppression":

To be prejudiced, one need only harbor preconceived opinions (positive or negative) not based on reason. To be a racist, one need only believe in race and in the inferiority or superiority of races. To oppress, one must have power over the target of one’s oppression.

He similarly recounts his youthful prejudices, considering them racism:

When I was a (black) teenager in the grips of false beliefs about the inferiority of white people (due in great part to the conviction that their presumed racist attitudes rendered them brutish, stupid, and dangerous), my belief constituted racism. And when I translated those beliefs into malicious actions (taunting, excluding, fighting), it was behavioral expression of racism. And when I was in a group of like-minded young racists, and we chose to take over the back of a public transportation bus and become openly hostile and threatening toward white riders—often to the point that they felt so unsafe that they disembarked before their desired destination had been reached, it was an exercise of power that adds up to race-based oppression.

Disregarding multiple forms of oppression[edit]

Other groups have suggested that instead of painting all oppression in terms of "prejudice plus power", both can be problems simultaneously. For example, the Institute of Race Relations writes;[25]

Racism [is] the belief or ideology that 'races' have distinctive characteristics which gives some superiority over others. Also refers to discriminatory and abusive behaviour based on such a belief or ideology. In the UK, denying people access to good and services on the basis of their colour, nationality, ethnicity, religion etc is illegal and called racial discrimination. Institutional racism (a term coined by US Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael) occurs when a whole organisation’s procedures and policies disadvantage BME people. State racism refers to the way that racism can be enshrined in laws (such as immigration legislation), in procedures (such as police stops and searches) and programmes (such as those on political extremism).

The IRR's definition suggests that racism can be a problem in all of four areas (individual people's beliefs, individual people's actions, organizational actions, and state actions) all at once. In turn, this suggests that prejudice is a problem at all levels of power — meaning that one need not be the most powerful, or even more powerful, to be a cause of harmful prejudice. As Black Panther Party founder Huey Newton wrote regarding homosexuality:[26]

I do not remember our ever constituting any value that said that a revolutionary must say offensive things towards homosexuals, or that a revolutionary should make sure that women do not speak out about their own particular kind of oppression. As a matter of fact, it is just the opposite: we say that we recognize the women’s right to be free. We have not said much about the homosexual at all, but we must relate to the homosexual movement because it is a real thing. And I know through reading, and through my life experience and observations that homosexuals are not given freedom and liberty by anyone in the society. They might be the most oppresed people in the society.

Failure to address economic inequality[edit]

Literary theorist Walter Benn MichaelsWikipedia wrote on the vital importance of understanding basic socioeconomics as the engine for bigotry in US society, stating:[27]

In 1969, the top quintile of American wage-earners made 43 per cent of all the money earned in the US; the bottom quintile made 4.1 per cent. In 2007, the top quintile made 49.7 per cent; the bottom quintile 3.4. And while this inequality is both raced and gendered, it’s less so than you might think. White people, for example, make up about 70 per cent of the US population, and 62 per cent of those in the bottom quintile. Progress in fighting racism hasn’t done them any good; it hasn’t even been designed to do them any good. More generally, even if we succeeded completely in eliminating the effects of racism and sexism, we would not thereby have made any progress towards economic equality. A society in which white people were proportionately represented in the bottom quintile (and black people proportionately represented in the top quintile) would not be more equal; it would be exactly as unequal. It would not be more just; it would be proportionately unjust.

A term of division claiming social justice[edit]

Almost everyone's on the same page when it comes to saying that prejudice is a bad thing, and that certain expressions of prejudice have more direct negative consequences than others. The problem with the prejudice-plus-power equation, however, is that it inherently shifts responsibility towards and from certain individuals as defined by very broad groupings (such as being "white" or "black"), based on simple variables. In this way, it is a divisive definition that breeds resentment between racial groups, rather than bringing them together to fight a common enemy. As civil rights activist Fred Hampton said:[28]

We've got to face the fact that some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don't fight racism with racism. We're gonna fight racism with solidarity.

Undermining anti-racism[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Backfire effect
Lol when people call you racist because of the color of your skin.

It could be argued that validating bigotry against white men undermines anti-racism activism in general due to the attempts to justify one form of bigotry and not others being so paper-thin. It could also serve as a recruitment tool for white racists who want to make whites feel like they are under attack and give them cover when they are accused of racism. Moderate libertarian Cathy Young argues:[30]

[Prejudice+Power] has legitimized overt race- and gender-based hate speech; if it’s okay to say hateful things about white men, the claim that it’s not okay to say them about other groups becomes tenuous. It has lent credibility to claims that whites, especially straight white men, are under attack. It has subverted the moral authority of anti-racism—and of liberalism (in the classic sense), dismissed in current progressive discourse as "a philosophy of white male domination." And it has so trivialized the concepts of bigotry and racism that they have lost much of their stigma. When wearing a sombrero for Halloween can get you labeled a racist, the label becomes meaningless.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Definitions - "Racism is race prejudice plus power"
  2. TransGriot: Racism= Prejudice Plus Power
  3. Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog FAQ: What is “sexism”? - "an important, but often overlooked, part of the term is that sexism is prejudice plus power. Thus feminists reject the notion that women can be sexist towards men because women lack the institutional power that men have."
  4. Anita Sarkeesian, tweet by Feminist Frequency:
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 The Pedagogy of the Meaning of Racism: Reconciling a Discordant Discourse - Carlos Hoyt Jr.
  6. Oxford Dictionaries definition of "racism" in English
  7. Using Latina/o Critical Race Theory (LatCrit) and Racist Nativism To Explore Intersectionality in the Educational Experiences of Undocumented Chicana College Students By Lindsay Pérez Huber
  8. What is Institutional Racism?, The Guardian, 24 Feb 1999
  9. Carmichael, S., & Hamilton, C. V. (1967). Black power: The politics of liberation in America.
  10. Cashmore, Ernest and Jennings, James (2001), Racism: Essential Readings, Sage (p. 111).
  11. Exploring the Psychological Motives of Racism, Clay Routledge, Psychology Today, Aug 21, 2010 [dead link, and blocked from Internet Archive]
  12. Black people can’t be racist, Sobantu Mzwakali Oct 13, 2015
  13. Fredrickson, G. M. (2002). Racism: A short history. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  14. The Online Etymology Dictionary: racist
  15. Caroline Bird’s “On Being Born Female”, published on November 15, 1968 in Vital Speeches of the Day (p. 6).
  16. Feminism Friday: The origins of the word "sexism"
  17. Developing New Perspectives on Race: An Innovative Multi-media Social Studies Curriculum in Racism Awareness for the Secondary Level, Pat A. Bidol
  18. White Awareness: Handbook for Anti-racism Training By Judy H. Katz, 2003 edition, 1978 edition
  19. Education and Racism: An Action Manual. National Education Association, Washington, DC.
  20. Definitions of Racism
  21. 21 Most Memorable Muhammad Ali Quotes June 4, 2016,
  22. Oxford Journals - An Examination of Anti-Racist and Anti-Oppressive Theory and Practice in Social Work Education
  23. 23.0 23.1 Jim Crow Museum Question of the Month: Can Blacks Be Racist? March 2009
  24. Social justice and words, words, words, JULY 7, 2014, Scott Alexander
  25. Institute of Race Relations: DEFINITIONS
  26. Looking Back at Huey Newton’s Thoughts on Gay Rights…In the Wake of Obama’s Endorsement, MAY 11, 2012 BY MRDAVEYD
  27. What Matters, Walter Benn Michaels
  28. Power Anywhere Where There's People, Fred Hampton
  30. You Can’t Whitewash The Alt-Right’s Bigotry By Cathy Young APRIL 14, 2016