Today I had a discussion with someone about the what is discrimination in society.

The person I was talking with thought that discrimination is only one-way, what he meant is that a party puts down or up (negative or positive discrimination) a second party. For example, how nazi germany discriminated minorities.

I think that discrimination is bi-directional, what I mean is that both parties have unfair excpectations put on them. For example, sexism states that in a family, women should stay home to take care of the children AND SO men need to work to supply money to the family. So in this case both men AND women (the two parties involved in sexist discrimination) have unfair excpectations put on them.

So my question is, are all case of discrimination bi-directional or only one-way? If not all of them are one-way or bi-directional, how can we differenciate those two cases (and are there more specific terms that describes those two cases better)?

P.S: I think there is a misunderstanding when I say "bi-directional". What I mean is not that party A discriminates party B and that party B discriminates party A, what I mean is that party A or B puts unfair excpectations on party A and B, and that the party that puts those unfair excpectations on the two parties cannot put an excpectation on only one of them (you can visualize this as some kind of "balance"). Maybe the term "bi-directional" is not the one that fits this the best but I couldn't find a better one (If you have a term that falls under the definition I just gave please tell me).

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    The term discrimination is used mainly in the context of a majority discriminating against a minority. In fact the term 'minority' itself doesn't necessarily mean 'numerical minority'. Women for example are considered a minority even though they represent 50% of the population. In this sense discrimination is always by a majority against a minority. In the context of ethnics and religious groups, when the animosity is bi-directional, people speak of 'sectarianism' more so than of 'discrimination'. When the differences are economical, the term of art is 'class conflict' or 'class warfare'. Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 21:58
  • @AlexanderSKing It seems like there is a misunderstanding of what I meant, I might have not explained it the best way possible. Please read the post scriptum I added to the original question. Still, thank you for your comment! Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 23:40
  • Discrimination means that an individual is judged by collective measures... race, gender, etc., instead of their actual attributes. As such, any roles that we presume a race or gender should play can potentially lead to discrimination against individuals. Assigning women roles generally means that you are doing the same to men. Of course, how unpleasant the consequences of that discrimination are can vary widely, depending on what is being presumed about the individual. Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 16:39
  • @kbelder Right, so part of this is quibbling about definitions; but part of it is a more genuine question. People say 'discrimination' or 'prejudice' when they really mean someone has taken the next step and invoked some privilege of the in-group, because saying you are being oppressed seems overly dramatic. Mere prejudice is, on average, equally bad for both parties, but it supplies the leverage for oppression when there is already an established pattern of privilege.
    – user9166
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 17:37

2 Answers 2


This is a topic of current controversy among social theorists. One prominent stance can be traced to activist educators Pat Bidol and Judith Katz, to the effect that "racism is power plus prejudice." In other words, any one can have a prejudice, which is to say, a preconception about another person based on characteristics such as race and gender. But only when the prejudicial person is in a position of power over the prejudged person can it be an occasion of discrimination. To use your example, the Jews may well have been prejudiced against the Nazis during the WWII era. But it defies common sense to suggest that they were in a position to discriminate against them.

There is, however, an ample backlash against this position, with a common criticism being the fact that the assessments of who has the power are too simplistic and absolutist --there can be situations where the nominally weaker person is actually in the stronger position. This is one way of considering your objection. While men are typically favored by society, we might say, perhaps this is not universally true. (The waters are muddied, however, by the fact that privilege and power are often more invisible to those who possess them than those who do not.)

On the other hand, we can also take your position as representing a different, less confrontational strain of thought in the social justice movement, to the effect that things like racism and sexism hurt us all, even the putative beneficiaries. This was a perspective promoted with great success by civil rights figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. In this case, however, we would be less likely to say that "discrimination is bidirectional" and more that "discrimination also hurts those who discriminate."


Discrimination and oppression are not the same thing. We all know people in oppressed minorities who actively hate members of the dominant class and treat them unfairly. But from the position expressed in the first paragraph of @ChrisSunami's answer, while this is discrimination (prejudice), it is not oppression (racism, classism, heterosexism, sexism, etc.)

The U.S. Supreme Court, for instance, has outlawed various versions of Affirmative Action on the basis that they are discriminatory, without having to ask whether they are oppressive. In fact, they seem to clearly combat oppression, but the laws in question (based in part on the fifth amendment principle of innocent until proven guilty) are taken to charge the court with protecting individuals from groups and not protecting groups from groups.

At the same time oppression can be mutual, when the constructs on which the oppression is based are mutually constructed. As a silly case, the French may oppress the English in France and the English may oppress the French in England.

It is sometimes argued that women have historically constructed the male sense of self in most cases by doing the child-rearing. (This is the "MGTOW" position of psychological gynocentrism, once it is filtered of outright misogyny. Sorry, I really cannot give a reference that is not surrounded by additional material of which I would be ashamed.) The idea is that we have shaped male ethics to favor women, by filtering the teaching of ethics to males through female eyes for generations.

From that POV, men's historical willingness to take part in things like conscription and other forced exposure to institutional service and judgement continues to be oppression of men by women (even when, like in the imbalance of court verdicts, one man actually imposes it on another most of the time, or like in the case of homelessness or suicide, it leads the man to make choices that devalue himself.) Then we need to resist this to the same degree we resist women's exclusion from participation in a broad range of powerful roles.

It is very difficult to make racial or class discrimination by the oppressed class logically meet the standards of being bidirectional oppression. The privileged class member being discriminated against can almost always escape from the particular situation due to the attempted oppressor's lack of equal access to the means of control. If this can't happen, it is generally because of some intersectional effect, and not part of a pattern of reversed oppression.

Intersectionality itself can be a powerful force, to which we do not pay enough attention. It is not unarmed black women being treated as if they were armed by the police on a daily basis. It was not lesbians being trapped in meeting places and burned alive, or dragged behind trucks, in the 70s. That does not mean that racism or heterosexism does not apply to women, but that it takes different forms (which are generally more severe, but less terrifying.)

  • Thanks for this answer, I appreciate the level of detail it adds to the positions covered in mine. Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 16:28

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