This is Part 3 of a series of posts designed to help us explore our work and leadership through the lenses of dominant power and liberatory power.

How does dominant power shape our societies?

Social Dominance is a term used to describe what happens when a society is organised around false hierarchies of identity. These false hierarchies position people who hold certain identities as superior to others. Whether based along lines of race, class-status, gender, ethnicity, caste, color, sexuality, religion or other forms of identity, these hierarchies are used to elevate or demean a person’s worth and potential, and to define the nature and value of their humanity.

These false hierarchies allow dominant groups to falsely claim an innate, inherent, moral or sometimes even ‘god given’ right to have power and authority over others. While justifying domination, exploitation, discrimination or marginalization as a necessary or legitimate response to the innate inferiority of those ‘beneath’ them. And because dominant groups often have a disproportionate amount of influence over the economic, political and cultural systems of their social context – they can shape them in their own image and in favor of their own interests.

As a result many of the institutions and systems that structure power and knowledge within our societies are biased in favor of people who hold dominant identities and discriminate against people who hold marginalised identities. This not only creates barriers preventing people who hold marginalised identities from accessing power, it also means that those institutions can be used to oppress marginalised communities while sharing false knowledge to justify or hide what is happening. We can call this structural dominance. 

‘The dominant group holds the power and authority in society relative to the subordinates and determines how that power and authority may be acceptably used. Whether it is reflected in determining who gets the best jobs, whose history will be taught in school, or whose relationship will be validated by society, the dominant group has the greatest influence in determining the structure of the society. ’ Beverly Daniel Tatum – The complexity of identity

An example of this is when institutions (of government, education, media, academia, religion, art, literature etc.) are used to create and protect a culture which centers and privileges the bodies, ideologies, beliefs, knowledge, behaviors, expression, customs and social norms of dominant identities. In contrast, marginalised identities and their forms of cultural expression are often suppressed and positioned as inferior (weak, ugly, uncivilized, backward, primitive, immoral, unprofessional) or fetishized, appropriated and commodified in demeaning ways. We can call this cultural dominance

As a result, if we hold marginalised identities we are often explicitly or implicitly pressured to hide or change who we are so that we can ‘fit’ into the dominant culture. Our ‘ inferiority’ is either used as an excuse to discriminate against us or as a reason to pressure us into ‘escaping’ or ‘transcending’ our ‘inferiority’ by becoming more like the dominant groups. This often forces those of us who hold marginalised identities into choosing between wearing a mask in order to be accepted (and having better access to opportunities as a result), or choosing to resist the social pressure and as a result facing more prejudice, discrimination and marginalization.

Over time this bias and prejudice becomes deeply ingrained into the cultural fabric of a society (ideologies, values, narratives, customs, behavioural norms). We experience this culture through our interactions with external institutions such as government, education and the media, but we also experience and participate in it through our interpersonal relationships – with, our family, friends, partners, peers, colleagues, neighbours. Every relationship we have is influenced in some way by these dynamics of dominant power and often the way we are treated or treat others ends up reflecting the energy of dominant power and reinforces its effects on our minds and hearts. We can call this interpersonal dominance

As a consequence of all this, we grow up caught in a web of false hierarchies based on illusions of superiority and inferiority that make many of us feel like we have to reject parts of ourselves (and others) in order to belong and to be of value. This has a corrosive effect on our minds, bodies and spirits. This is experienced most severely by those of us who are targeted by these hierarchies because of our identity (race, gender, caste, ethnicity, ability status, sexuality, indigeneity, class, religion) is considered to be a marker of inferiority. 

As we are socialised into these false hierarchies we learn to lean on the parts of ourselves that are accepted and repress or change the parts that are rejected and to repeat that pattern onto others too. Gradually we construct an image of self that is in response to the conditions of worth imposed by the world around us, and everything that does not fit becomes something to be ashamed of and hide from. 

When we hold identities that are framed as inferior we are likely to experience forms of punishment (marginalisation, oppression, discrimanation and abuse) by others and this can lead us to internalise feelings of shame about who we are. On the other hand, when we hold identities that are celebrated as superior we are likely to be rewarded (privilege, power, opportunity) and internalise feelings of superiority over the people who are being punished. For the many of us who hold identities that are both rewarded and punished we may experience a complex mix of shame and superiority as we navigate these contradictory delusions. We can describe the way that dominance affects our inner world as internalised dominance.

There is no doubt that the people who hold marginalised identities suffer the most from these dynamics, and it’s important not to equate all suffering as equal, but dominance ultimately dehumanisesus all. Because when we are caught in the game of superiority and inferiority, we are living in a state of illusion, identifying with a false self that is so far removed from who we truly are.

To be an oppressor is dehumanizing and anti-human in nature, as it is to be a victim.

Bell Hooks

This builds up internal walls that disconnect us from both our humanity within and the humanity we share with others. It leads to the suppression of anything (internally or externally) that doesn’t ‘belong’, which hardens our hearts and narrows our capacity for true love, acceptance and compassion (for self and others). But beneath these prescribed conditions of worth that we inherit at birth, and that are imposed throughout our lives, lies something universal at the core of our being. This something is hard to define, but it is awakened whenever we remember our shared humanity, and truly see ourselves and others, free from the illusion of superior and inferior beings. 

Dehumanization, which marks not only those whose humanity has been stolen, but also ( though in a different way) those who have stolen it, is a distortion of the vocation of becoming more fully human.  

Paulo Freire
What is power? (Concepts for diagnosing inequity)  Brittany Packnett: The causes of inequity in the USA Samia Habli: Gender bias in Lebanon

*Videos produced for Teach For All


  • What are the false social hierarchies that exist in your context, and around what lines of identity are they organised?  (Consider.. Economic class, gender, ability status, race, indigeneity, sexuality, caste, religion, colorism, Western dominance/eurocentrism, refugee, undocumented immigrant, and any others that are relevant in your context)
  • How does your society express forms of  bias and prejudice along these lines of identity?  (Explore this question through the lenses of: Structural, Cultural, Interpersonal, Internalised – see the graphic above)

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