Stigma, Discrimination and Prejudice

Let’s look at the differences between prejudice, discrimination and stigma:

Prejudice is a preconceived opinion of a people group that is not based on reason or actual experience. There is very little reflection or thought given to these sweeping judgements.

Discrimination is the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people because of their race, religion, sex, sexuality, age, health status or other characteristic.

Example: “I won’t hire that person, because                 .  I think they would be a difficult employee.”

Stigma is when a large majority of people have strong feelings of disapproval toward a specific people group. Stigma is a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.

(Stigma can show up in situations like when a woman passes a Black man on the street and unintentionally clutches her purse.)

Example: “Apparently, she spent some time in a mental hospital. Her life must be really out of control.”

On the Cambridge University Press website, the article Prejudice, Stigma, Bias, Discrimination, and Health (Paradies, Bastos, Priest, 2016) says,

Prejudice, stigma, bias, and discrimination are all expressions of oppression, “a concept that describes a relationship between groups or categories of people in which a dominant group benefits from the systematic abuse, exploitation, and injustice directed toward a subordinate group”. While a myriad of typologies exist concerning definitions and manifestations of prejudice, stigma, bias, and discrimination…oppression is frequently conceptualized across three distinct, but interrelated, levels:

  1.  Internalized (or intrapersonal) prejudiced attitudes or beliefs, frequently based on notions of supposedly innate superiority/inferiority, which may be subscribed to either by members of dominant social groups or by subordinate ones;
  2. Interpersonal discriminatory interactions between people, with varying degrees of frequency and intensity, including manifestations from racially motivated assault to verbal abuse, ostracism, and exclusion; and
  3. Systemic or structural, which includes bias in societal institutions, laws, policies, and social practices. Of note, this level may be thought of as the one that sets the context and increases or decreases the likelihood of the first two types of oppression outlined here.

So, prejudice is about unfair beliefs, discrimination is about unfair treatment, and stigma is like carrying a mark of shame created from sweeping unfair judgments, criticisms or even hatred.

All these phenomena are related to circumstances or qualities that are out of the affected person’s control. They all involve thoughts, treatment and behaviours that are fundamentally unfair as they are based in lies and misconceptions.

Here are some areas where we tend to see discriminatory thoughts or behaviours arise:

  • Race
  • Culture
  • Class
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Disability
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Sexual identity
  • Citizenship
  • Appearance
  • Weight
  • Religion
  • Employment
  • Language
  • Employment Activity
  • Care and Parental Status
  • Marital Status
  • Pregnancy or Breastfeeding
  • Political Belief or Activity

For Reflection

Have you ever experienced discrimination due to one of the factors listed above? What was that like?



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Post-Secondary Peer Support Training Curriculum Copyright © 2022 by Jenn Cusick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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