Discernment of Discrimination
“I am a card carrying human being. I am not a political party, a denomination, a class, a race, or a demographic. I am just a human being. I am not a nationality, a sexuality, an age, or even a gender since we all start out pretty much the same and we are all going to the same destination. I like to do what human beings like to do: live at peace, enjoy my life, be with the family. I like learning from other human beings, sharing my own thoughts, and finding ways to make this world safer, happier and as natural as we found it. I am a card carrying human being. That means I am proud to be what God made me.”
The above quote is from Bishop Steven Charleston. Bishop Charleston is a retired Episcopal bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America. He grew up a free man, legally, in the land of his ancestry. An American Indian, that means he grew up in lands illegally seized despite legal treaties prohibiting such in a state where many judged him based on his appearance and not by the rich cultural and survivor heritage of his genetic make-up. An educated, proud, and wise man, he does not consider himself unique, just an individual child of God, a regular person, a human being.
Most cultures have, at some point in time, been subjected to discrimination. Almost every nation currently has or has had legislation regarding discrimination. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights declares that “the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status” (Article 26). The European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights declares, “The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, color, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status” (Article 14). Very few documents, however, actually state how discrimination is defined.
By United States of America statute, discrimination is defined as “disparity of treatment”. When a person is treated differently than another of differing characteristics, odds are that the first person is a victim of discrimination. For example, if a man enters a diner and is told they have no available seats and then sees that everyone else entering to eat is told the same thing, he has NOT been discriminated against. If, however, this first man has a pronounced accent and is told there is nothing available but then watches several others come in and get seated without a reservation and also without said accent, then he might have been the victim of discrimination.
Miriam was interested in furthering her education. She had taken the two prerequisites for a course and eagerly attempted to register for the next class. She talked with a professor but was told she was being denied admittance to the class. Based upon her speech pattern, the professor deemed her too slow mentally to take the course. The professor refused to talk to Miriam’s previous instructors and even went so far as to state that people who spoke like Miriam should not be educated thusly. Regional accents are no barometer for intelligence or learning capabilities. Nonetheless, Miriam was forced to continue her studies elsewhere. Miriam most definitely was a victim of discrimination.
In some countries discrimination is weighed by the disadvantage the discriminating action conveys to the parties involved. Discrimination comes in as many different forms as reason to discriminate. There is direct discrimination, indirect discrimination, disparate treatment, disparate impact, intentional discrimination, institutional discrimination, individual discrimination, and structural discrimination. Even identifying someone or something might be considered discriminatory. Some would claim that much discrimination is simply a matter of semantics and misunderstanding. African-American philosopher Bernard Boxhill warns about a blanket belief that all forms of discrimination are wrong. Boxhill does not consider a blind person being denied a driver’s license to be discriminatory, even though the blind person has done nothing to cause his/her blindness nor can he/she reverse it. Such disparity of treatment, Boxhill notes, is not discriminatory but common sense and for the greater good.
Many philosophers argue that racial discrimination and stereotyping are wrong because there is no one standard for all cultures of specific cultures. The unjustness of racism, contemporary philosopher Andrew Flew believes, is based upon things that “are strictly superficial and properly irrelevant to all, or almost all, questions of social status and employability”. Philosopher John Gardner points out that mankind does not have an “across-the-board-duty to be rational, so our irrationality as such wrongs no one.”
Where is the common sense in all of this talk about discrimination? Where is the adage “Do unto others as you would want done to you”, a way of living found in many spiritualities and religions. Confucius stated: “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” Scrolls from ancient Egypt advise “Do to the doer to cause that he do thus to you”; “That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another.” Ancient Greek philosophy contained many such references, including this one from Thales: “Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing.” In 1993, the Parliament of the World’s Religions issued a “Declaration toward a Global Ethic” which stated: “We must treat others as we wish others to treat us”.
People tend to act before they think and I am afraid that discrimination is something we all abhor, claim to despise, and yet, sadly, commit. In Miriam’s case, she took her predicament to the department chairman who stated that she must be wrong. “People like intellectuals simply do not discriminate!” he exclaimed. Sadly, discrimination is not a habit or behavior “owned” by just one group or class of people. Social, economic, intellectual, cultural, religious, spiritual….All are categories in which one might locate a person who has discriminated. They are also categories from which one might find a victim of discrimination.
The best way to stop discrimination is to think. Tamil philosophy encourages “Let not a man [woman] consent to do those things to another which, he knows, will cause sorrow.” Well-meaning people might end up discriminating when they stop to think. Additionally, well-meaning people might become accomplices of such discrimination when they fail to stand against it. Taking a stand is hard and requires courage. It will not always be easy and often will not be popular. A true hero is not the one who wins with most favors but the one who stands for the most rights. A greater hero is one who practices the beliefs that honor all. After all, in the final analysis, we are all “card-carrying human beings.”