Tuesday, February 21, 2017

What is discrimination? (part 1)

For a long time now I have wanted to write this blog post. I just never got around to doing it the justice it deserves. It was called "What is racism?" in my head, but just as I was finally starting on it, I realized that it was really about discrimination in general. I will be using both terms, though.. At the end of the day, racism is just a form of discrimination.

Racism ain’t what it used to be. Time was, if you were racist, you bloody well knew it. [..] No more. [..] racism has become recast as a kind of bad etiquette, where merely saying the wrong thing, even unintentionally, is enough to mark you out as a moral leper.

A couple of years back, I was riding my bike from the train station to my home. As I live in the Netherlands, there were plenty of other people riding their bikes as well. One of them got me in a bit of an annoyed mood because he delayed me by not indicating that he was taking a right turn at a traffic light. Then, I approached the next traffic light. There was someone else who slowed down because he had to wait for the light to go green. However, he did this on the left side of the bike lane, making it impossible for me to pass him and take the right turn for which there was no wait.

It was at this moment that a comment towards him sprang into my mind. I wanted to say something like "hey, this is the Netherlands and here we ride on the right side of the road". However, I kept my mouth shut and avoided the conflict. It wasn't until a couple of minutes later that I realized how racist that sentence would have sounded if I had actually said it. After all, this guy did look like his parents weren't born in this country.

To me, the statement wasn't racist at all. I hadn't even registered yet that this person looked a bit foreign and I would have said the exact same thing to someone who looked like he had thorough Dutch roots. It was just a way of me ridiculing that the person for not following the single most basic traffic rule. I didn't really think anything of where that person was from, I just made the ridiculous assumption that this was a misunderstanding of the rules and commented on the fact that there are some countries where they drive on the left side of the road.

But then was that comment truly racist? Did it matter that I didn't mean to offend him over his race? Did it matter that I would have said the same thing to someone who looked more like a native? Would it still have been racist if I had said it to someone who looked more native? Would it have mattered whether that person was as native as he looked? Would the same sentence have been racist if it had been uttered by someone who did so because of how the person in question looked?

My personal interpretation of what racism is - and in fact what discrimination is in general - has not lined up with what it popularly is for a long time. Let's take the word "nigger". This is widely recognized as a racist term. This is because of its historic ties of the word to slavery. I am not trying to deny the hurt the use of this word may incur, but I would like to question the fact that just using a word like that is discrimination or racism. To be honest, I think that for many black people there isn't in fact an association to this slavery. They will be offended by the word just because they were taught it is a bad word. Of course, it's also connected to the more recent usage of the same word as a slur and it can hurt in that way. But that use of the word as a slur is also just because people have been taught it's a bad word. Once again, I don't mean to deny the hurt that this word causes, no matter whether it is because of it being a bad word or because it's because there are people that do experience a connection between the word and slavery. I'm not even trying to say it's not a bad word either.

However, there is this strange other side to this word, where it is accepted if a black person says it. I would understand this if it was about intention and sometimes a bit of it is about intention. However, the word is also considered racist if it is used by a white person without intending to insult. If anything, the fact that white people cannot use the word while black people can sounds like racism to me. Of course, as a privileged white male, I don't have much to complain about. I'm really just trying to get to the issue what discrimination and racism are. To me, it really just seems that the word isn't inherently racist.

If it's just about intention, though, things get very hairy. Take the example from the traffic light situation above. My intention was to take a verbal stab at this person without it relating to where he - or his parents - were from. However, he wouldn't have been able to tell that. If there was a third traffic light he had to take and he did the same thing there and someone else made the same comment to him there, but this time with the intention to hurt him based on his race it would have sounded exactly the same. Moreover, it would have felt exactly the same to that person.

What about racist jokes? A racist joke really just evokes a stereotype for the sake of comedy. However, racist jokes are considered a bad thing. They may very well hurt people. However, jokes about dead babies are considered much more acceptable. Not everyone likes these, but they don't carry the same stigma. That's while such a joke can hurt very much to someone who has lost a baby.

Let's take the combination of racism and comedy a bit further. Let's talk about such things in the context of entertainment. The satire of shows like South Park spring to mind immediately. They had a whole thing about gingers not having souls. Basically, their characters were discriminating other characters. It sounds strange to me to call a piece that has fictional characters discriminating other fictional characters as being discrimination itself. However, when episodes on this theme aired, the number of children with red hair being bullied skyrocketed.

Maybe we can shine a different light on this. Imagine you are making a period piece. A movie, let's make it a movie. It's set mid-1900s. Women were discriminated against in that period. Should you not show that in your movie? Is being authentic in that respect discrimination all by itself? Of course there is room for a movie showing those troubles, but say you just wanted to make a police drama set somewhere in that time period. Does that mean you can't show a man being a pig towards the typist woman?

If anything becomes clear to me through all of this, it's that discrimination is not the same as "shouldn't do". Of course you shouldn't discriminate. That's something that's so important that many countries (at least the ones in the West) ingrained this in their constitution. However, there are things that you shouldn't do, but not because they are discrimination. In the extreme, hate-mongering is often not discrimination in itself, but it does move others to discriminate and it should be clear that it's not acceptable behavior.

In my opinion you shouldn't ask yourself if what you're saying is discrimination. It should be clear when it is discrimination and you should know to stay well away from that. However, I do think it's good to ask yourself whether what you're doing is offensive to people. It doesn't even necessarily have to do with something you can discriminate about. Likewise, it's good to ask yourself if what you're doing may validate people hurting others, through discrimination or something else. I'm not against free speech, but I would like those practicing free speech to take their responsibility.

Today, I really just took a look at what I think isn't discrimination. In the next part, I will take a look at what I think is discrimination. I hope you'll join me for that part as well.

No comments: