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Under the Surface: an examination of discrimination

June 6, 2012

“As I get to know America better, I realize it’s not the place I envisioned when I was young. Even as recently as college, I believed that America was the same for everyone. But as I get older and see more, I think this really isn’t our country. The feeling gets stronger and stronger. Wherever you go, there’s a discrimination that’s not quite visible.” – Jae Hong Kim, South L.A., Twenty Years Later


1992 L.A. Riots, photos by Hyungwong Kang, Los Angeles: Home Sweet Home, Reuters


Discrimination is a loaded word.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary [9th ed.], it can mean: 1. the action of discriminating against people, 2. recognition of the difference between one thing and another, 3. good judgment or taste. What’s interesting is that this noun has negative, neutral, and positive connotations, depending on the usage and context. From my only readily-accessible source of etymology (Wiktionary), ‘discrimination’ comes from the Latin word discriminare, which means “to divide, separate, distinguish”. It appears that originally, the presence of a difference meant exactly that – an emotionless division. The subjective valuation of differences was left for individuals to judge for themselves. Over the years, the definition gained the element of superiority. It pitted personal beliefs against others’ beliefs. It responded to the “us against them” mentality.

It can be argued that opinions and preferences are the defining feature of individuals. They determine our thoughts, actions, and auras. The inherent human desire to both belong and carve out our own niche led to the ubiquity of in-group bias. This adoption offered a safety net for our shaky set of personal beliefs, which are based on nothing more than the intangible human experience. As such, the items in our basket of goods labelled “of good taste” are simply the physical manifestations of our true and aspirational selves. There is nothing wrong with this – after all, we are human.

Here we get to the crux of the issue of discrimination (as per the first definition). Its impact greatly depends on perspective. Past experiences, degree of sensitivity, and one’s momentary position as either an initiator or receiver shape the offense, giving it a heft that differs among situations. How is it possible to address and resolve such a diverse yet omnipresent issue?

In psychology, there is a difference between prejudice and discrimination. Towards members of a particular group, prejudice is emotional while discrimination is behavioural (Psychology: The Science of Behaviour 4th Cdn Ed., Carlson & Heth). While I’m unsure of whether it’s better to attempt to curb prejudice or discrimination first, I feel that the most manageable approach is to attempt to control our own behaviour. Actively reflecting on decisions, empathizing, and attempting to be objective are all definitely within our capabilities. I believe with time, our attitudes will eventually shift to match our actions because of the desire to reduce cognitive dissonance. One by one, it is possible to change the social landscape.

It’s important to recognize that discrimination is the result of both environmental and personal forces. On one hand, it is a collective sentiment, a long-standing norm, an underlying model for action. On the other, it is a conscious action, a decision, a controllable response.

Thus, the point is this:

Prejudice and discrimination will always exist, as long as we have the ability to form opinions and the right to freedom of speech in its most basic tenets. The question is not how we are to eliminate discrimination, but how to effectively manage it while guiding the receptive in a global campaign for understanding. We change the world by changing opinions, and to do so, we must take the initiative and show that it can be done. The greatest power lies within the frustrated yet determined, and especially with the youngest generations. The uprisings in the Middle East, the Occupy movement, and the Kony 2012 campaign showed that collective unrest can gain a momentum so powerful that it initiates a period of confidence in society*. Whether these campaigns were successful is not as important as the proof they brought that dissatisfaction with our current state of justice exists in all parts of the world. Equality begins with the recognition of favouritism, and is facilitated by a perpetual commitment to eliminating entitlement.

*society as in the power of the people, rather than only the government, to facilitate change.


The Soiling of Old Glory, by Stanley J. Forman, taken during the 1974 Boston Busing Riots,


P.S. The linked article where the opening quote is from is a beautiful piece of writing. Like all articles, it cannot cover every angle, as evidenced by some of the comments which give a more complete look at the issue. However, it does paint quite a vivid picture of the changes that took place and the situation nowadays. Worth a read.

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