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Understanding Discrimination- How do we look at it?


“See they are discriminating against us” said my colleague as we were sitting in our canteen and waiting for our coffee. We had ordered first and the person who ordered after us got the coffee before we could get.

In another situation, as a part of my field work a Banjara lady was narrating her experiences at a health care facility. Banjara women are usually dressed in a traditional attire which makes them easily identifiable in any setting. This lady had gone to a health facility with her pregnant daughter in law and one and half year old grand son to undergo a scan for the daughter in law. The child who was playing, urinated on the floor and a staff of the scanning centre who noticed this shouted at the old lady and made remarks relating to the social group that the old lady belonged to. This included stereotypical remarks like the group members are dirty and do not maintain any cleanliness. The old lady felt insulted and left the centre without offering any resistance.

We use the word discrimination when we see some kind of unfair or unjust treatment being meted out. So would the case of delaying serving coffee be called an act of discrimination?

There is a difference in the kind of discrimination in both the scenarios. Most of the definitions on discrimination usually attach a negative connotation to it but the actual meaning of the word is to distinguish or differentiate. The concept of discrimination by definition is simple and complex at the same time. It is simple in describing a kind of unjust or unfair treatment and complex because its important to understand the perception by those at the receiving end, why and what makes people discriminate and the societal factors that contribute to this. Altman[1] explains discrimination as a differential treatment to members of a group or to the group that imposes a relative disadvantage compared to another group. He explains that discrimination involves treating individuals or groups as morally inferior and the wrongness of discrimination lies in that. Reflecting back on the coffee episode it would not amount to discrimination in the negative sense because it has not imposed any disadvantage (we did receive our coffee with a delay of few minutes) and the intention of the one serving the coffee is not clear, we could not tell if it was deliberate. While on the other hand the Banjara lady was treated as being a morally inferior person and the differential treatment put her at a disadvantage and she had to leave without getting the scan done.

Most often discrimination is studied from the view of the one who received the treatment. As individuals or groups our personality, perception and traits are different and shape the way we process information or interpret experiences of our daily life. An act of unfair treatment may be perceived in different ways by different people and there could be under or over reporting. Most often the perspective of the discriminator is not captured, why they behave in certain ways and whether or not their intention was to treat people unfairly.  Therefore, before measuring discrimination, it is important to recognise how it is understood by the different stakeholders.

[1] Altman, Andrew, “Discrimination”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/discrimination/>.