Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Racism vs. Discrimination

Racism and discrimination are two words that are used interchangeably, yet their meanings differ in actions and intent. There is a fundamental need to understand each word in its entirety in order to have a firm grasp on these issues. Only then can racism and discrimination be discussed in depth so that some of the societal problems associated with them can be alleviated.
According to dictionary.com, the definition of racism is "the prejudice that members of one race are intrinsically superior to members of other races" or "discriminatory or abusive behavior towards members of another race." Notice that one definition involves a belief while another involves an action. One can have racist ideas and not act on them the same way a person can commit a racist act without having any racist beliefs. Both racism and discrimination are nouns meaning a person is able to possess such attitudes. However, of the two words only discrimination can turn into a verb. Therefore, discrimination involves an action.
Perhaps it would be clearer with a couple of examples. A person could be racist, have prejudice ideas and choose not to outwardly act upon them. Say a fellow employee is of a different race. Even though that individual's coworker may have racist thoughts, he or she may refuse to act upon these thoughts or attitudes out of fear of being reprimanded at work.
It might seem a little more farfetched, though, for someone to commit a racist act without truly having any racist thoughts. In truth, such an occurrence is not that unusual. The best example is institutional racism. Institutional racism involves racist acts by an entire institution, such as a business or corporation. It typically is applied for statistical purposes. For instance, a black man with the same driving record as a white man could pay higher premiums on auto insurance. The reasoning would be that black people have a higher instance of automobile wrecks than white people. The insurance representative may not have any racist feelings at all, but could merely be complying with what the computer system says is acceptable. The same type of racism is prevalent in many other instances.
Discrimination, which is more action oriented than racism, is defined by dictionary.com as "the ability or power to see or make fine distinctions" or "treatment or consideration based on class or category rather than individual merit." Notice that the definition of discrimination is much broader than racism. First of all, discrimination has a definition that is not negative at all. Making fine distinctions or being able to discern one category from another is discrimination. In the case of race, discrimination could merely mean the ability to discern what race a person is. To some, this task would seem incredibly difficult. While the color of one's skin is fairly obvious upon first sight, there are so many mixes of different races and ethnicities that it can be nearly impossible to identify one's race. Some who self identify with African Americans have lighter skin than those who identify with Caucasians. My Chinese friend is often approached by Latinos who assume she can speak fluent Spanish. Then there is the broad mix of ethnicities defined as Caucasian. The ability to differentiate between an English nose and a Polish nose is beyond me. Appearance alone is not enough for someone to determine another's race. Cultural cues and behavior along with the stereotypes associated with them are examined. Even then, the final determination is often incorrect. I personally have been mistaken on many occasions to be Ukrainian. I have even been asked if I have some type of Middle Eastern blood in me. I don't have either, as far as I know. Of course, in this country it is hard to tell.
Something that makes America unique when compared to many other countries is the mix of ethnicities its citizens have. It is very common for someone to ask a friend or acquaintance, "Where do your ancestors come from?" In response, there is usually a mix of about five or six different regions where someone can trace their familial line. For many other countries, this is not the case. Someone who's from France is 100% French. Someone from China is Chinese. Although there may be different ethnicities within the area that one is comprised of, it is a rarity to find differences of origin as vast as what is commonplace in the United States.
The actual discrimination of race for the purpose of defining race is a grueling practice that many in this country choose to partake in. The discrimination that is used to treat a group of people in a certain fashion regardless of their individual merit is also much to commonplace in our society. Discrimination could involve treating one group favorably or unfavorably. Discrimination does not have to be based on race at all but could be for any reason. Such reasons could include class, wealth, religion, political categories, or even things as absurd as hair color or height.
Some discrimination is perfectly legal in the workplace and public organizations in this country while others are not. The types of discrimination that are illegal are called the protected categories. The protected categories in which discrimination is illegal include race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age, disability, pregnancy or the possibility of becoming pregnant, national origin, and familial status. These are the federally protected categories for the most part. In the case of sexual orientation, discrimination is only illegal in certain states. In the state of Washington, discrimination based on sexual orientation is only illegal in publically owned institutions. As far as age discrimination is concerned, it is only applicable if one is discriminated against for being over forty. Being discriminated against for being too young is perfectly acceptable from a legal standpoint. Even if it is perceived that one belongs to one of the protected categories when he or she actually doesn't, the individual has the same protection as one who actually does belong to the protected category. For instance, if an employer refuses to hire you because it is believed you are of a different race, even though you may merely be very tan, you also are protected.
Racism and discrimination are very complex areas, especially when one begins to look into the legalities of exactly what constitutes discrimination. The fact does remain that such discrimination does occur. With a better understanding of the definitions of such injustices, society as a whole can begin to combat these unjust discrepancies.