What it feels like to experience discrimination

Discrimination is an overt act denying equitable treatment or a right to a fellow human; whereas prejudice is a feeling, which may be expressed in words. Words are not acts.

Australia has racial discrimination legislation which enables those who feel hurt by someone else’s words to take legal action. Who can afford to take such action – and at what cost? The term racial seems also intended to cover the political and cultural. Such imprecision enables limitations to be placed on free speech, even responsible free speech.

The term race is itself misleading, coined when colonial European man claimed to be inherently superior to all coloured ‘races.’ He overlooked the fact that East Asians, many Central Asians, and North Indians and their westerly neighbours are of a whiter shade.

What of discrimination? Denial of a right (such as equal access) or fair treatment is genuinely painful – to one’s soul, to one’s pocket, to one’s family, or to one’s future. In such instances, no words indicating prejudice need to be spoken.

In the early post-war White Australia period, which lasted until the 1970s, to be denied a rental room, to be served last in the shops, to be spoken to roughly by barmen and even taxi drivers, to be served food by one whose of truculence was evident, was understandable; one simply ignored such behaviour. Had we students from British Asia, with thousands of years of civilisation behind us, not been educated to be civil at all times – even to ignorant people, irrespective of colour or culture?

To be told in the mid-1950s that I was ‘too black’ to be employed as a government psychologist was, however, painful. Later, to be told by senior executives of major international corporations that the ’Australian worker is not yet ready for a foreign executive, especially a coloured one,’ in spite of my qualification as an economist, was equally painful. That was in the 1950s, when the coloured people in lands bordering Australia were becoming politically independent.

Yet, it was only in the 1980s that I met my first racist boss. After I had managed to convince him to desist, simply by pointing a finger skywards, and saying ‘One day you will be judged,’ others made my life so painful for about 5 years that I retired early.

These other guys were, in my view, not racist. They were bonded by religion and a claimed shared ancestry. They were looking after one another, by overtly ‘cutting down’ a foreign challenger – who had been ranked way above them! Tribalism (reflected in gang-like behaviour) is a lot more painful when discriminated against.

The perennial question is whether, in spite of any belief in human rights, and the valuable teachings of this or that great religious teacher of mankind, the souls of human beings will mature enough not to discriminate against those not like them.