The many costs of discrimination and why, when it’s done, it’s done

Recently, a childhood friend of mine was on the receiving end of extremely blatant racism during a recruitment process. Of course it made me think about the general issue of racism, but specifically my mind went down three different paths. One, my own experiences with racism in the workplace. Two, racist experiences that friends and acquaintances have endured. In some cases, complaints, whether informal or formal, were made; in other cases they weren’t. When we hear about racist events, we often talk about the need to make a complaint. But what of the further burden that is then pushed on the victim of discrimination if and when they do make a complaint?

(At the outset, I want to be clear in saying that I believe it is a person’s individual right to determine whether they make a complaint or not. I support people who make complaints if they feel it is in their best interests to do so and I support people who decline to make a complaint because they feel that is in their best interests to do so. Whatever a person decides, complaint or not, we need to find ways to support people).

For the person who was racist or otherwise discriminatory (let’s call them the offender, as that is what they are), the incident passes. No matter how big a deal it was, if a person didn’t care to avoid being racist in the first place, it is likely that they won’t care about the incident once they know that they’re safe. Once they know their friends still like them and they won’t be losing their job, all is well despite an incident which showed the world that the person was racist. They didn’t care about the people they were racist toward (otherwise they would not have been racist), so they can move on. It doesn’t touch their family or their friends. It doesn’t touch them. Not really.

But if you are the person who is discriminated against, you cop any of the shock, pain, horror, unfairness of the incident with full force. The actual incident is bad. It is wrong. It makes you unhappy/angry/disappointed.

It costs you. More than once. In more than one way.

It costs you time. Plenty of it will be used up in responding to the offender, managing your response, deciding what action to take. It is all time in your life when you could be doing other things. Things you actually like doing – reading books, chatting with your friends, going to the beach, and thinking about rainbows instead of discrimination. Sure things happen in life, but is it really right that a person should have to use up precious time in their short life on managing the impact of another person’s claims that brown people are all terrorists?

Then there are the other costs that come up if you DO decide to make a complaint of any kind, informal or formal. Through your work, through the offender’s work, to the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board or the Australian Human Rights Commission. Costs that arise if you are vocal and share the incident publicly or make it known within your own personal or professional circles. Social, reputation, legal, psychological and career costs.

Speaking up on discrimination can result in the offender flatly denying the discrimination ever took place, and therein always lays a risk that the offender could bring a defamation suit against the victim. Truth is a legal defence to defamation claims – but does discrimination normally happen when there are a lot of people around to witness it and who will speak out against it? Does it happen when there are a lot of people around at all? Are we just back to a he said/she said case where the truth is never really ascertainable. The truth is only what the adjudicator determines it to be.

There can be costs to one’s reputation and their career. People are sometimes ‘sidelined’ or ‘passed over’ at work, thought of as a ‘trouble-maker’ because they didn’t just let discrimination go…or considered over-sensitive because they didn’t get the joke. (The latter is a particular issue within Australian society as the culture generally frowns upon people who ‘can’t take a joke’ and essentially deems them ‘unAustralian’). An assessment of the discrimination that occurred at work typically flows into an assessment of the victim: their personality, their capability. To make a complaint at work can mean putting your reputation up for review.

Lastly, but crucially, there is the psychological cost. Which might not come until the aftermath. If a person decides to make a complaint, it can mean that the incident is somewhat prolonged, it can’t not be discussed. It has to be discussed, thought about, analysed and dissected by you and all the adjudicators. And what is your state of mind if you don’t get justice? Does it make it worse than if you had never pursued a complaint?

The thing is, if you need to chase justice, you have already been wronged. Discrimination, once done, has been done. If you cut someone with a knife, they have a wound no matter whether you later say that you cut them ‘without meaning to hurt them’, that when you cut them you ‘meant it as a joke’, that cutting someone is not offensive and they are being too sensitive. It doesn’t even matter if you own up to cutting them and say sorry that you did it. The cut happened. You have infringed upon another person’s sense of safety, health and freedom. They have a tear in their flesh. And after it, a scar comes. The scar might fade, but they cannot go back to a time before the cut.

I don’t want this post to in any way suggest to people that I discourage them from making a complaint against racism… But I acknowledge that to shine the light on discrimination is hard, hard, hard. I see that we have to balance the concept that minority members should speak up to address discrimination against the potential costs to the individual if they do decide to make a complaint. The burden of society’s inequality is pushed onto the victim even more so and it subjects them to further reminders of their minority status. Discrimination is never only a single incident. It is an incident that spawns a multitude of costs and related micro-incidents. Discrimination grows. It acts itself out every time it costs its victim.

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