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Discrimination Isn’t Always Bad

In this post Nathan Palmer discusses how everyone stereotypes and discriminates every day and asks us to consider when stereotyping and discriminating is unjust or oppressive.

Last year I spoke on a panel during a campus-wide event on ending gender discrimination and patriarchy. Afterwards, I was walking to my car when I heard a young lady’s voice in the background, “excuse me, Professor Palmer?” I turned toward her and as soon as our eyes met she asked, “Can I ask you a quick question?” I smiled and nodded yes. Her black t-shirt had the words “Stop Stereotyping. End Discrimination” written in bright red letters. “Thank you. I liked what you had to say in there and I wanted to ask you, do you think that stereotypes and discrimination will ever go away?”

“That’s very nice of you to say. Thank you.” I told her with a warm wry smile. “But let me ask you something before I answer your question.” My subtle smile now stretched from ear to ear. “Why are you asking me this question?” Her head cocked to the side and she looked stunned. “Well. Um.” She took a deep breath before continuing, “Well, I guess I asked you because you’re a professor and you just spoke on that panel, so I assumed you’d be knowledgeable.” I nodded along with her as each word came out. “Precisely,” I said pointing in the air as if she had just made a breakthrough discovery. “We’ve never met before have we?” I asked. She shook her head no. “Then from one way of looking at it,” I said with a sly eager tone, “didn’t you feel comfortable asking me your question because of the stereotypes in your head about professors?”

A cautious smile began to emerge on her face and slowly it grew into a huge grin. “I get it!” she practically shouted. “I’m stereotyping you now and discriminating against you based on you being a professor.” “Yes!” I exclaimed and we high-fived. We stood there in the parking lot for the next half hour unpacking her questions and what it meant for society in general.

Social Interaction and Discrimination

The truth is, everyone stereotypes and discriminates against people every day and for the most part, no one sees it as an injustice. For instance, I’m willing to bet that you speak differently to your best friends than you do a total stranger. The way I interact with my students is far different from how I interact with my parents which is far different than how I act with my friends. I’m going to blow your mind here, but I use curse words (a lot) when I am not near my coworkers, students, parents or my young daughter. This is a simple illustration of a much larger fact– we all discriminate against others around us based on who they are, who we are, and in what capacity we know them. Neither stereotypes or discrimination is inherently unjust or immoral.

Stereotypes & Discrimination at the Micro-Level

Looking at interpersonal interactions from a micro-level we see that we tailor our self-presentations to the audience in front of us. To fully understand this idea, we need to talk about the theory of dramaturgy. Erving Goffman, the sociologist who developed dramaturgical theory, argued that every social interaction can be understood as a play or theatrical performance. The excellent video below will quickly bring you up to speed on Goffman’s theory:

When we interact with others, we tailor our performance to what we think our audience expects of us. Idealization describes the work we do to present a version of ourselves that we believe our audience will most appreciate. Therefore, the reason we talk differently to our friends, parents, and coworkers is that we are idealizing our presentation of self to suit the desires of the audience before us. Or put more simply, when we idealize our presentation of self, we are discriminating.

Stereotypes & Discrimination at the Macro-Level

If we zoom out and take a macro look at social interactions, we can see that how we behave is influenced by our place within our community’s social hierarchies. Social hierarchies are rank ordered networks of relationships where individuals or groups at the top of the hierarchy command the most status, power, and resources while those at the bottom command the least. Your position within the hierarchy is determined by the social assets you possess. Social assets can be things that you are born with (e.g. your race, gender, and age) or they can be things that you achieve later in life (e.g. being a college graduate, being married, or serving as the CEO of a company).

Take for instance the hierarchy of a family. Often it is the case that children are at the bottom of the hierarchy, their parents are above them, and their grandparents are above them all. Children hold the least amount of power and have access to the least amount of family resources. Parents have the authority to tell kids what to do, but kids do not have the authority to tell their parents what to do. When a child whines and asks, “but why?” a parent can say to them, “because I said so!” However, children cannot say the same to their parents. “Because I said so” is only a reasonable explanations when going down the hierarchy.

We can see everyday forms family of discrimination in the chart below. The Pew Research Center surveyed people about who they would feel obligated to provide assistance to if they were in need. You can see the results below.

Chart showing order in which survey respondents would feel very obligated to help a person.

This chart makes it clear that we do not feel equally obligated to help all the people in our social circle. There is a hierarchy of importance and according to this chart, family members are above step-family members and they are above our best friends. Now, you may have answered this question differently, but this chart shows us how people on average discriminate based on social location.

Simply put, we cannot live without stereotypes and discrimination. When we meet people for the first time we use stereotypes to decipher who they are, what they might want from us, and how we should present ourselves to them. Our stereotypes are almost certainly not 100% accurate, but when we meet someone for the first time we have no other information to go on. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s okay to continue to stereotype people after you get to know them. Once you learn that your presumptions about another person/group are inaccurate, you are expected to adjust the way you’re thinking and behaving towards them.

When Stereotypes & Discrimination are Unjust

The larger idea here is that not all forms of discrimination are viewed as unfair or unjust. Hopefully, we can all agree that when stereotyping or discrimination limit an individual or group’s ability to achieve their goals, it is oppressive. For the most part, the forms of discrimination that we find most objectionable are those that are based on social assets that are beyond the control of the individual. For instance, being bigoted toward a person based on their race, gender, or disability status is considered an injustice. However, when the social asset being used to discriminate is one that the individual could’ve (at least partially) controlled, fewer people will view the discrimination as unjust. Employers discriminate against applicants who do not have a bachelor’s degree, for example, and few people complain.

Stereotypes and discrimination are tools of oppression, to be sure, but they are also tools we use to make sense of our world and get through the day. We will never live in a world free of stereotypes and oppression, but we can strive to live in a world that is free from the injustices created by stereotypes and oppression.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Describe an instance where a person uses stereotypes or discriminates against another person that you feel is just and fair. Explain your answer.
  2. Now describe a situation where a person uses stereotypes or discriminates against another person that you feel is unjust or unfair. Explain your answer.
  3. How can we reduce the oppressive aspects of stereotyping and discrimination without trying to eliminate stereotypes and discrimination altogether?
  4. Look at the chart from the Pew Research Center above. If you were asked that same question, would you have responded in the same way? If not, what changes would you have made? Explain your answer.