Discriminatory practice is the treatment of one particular group of people [or individuals belonging to that group] less favourably than other groups – on grounds such as colour, nationality, class, gender, ability, sexuality, wealth, etc.

Discrimination is NOT about difference, it is about POWER and the exercise of power (often unexamined) which harms individuals. And, whether liked or not, it is the harmed individual who can state categorically that discrimination has happened! Not realising this is why white people may be unable to see racism, when they can’t see that their own whiteness gets in the way of their vision of not-white; similarly for other differences where a cultural history of unexamined harm has existed. It seems to me, coming from a psychodynamic point of view, that looking at what happens unconsciously in an  active inner world affected by a context, allows a helpful distinction between the ‘normal’ hurt which enables growing and adapting from the hurt which harms. So, though conscious feelings might be pretty similar, there is a way to tell one from the other. It might not be easy, but it is possible either by

  1. looking at the effect on the person suffering, or by
  2. looking at the motivation behind the hurtful event.

Incidentally, isn’t ‘hurt’ one of those interesting words which can be passive or active. I hurt, I am hurting… depends on what follows … I was hurt by you, or I hurt you.

1. When I am suffering/being hurt, is it because I have been denied something I want, or something I need, or has something been done to me which I did NOT want or need? Anything withheld by the powers-that-be, that is someone in authority over me (in this context) or, something done to me by them in this context, could be something wanted or something needed, or something NOT wanted or needed . What does ‘want’ mean? “Want” – if I get it, nice, but has it maybe bothered/hurt another, or does it help me really, a ‘want’ might be another chocolate, etc etc, so it is that old gratification thing, delay it at least until effect can be judged, and then maybe do without. So the ‘hurt’ from not getting what I want is just a feeling, not something which harms. Need is different, as if I am denied a need, I am then in trouble of one kind or another, less able to thrive. (Need could be respect for something I want, even if I can’t actually have it.) Without my needs being met fairly well, I might of course grow tough, but that is not the same as growing strong. Etc Etc, the psychospeak would talk about whether being gratified feeds narcissim or development, or something like that.

What if something is done to me which is NOT wanted – any sort of negative feedback, information, discipline etc. which allows me to carry on doing whatever regardless of reality or the needs of others or the needs of the job I am supposed to be doing? (Suppose I am always late, and no-one says it matters? Suppose my doctor just gives me a medication, doesn’t help me change something about my lifestyle?) If I do not get feedback (given in a respectful manner), however much I do not want it, I am actually being denied a NEED! Maybe I am being patronised, infantilised, pushed into a stereotype etc.

NOT needed includes another kind of not wanted and is possibly the most harmful category of all. If I am given something NOT needed, then something is forced upon me. This is on a spectrum going all the way from psychological projections – ‘dumping feelings’, ‘messing with my head’ – to physical violence, killing, and torture. NOT OK!

The great thing about this distinction if I am the one being hurt (except for violence, permanent harm, though if I am still here, I can still make the distinction) is that I take back my own authority. Asking the question: can I learn and grow from this, then HOW will I learn and grow, enables me to stay with the context or get out of it, whichever is the direction where I am more likely to be enabled and strengthened (not a certain outcome unfortunately), and away from the context where I am more likely to suffer more harm, even more violence. Stories of torture, war, ethnic cleansing, slavery and other dreadful contexts make this choice desperately stark, as the choice ‘more likely’ is so very very small that nothing seems right, it seems too near to zero. Someone like Nelson Mandela, or the less well-known Brian Keenan, shows that ‘taking ones own authority’ and becoming a hugely strengthened person can happen even in a dire context which lasts/lasted a very long long time.

2. If I am the one doing the hurting, maybe the one in authority over someone else, the motivation matters: does my action/behaviour feed my narcissism, my want, or is it about doing my best to co-operate with the job I have authority to do? The template of authority is ‘parenting’, and a parent does have to withhold, discipline, etc etc., not doing so could be dereliction of duty, abdication of responsibility and all sorts of other pompous sounding bad things. But good parenting is never never the ‘this hurts me more than it hurts you’ variety, that is just the parent serving self. Try the Who is it for? question, with the aid of the UN Rights of the Child wisdoms: Does this PROTECT, PROVIDE or enable PARTICIPATION? (Note the first two have to happen because the child=person with less power is genuinely dependent, while the third is about respecting the dependent person’s understanding and hope in order that s/he will grow into personally authoritative independence.) Who is it for? Answer, my dependent, or really, more for me? The authority does not have to be parent, any other kind of role relationship (boss, police, doctor, bank manager, teacher, receptionist, shop assistant, whatever), can ask the same question: Who is this action/behaviour for? Does it protect, provide or enable everyone to participate in doing the job we are all here for?

Does this sound confused, complicated, even contrived? It always seems to when writing. When in the middle of ongoing events, momentary time to make the enquiry: Who am I doing this for? even if it is hard to answer, moves the event from the discriminatory harmful hurt zone, towards the help people develop, grow, co-operate zone.

The atmosphere shifts with this directional change.

What a great use of internal authority and personal power!

You might even be prejudiced – aren’t we all in some way – but you won’t discriminate.

Reading: Thompson, N.  (1998) Promoting Equality  Macmillan


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