TRUE OPINION: What is discrimination? Our True Crime News Weekly columnist, Miles Hunt, gives us his view as a white middle-class male who attended a private school.
As a white middle-class male, it’s hard to find instances of discrimination; being treated differently – in a less favourable way – because of some inherent trait or characteristic.
Not unless you count those nights waiting in line outside various nightclubs in Kings Cross, watching as a steady stream of attractive women bypassed me and my friends and went straight on in. “Sorry mate, busy night tonight,” the bouncer would say as if that explained it.
Being tall, I also feel rather uncomfortable on a plane, but that is not discrimination; more a world built around an average height much lower than me. At a concert, I feel guilty blocking the view of smaller people, and I can hear their sneers. For a few hours they hate me because I was born tall. And it’s not so bad, I can at least see the stage.
I guess that’s it. Pretty lucky really. Although, I was bullied quite significantly for a few torturous years at school. It was at a private all boys school in Sydney where bullying was quite common. I bullied too, but perhaps because of an emotional immaturity or a lack of confidence, I started to cop my fair share. So much so that I was kicked out of nearly every social group from the jocks to the surfers and everyone in between. Eventually, by Year 9, I was battered and bruised and turned to the only group that would have me – the nerds. They took me in. Maybe because they too had seen their fair share of abuse. A year later, a guy arrived from Melbourne arrived and started his own group, and took me in … it felt great to belong.
In hindsight, the bullying helped me become who I am today. I’ve always empathised with the down-trodden, always hated inequality. I became a lawyer as a direct result of this desire for fairness, and as a way to attack injustice. I’m also a drug law reform activist because I think drug laws are unfair – they marginalise young people, shame addicts and criminalise users for their choice of psychoactive substance. It is unjust and hypocritical, especially when people are literally encouraged by our culture to drink alcohol.
As a lawyer, I’ve run a fair few discrimination cases. Two ladies came to me after being fired by within days of telling their employers that they were pregnant. The Commonwealth Bank and Citi-Bank were the two employers involved. I thought they had a strong case. One of the girls was from China on a short-term work visa, who didn’t want to proceed as she was scared of it impacting her chances of getting Permanent Residency. The other – a Korean girl – was a resident. We took the matter to the Fair Work Commission.
But the bank didn’t want to mediate, and then she didn’t want to take the matter to court either. She was scared of the whole process. I felt very sorry for them – working for some years at these reputable banks, and then they get pregnant. It should be a joyous occasion for all. They tell their employer, and then, almost immediately after, they are shown the door. ‘Thanks for your help, now see you later.’ I would have loved to have run those cases for them … me against a team of lawyers, filing thousands of documents in an attempt to make it harder and more costly to run their cases – I’ve seen it before against the big companies. Unfortunately, justice, is hard to obtain… unless, like Scrooge McDuck, you have a silo full of money and you know how to dive in amongst the coins without getting hurt.
There was one discrimination case where justice was served. The ‘Coconut Case’ as I called it – in which a Fijian Indian man was called a “coconut” and then “nigger” repeatedly in a public place by his girlfriend’s brother. We won that case – it was deemed a breach of section 15C of the Racial Discrimination Act to call him “nigger” – it was motivated by race, said in public, and intended to insult, humiliate or offend. We lost on “coconut” as the judge wasn’t sure if the slur was motivated by race. He said it could easily have been a reference to intelligence – such as, “he had a hollow head like a coconut”.
It raised an interesting point about what is accepted discrimination and was is not. Race, sex, sexuality, pregnancy, are all forms of illegal discrimination enshrined in Federal Law by the Racial Discrimination Act and the Sexual Discrimination Act, and enforced by the Human Rights Commission; and in State law by the Anti-Discrimination Act and the Equal Opportunities Commission. But there are plenty of legal forms. It seems okay to discriminate on intelligence, looks, personality etc – we do it all the time. What job offer doesn’t require discrimination in choosing one candidate over another, and it is not always on their capacity to do the role in question.
When I worked in IT recruitment, I was often asked by employers to find them someone without an accent for their help desk roles. I sent them candidate after candidate of overly qualified migrants from India and Bangladesh with Degrees and Masters in IT and Computing, and wizardry knowledge of many of the programs, and they were so often rejected. And then a candidate, with half the knowledge and skill that had grown up in Australia, was snapped up. I made it my mission to find little Prabak a job – he was such a nice fella – by the time I was fired six months into the job, I had failed him and so many others.
That was illegal discrimination, cloaked in legal discrimination – ‘they didn’t have the skills for the job’, ‘they wanted to be network engineers not on the helpdesk’, or ‘they didn’t fit into the culture’. But in truth, it was a discrimination on ethnic origin, and there was nothing that could be done.
Humans discriminate every day – on what to eat, what clothes to wear, and we discriminate against people in our choices of friendship and relationships. I was discriminated against by my peers when bullied and thrown out of social groups – the discrimination was lawful – they didn’t like me because of my maturity, or I was a follower or maybe I just wasn’t much fun to be around, but it was a type of discrimination. Not as damaging as other forms, and at least I could change the way I behaved, unlike cases of race, sex or sexuality discrimination.
Ideally, we would live in a world free from discrimination. It is nice idea, like world peace, but it goes against our evolutionary development. When for thousands of years, it was an advantage: “That person is different looking to me, they may attack our village, it is best to be wary of them,” was clearly a useful tool for the survival of the village or tribe. Then we saw the advantages of trade, and of co-operation of people beyond the tribe – and that saw the sizes of groups slowly increased to states and countries. And shamefully, the Second World War saw millions upon millions die, as discrimination of nations and peoples met with weapons of mass destructive force. Without discrimination and racial prejudice, would Germany have ravaged Russia? Or attempted Genocide on the Jewish people? Would the Japanese have murdered 15 million Chinese in Manchuria? Would America have dropped two nuclear bombs on innocent civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
Thankfully, since then, globalisation has met with decreases in violence across the world – not that globalisation hasn’t caused other problems. Wars still kill too many people, and are too often fought over racial lines, which shows that the early form of discrimination vested in our tribal selves, still clings to humanity in the guise of nationalism, patriotism, and sectarian and religious violence.
The best example of the removal of nationalism from a collective conscience, may have been in the Soviet Union, when individual nationalities were subordinate to the greater good of communism, but then, as someone rightly pointed out to me: to get to that point, they sent millions of their citizens to gulags and murdered millions of others based purely on their ethnicity. The European Union is another example, and we can see how many people in Europe have raged against it. Brexit is a clear example of Brits wanting to put Britain first; it is a form of grand collective discrimination doomed to fail. But maybe one day we will see all humans as humans, as our brothers and sisters, as one living organism, like ants as they scurry across the ground in search of food for the nest.