Discrimination is not the same as prejudice. For example, Racial prejudice is not prohibited by our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Discrimination in some cases is prohibited. There is a good reason for that. Robin DiAngelo makes the distinction clear in her thought-provoking book White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for White People to talk about Racism. “ Discrimination is action based on prejudice,” she says.
That’s why discrimination is not tolerated and prejudice is. It is an acknowledgement that we all unavoidably have prejudices, but we ought not to base our actions on prejudices. We have a duty to avoid such actions, even if we can’t stop such attitudes.
Examples of actions based on prejudices that amount to discrimination include the following: excluding, threatening, ignoring, ridiculing, slandering, maligning, and causing violence.
Sometimes the acts are clear-cut and obvious. When a police officer restrains a black man without any evidence that the man has committed a crime, based on a feeling that he might be guilty and wrestles him to the ground and places a knee on his neck just because he is black that is clearly bad. The officer will have discriminated against the black person if he would not have treated a white person in the same situation the same way. We will all have no trouble agreeing to that. Such a form of discrimination is easy to recognize. We are not entitled to feel great satisfaction in noticing that this is wrong.
The much more interesting discrimination is the subtle kinds. Many of us feel slight discomfort in the presence of people from certain groups. This is particularly true if we are in the minority. I suggest such a feeling is fairly natural even if it is not deserved and is based on prejudice. That is not discrimination. But if one acts on the basis of this irrational feeling, that is discrimination.
We ought to be aware that prejudice often manifests itself in action. The way each of us sees the world and people in it drives how we react to those people in the world. Here we must be careful. As DiAngelo says, “Everyone has prejudice, and everyone discriminates.” I suspect that is true. But we have to be careful to avoid this. Discrimination is always bad because it is always irrational. It is always based on a decision made before the evidence is given, or even contrary to the evidence. And if it is racial discrimination, it might be illegal as well as it might be contrary to the provincial Human Rights Code or Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But more importantly it is wrong. We ought not to racially discriminate.