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What is discrimination?

Discrimination is a complex term. In a legal sense, discriminatory acts are clearly defined in law and can be prosecuted by law. In everyday life, however, the term is used more broadly. Even if the law is not broken, harm may be done to individuals when they feel they are discriminated against. Learners come to the classroom with their own ideas and notions about discrimination. In the toolbox, they will encounter people who have experienced different forms of discrimination.

So what is discrimination and where does it begin? Discrimination is unequal treatment based on features that are irrelevant to the situation, such as a person’s origin, religion, age, sexual orientation or gender.

‘I am not sure if prejudices are a pre-stage of discrimination or if they are already discrimination,’ reflects Medine, one of the young people who share their experiences on Stories that Move.

Prejudices and stereotypes are ideas in people’s minds, but discrimination goes further: it is always expressed in an act. The most common form is verbal abuse based on someone’s skin colour, country of origin or sexual orientation, but if you are refused entrance to a bar based on the colour of your skin or if your job application is rejected because of your sexual orientation, you are being discriminated against. There are many examples of unjust and wrongful unequal treatment.

Discrimination may be personal, but it can also be institutional. Face-to-face discrimination usually involves the behaviour or single person or a single group, perhaps a company or a school. Institutional discrimination is unjust or unequal treatment that is ‘built in’ to a social structure.

And you don’t have to belong to a minority group to be discriminated against. As a member of a majority group you may still be verbally abused on account of your origins or sexual orientation, or your age, religion or gender, so anyone may be at the receiving end at one time or another.

Learning about discrimination means understanding better the impact it can have on people’s lives. In this, empathy is important. But it is also about understanding the societal and legal norm: it is against the law to discriminate.

If your learners encounter discrimination in their lives it is important for them to know where they can turn for help or to report an incident.

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