1 March is the United Nations’ Zero Discrimination Day
21 March is the United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
Some special days recall victories achieved. Others name goals at which we should aim. The day dedicated to zero discrimination is clearly in the second category. A moment’s thought shows why despite our best efforts discrimination is so common. It occurs whenever we treat some people worse than others because of some quality that is irrelevant to our exchange. If, for example, someone asks us for directions to the nearest station, we should answer them regardless of their religion, their race, the school they attended, their poverty or wealth, any disability they have, the colour of their skin or their fluency in our language. If we refuse to answer some people, it will because we are prejudiced against them.
Discrimination is common because we all have our prejudices. Whenever we act on those prejudices in our relationship to other people, we discriminate against them. Because recognising and overcoming our prejudices is a lifetime’s work, zero discrimination is not a goal we can expect to achieve, but one at which we should aim both in our personal lives, in our face to face relationships, in our work and in our society.
It is easy to overlook or excuse examples of discrimination, especially if we have been brought up with the same prejudices. But discrimination can have terrible consequences. Apparently minor restrictions placed on Jewish or Chinese people in business in some nations, for example, led eventually to the burning of their houses and to mass killings.
We are inclined to ignore discrimination against others because we do not feel its hurt. Its victims do. Where societies are rigidly stratified, for example, those higher in status can assume they are superior. People of a lower status may then accept that other people are right in their prejudiced views of them, and judge themselves as unintelligent or as gifted as people of a higher status. As a result, they may fail to see or develop their gifts to their own loss and that of society.
The Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Day for Zero Discrimination are also occasions for noticing celebrating small gains. In recent years, sportspersons who have drawn attention to racial abuse have made it less acceptable to display racial prejudice overtly. Perhaps we have all become more attentive to the way in which we speak of and to others. This can be a major stop on the road to zero discrimination. Similarly, the Black Lives Matter movement has also made racial and gender prejudice unacceptable, and have empowered people who are discriminated against to call out this behaviour. In businesses, too, people who are discriminated against are much more likely to publicise this behaviour to the detriment of the companies if they ignore the complaints.
Ultimately, discrimination is unacceptable because it fails to recognise that each human being commands respect for their humanity, regardless of their race, religion, political views, gender or wealth. That is the core commitment of Jesuit Social Services in our work. For us, however, as for all human beings, that commitment is tested as our prejudices reveal themselves. Respect for all human beings entails respect for our opponents, even those whom we believe discriminate against others.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.