Objective discrimination vs “Experienced” discrimination

If you had asked me 10 years ago if I had ever experienced discrimination, I would have thought for a few seconds and said no.

As my education in social sciences along with interaction with the political sphere increased, I began to re-think past events and find patterns of discrimination that came from various sources; this discrimination had not been felt at the moment it was being directed against me. In other words, I began to integrate the presence of discrimination in the process of choice of actions and behavior. Through this process, I underwent what in sociological literature is termed as “biographical reconstruction,” in the sense that I began to see my life as being governed by the fact that I am both “brown” and a “woman,” two facts which were not important to me before.

This observation has led me to think two aspects about the nature of discrimination. These two aspects are separated in time as pre-enlightenment and post-enlightenment in relation to the directed discrimination:

  1. The pre-enlightenment period: This is the period when one is consciously unaware of the discrimination being directed to oneself. Objectively speaking, the discrimination does exist in the human relations. Yet, considering the lack of awareness of discrimination, one does not consciously integrate this presence in deciding one’s actions.
  2. The post-enlightenment period: This is the period when one becomes aware of the discrimination being directed to oneself. It is not static; rather it is a process. The presence of discrimination is taken into account while choosing one’s actions.

The shift from pre-enlightenment to post-enlightenment is marked in the identity of the person. The parts of social behavior or appearance that the “post-enlightened discriminated” individual feels as being the target of discrimination suddenly become central to governing the individual’s behavior.  The social fact of being “brown,” for example, suddenly became predominant in my choice of dressing, the food I would consume, the political views I would adhere to, etc. I am also more prone, in general, to identify events that might not contain “objective discrimination” targeted against me as containing discrimination. Hence, I am prone to experience more discrimination than that which might actually be targeted, objectively, against me. This in turn implies that my response to non-discriminatory relations might, in some instances, be one that would have been if it was, indeed, a discriminatory one.

Now, my question is, how does this re-naming of a social relation/ action from my side as discriminatory affect the individual or institution with which this relation is made? Does my naming of a relation as discriminatory make it discriminatory over time? How does this affect the individual or institution whose non-discriminatory relation or action is interpreted as discriminatory?

My other set of questions pertain to how other minority individuals, who face objective discrimination and undergo enlightenment, shift in behavior and meaning-making of everyday interactions? Is there a bias to exaggerate the number of discriminatory interactions? If yes, how does this change the aggregate perception of discrimination? How does this change group action of those who see themselves as target of discrimination on similar grounds (specific shade of skin colour, gender, nationality, religion, etc)?

My third set of questions focus on the difference in the effects: how to account for discrimination when it objectively exists but is not “experienced”? Is there a change in how one chooses one’s actions when one is not aware of the discrimination being directed as us? Does this change the degree to which the discrimination affects outcomes, for example, in opportunities and outcomes of these opportunities?

If you have any answers, I would be happy to know!


About Shreya Parikh

I am Shreya. Project Rethought is my attempt to rethink my own observations as a brown woman of Indian origin. I currently live in Paris where I teach at Sciences Po Paris and Parsons Paris-The New School.
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