Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg

What can be done against discrimination?

What is anti-discrimination work?

For people, negative affected by discriminations, they are personal experiences that can be connected to strong emotions. Individuals concerned, often experience daily access barriers, disregard of the reality of their individual life, exclusions, stigmatization, insults and violations that generate the feeling to be less worthy as a human being, to be not recognized as an individual. They keep hearing that they are “the problem” and adopt this perception.

The term discrimination stands up to this impression and marks the discriminatory behavior as an unacceptable injustice, which people affected should defend themselves against, because they deserve an equal treatment. Not the discriminated ones are the problem, but discrimination itself.

Therefore, anti-discrimination work focuses on three main issues:

  • Support and assistance of people affected by discriminations in the implementation of the law on equal treatment (protection and empowerment)
  • Awareness-raising work (prevention)
  • Effective, proportional and discouraging measures against discrimination (penalties)

The goal is to establish an anti-discrimination culture, which allows a constructive social interaction and ensures equal participation of all people. Followed by the question, which framework conditions have to be developed, so that all people can live together equally and have the same opportunities. At this, the perspectives of people, who experience discrimination, must be included. From the point of view of anti-discrimination work, it is no longer the duty of “the others” to integrate in an existing, rigid standards system, but the responsibility of everybody to create an environment together, where everyone feels comfortable and where different perspectives are appreciated and taken into account.

Who discriminates?

Discriminatory attitudes and structures are not a marginal phenomenon, but widely spread in our society. They have a long tradition and are reflected in belief systems, prejudices, ideas of normality and our language. There are people, who have never ever been negatively affected by discriminations and reproduce discriminatory behavior unquestioned, without even being aware of it.

The result of discriminatory behavior is the decisive issue, not the motivation behind. That is why people also discriminate, without being aware of it or unintentionally. Every person can discriminate, also the ones that dislike it.

What can be done against discrimination?

Developing constructive critical ability

Due to the fact, that discrimination often remains unnoticed by people, who are not negatively affected by it, it is important to listen to people, who are involved and to take their criticism serious. That can be difficult, since the word “discrimination” often creates a deep insecurity or can be even perceived as a threat. Why is that?

In our society and medial representations there is a dominating picture that only unpleasant people, who are filled with hatred and want to humiliate others, discriminate. For example: “Only the extreme right wing is racist, not the majority of society.” Since this picture of the discriminator is opposed to the self-perception of most people, many answer with defense mechanisms, as soon as their behavior is called discriminating, because they experience the designation as an accusation and offense. They answer with sentences like:

  • “I didn't mean it, you're too sensitive!”
  • “You got me wrong, but I'm not a sexist/racist etc.!”

In fact, we live in a society that goes hand-in-hand with - for example - racist power relations (e.g. the German colonial history or the National Socialism). Racist ideas are still common, even though they are after all more subtle nowadays. Defense mechanisms hinder us from recognizing discrimination, from reflecting our own behavior critically and from modifying it in the future, so that it won't hurt other people anymore.

Instead, persons concerned are blamed; they would only feel hurt, because they got something wrong. This way, they become the cause of their problem again and a constructive dialogue is prevented. If people affected experience that over and over again, it might happen that they lose hope to resist and perceive themselves as the problem. They withdraw and avoid places, where they experience discrimination. In this manner, an already existing under-representation of groups – e.g. at universities – can be maintained.  This in turn helps to increase societal exclusion and lacking opportunities of participation.

By becoming aware of the fact that our own (speaking) behavior can be discriminating and by moving away from the idea that only the “unlikeable other” can discriminate, constructive handling is made possible. By accepting criticism in a respectful way and apologizing for the pain caused, we enable acting in solidarity, because the emotions of people concerned are acknowledged and offer for assistance can be submitted, in order to rectify injustice.

Developing sensitivity and questioning oneself critically

We are all living in a society, where opportunities of participation are unequally distributed due to group affiliations. This is why everyone is part of discrimination, even if he*she is only benefiting from existing structures. In order to develop awareness of discriminations, everyone can ask himself*herself, in what way they profit from different discriminating structures or are negatively affected by them.

Supporting people concerned

In order to not leave behind people affected by discrimination, it is important to support them and to show solidarity, to remedy discriminating circumstances – even if we are not negatively affected by them in person. In that way we indicate: “Not you are the problem, but discrimination is.” When talking about support offers, we should focus on what form of support persons concerned wish for, since they are the decision makers and should be able to perceive themselves as such.

How persons concerned can be supported, we collected under the menu item: “What to do, if something happened?”

Supporting equal opportunities

Despite the individual level, there can be also something done against discrimination at the structural level. Awareness for discriminating structures and a demystified, self-critical approach to it can help developing measures, which counteract existing and unjustified disadvantage and compensate their negative effects.

At MLU, differences in treatment at the grounds of protected characteristics are only permitted, if they serve to compensate or prevent existing discriminating disadvantages. This is an objectively justified form of unequal treatment, because it serves the compensation of existing discriminations, in order to seek equality of opportunity for everyone. For example:

  • A student with dyslexia should be allowed more time to answer the questions on an exam (= concession).
  • People with disabilities are given preference over equally qualified people at a job vacancy (= compensatory measure for under-represented groups.)
  • For women in STEM subjects (sciences, technology, engineering, mathematics) mentoring programs are offered (= compensatory measure for under-represented groups.)