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prejudice

Is Discrimination Ever OK?

discrimination

My 16-year-old son came home filled with righteous indignation. (According to him), despite his being the most senior and most qualified member (according to him) of his high school play’s Costume Committee, a bunch of girls got together (according to him) to block his election as Costume Director, and elect a pair of fellow girls who didn’t have nearly his experience (according to him).

“Son,” I asked him, “can you think of a single reason—any reason at all—why a bunch of teenage girls might not want a teenage boy as head of the Costume Committee?”

“I’m always respectful,” he insisted doggedly, understanding what I was implying. “I always ask permission before I take measurements, and I never touch anything I’m not supposed to touch.”

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“But you still can’t think of any reason why you might make them uncomfortable?”

“That’s sexual discrimination!”

Yes, son, it is. 100% agreed. And this actually led to a longer discussion about whether discrimination of any kind—sexual, racial, religious, ethnic—is ever OK, for any reason?

I mentioned to him that many people will only hire female babysitters for their children. Conversely, some parents specifically advertise for a “manny” (male nanny) because they believe that’s what their child needs. Is that discrimination?

When I was looking for a caregiver for my children, I wanted a Russian-speaking one. Was I, by definition, discriminating against all non-Russian-speaking candidates? And if you posit that Russian-speaking is not a protected class but a job qualification, what about an Orthodox Jewish family who will only consider a Jewish babysitter, or a Catholic family that insists on a Catholic one, because they want the person they hire to perform specific rituals with their children, say particular prayers, or even be able to understand which dishes go where and why? Is that religious discrimination?

When my husband’s African American grandmother was in the last years of her life and needed an attendant, we noticed that she was more comfortable with African American ones. We wondered if we had a right to ask for the sort of nurse that she would feel most at ease with, or would that be considered discrimination?

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My son and I then went broader in our discussion. Based on the number of movies, plays, and TV shows they’ve created on the subject, the most horrible thing that ever happened to Hollywood was the blacklist of the 1950s, when actors, writers, and directors who were either open about or merely suspected of being Communists were fired or kept from working because studios were afraid audiences wouldn’t watch work produced by “subversives” and this would cost the production companies money. There can be no question that it was discrimination based on political beliefs. (And since the majority of the best-known victims, The Hollywood 10 were Jewish, odds are there was some anti-Semitism involved, as well.)

But is it equally as discriminatory to refuse to hire Mel Gibson after all the people he’s offended for the exact same reason—audiences won’t want to watch him because of his beliefs? What about Gary Oldman, persona non grata for defending Gibson? As a producer, is it discriminatory of me to not want to work with Vanessa Redgrave (who, for the record, I think is a brilliant actress, so my objection isn’t professional) because I don’t enjoy her opinion of Zionist hoodlums and just don’t want to be around her? What if I decline to hire Tom Cruise because I don’t want to indirectly give money to and support his personal belief, Scientology?

The conclusion my son and I drew regarding the above examples was that, yes, they are all discriminatory. But that it was OK, nonetheless.

It was OK for bosses to only hire those people who they think will make them money—and whom they want to be around. There is a marvelous financial mechanism automatically in place to punish them if said discriminatory decisions turn out to be wrong.

It was OK for a frail, sick, 91-year-old woman to want to be surrounded by people who were familiar to her—and to discriminate based on race to that end. It was OK for a religious family to want an employee of their same religion, and/or to hire someone who speaks the same language as you.

And it was OK for a committee made up of teenage girls to decide they didn’t want a teenage boy heading it, for whatever reason. (Maybe it’s not because you’re a boy. Maybe they just don’t like you. Is that better?)

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I was feeling pretty good about my parenting. An issue had come up, we’d discussed it in a mature way, historical and familial precedent was cited, my son was forced to deal with character-building frustration and disappointment, and a classical Learning Moment was had by all.

Good job, Mom.

Or so I felt…right up until the following week, when my son came home to report that he’d talked to the two girls, they’d hashed everything out, and now the three of them would share the Costume Director position, my son only tackling those duties they felt comfortable with him doing. So all that stuff we’d discussed before? Not really relevant. But thanks for trying.

Maybe I’m the one who could have used a classic Learning Moment.

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