A friend of mine was recently accused of discrimination. He runs a free Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) class as part of a community project. Anyone can participate, regardless of income, age, gender or ability level. It doesn’t precisely sound as a project designed to create or perpetuate any kind of social oppression, but for a short and exciting while the Powers That Be were convinced that it was.
It all started when Social Services decided to take a Romany child to the class to facilitate his integration in the local community. Unfortunately, nobody wanted to train with him. He was left to train with the instructor, session after session, which is a bonus if you’re trying to develop mad ninja skillz but pretty awful if you’re trying to make new friends. The Social Services folk complained to my friend. He said that he couldn’t/wouldn’t ask or force other members to train with the kid. As a result, an almighty and very official stink got kicked up.
In this country, you’re not allowed to discriminate on the basis of “race including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin”. A lot of people and organisations still do it a lot of the time, mind you, but they are not allowed to do it openly. Saying that you are effectively supporting discrimination against a member of a highly persecuted ethnic group and a minor to boot is NOT something that goes down well. The result was a shitstorm.
Once everyone had finished screeching, my friend got his say. The problem wasn’t with the child’s ethnicity. BJJ, for those unfamiliar with it, is essentially a game of full-contact Twister. There is a whole lot of physical contact, and it’s not unusual for people to end up in shapes and configurations that would be frowned upon in polite society. If you want to play, you’ve got to become comfortable getting really up close and personal with every part of your partner’s body.
The kid would come to class visibly unwashed, smelling of stale sweat and urine, and often in brown-stained trousers. None of this was his fault: his living conditions were difficult and his parents weren’t providing him with an adequate level of care. It was all very tragic. Alas, for most people those considerations became secondary to a very practical issue: training with him would have meant getting inevitably covered in whatever he was covered in. People weren’t discriminating against him because of his ethnincity. They just didn’t fancy potentially ending up with their face in his shit.
This ought to have been obvious to any unbiased observer. Alas, if are poised to fight iniquity, you might end up seeing it where it isn’t. If we expect poor gypsy children to be ostracised, we risk seeing ostracism either were it isn’t, or were it is justified by the circumstances. The same applies, to racism, sexism, ageism, every “-ism” or “-phobia”. Anyone who is the odd one out in a given situation can immediately assume that they are being discriminated against if they fail to connect, to belong, or to succeed. It’s easy to explain away one’s interpersonal problems by using an “-ism” because it takes away the stigma of personal social failure. It’s not that they don’t like ME, they don’t like PEOPLE LIKE ME. What assholes!