Universally, those who watched the murder of George Floyd on video by the Minneapolis Police Officers are appalled! No matter your age, race, gender, nationality or religion; in that moment of horror the ugliness of what people can do to each other was unable to be overlooked or rationalized. The anger, the rage, the angst is understandable. For communities of color it was even more so! What followed isn’t as universally agreed upon and as voices diverged – trying to find a way forward becomes more difficult. However, is it a “teachable moment?”
I can’t speak for people of color. I’m not minimizing the trauma they’ve experienced. I am white, my perspective is not the same as theirs. Our struggle is how can we use our voice to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. This is true for many folks, especially whites, who believed the strides we’ve made in the last 50 years for equal opportunity in the United States meant these horrors would be extremely rare and quickly prosecuted. Therefore, for me, based on my experience and abilities as an educator and newspaper writer, how best could I use my voice? I’ve asked the Community Voice to let me use this platform to help folks more fully understand terms and concepts involved in making equal opportunity a reality. I thank them for allowing me to do so.
What is a teachable moment? It’s an “unplanned opportunity that arises…where a teacher has a chance to offer insight to his or her students.” A teachable moment is not something that you can plan for; rather, it is a fleeting opportunity that must be sensed and seized by the teacher.” My first topic is “Discrimination.”
Discrimination has multiple definitions. In context of equal opportunity, it refers to the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, gender, nationality, or other unlawful factors. Outside that context, it means “recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another.” In the context of electronics, it means ability to select a signal having a specific characteristic such as frequency or amplitude while rejecting all other unwanted signals. So, discrimination is not inherently a negative concept. Being able to select right from wrong is a discrimination or a choice that is good. But when choices are made based on illegal factors like race or gender, then the word is associated with wrong choices.
How many times have you heard someone say, “That’s discriminatory!” When said like that, the speaker is protesting that the choice made, was wrong. But we make choices all the time. And that’s okay. I hope you can discriminate when that sour cream you’re getting ready to use - is good or gone bad. What we want is for folks to understand that their choices can’t be based on illegal factors. If you based your decisions on race or other illegal factors you are illegally discriminating.
Here’s a simple formula we used to teach at the Equal Opportunity Management Institute at Patrick AFB in Florida. Prejudice + Power = Discrimination (P+P=D). Prejudice without the power to act on it makes it hard to discriminate. So, prejudice, a preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience, needs the ability (power) to act on it to be discrimination, legal or otherwise. And we all have our prejudices! For example, food choices. I may think that eating X is gross and I can choose not to eat X. That’s not illegal although it is discriminatory. X may be a perfectly fine food for others. In contrast, if my prejudice is that Y (an illegal factor) can’t do the job in my workplace and as the hiring manager (power) I choose not to hire them – that is illegal discrimination.
Next week, I’ll discuss types of discrimination to include individual, small group, intentional institutional, and unintentional institutional discrimination.
The thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are based on the author’s learning and experience. That includes serving as a Military Civil Rights Counselor/Facilitator, Senior Coast Guard Instructor and Liaison Officer at the Department of Defense’s Equal Opportunity Management Institute, Past Co-Chair International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) Diversity Committee, and Civil Rights, Assistant Civil Rights or Human Relations Committee assignments over a twenty-eight-year active duty military career. The views expressed by the author are their own and not the views of the Community Voice, the U.S. Coast Guard, or any other organizations the author references.