Considering Difference and Discrimination

Identity and difference are inextricably linked. We imagine ourselves as like or unlike others and are encouraged to do this in our families, by our friends and in the cultural groups that we live in. It is as if a mirror is held up to us in which we recognize ourselves and where we belong or do not belong. So identities are formed in processes of inclusion and exclusion and our classifications tend to form binary oppositions such as: self/other; Serb/Croat; English/Welsh; woman/man; gay/straight; black/white; Jew/gentile; Muslim/Christian; working-class/middle-class; professional/manager; able-bodied/disabled; intelligent/stupid; and so on.

We locate ourselves in positions in society and take on appropriate attitudes, beliefs and feelings. In as much as our social positions are structured by relationships of inequality, discrimination and oppression these will be experienced as integral to our identities and have a ‘natural’ feel. For example, it is still difficult for women and men in our society not to experience gender inequalities as somehow natural.

Many people who have eventually recognized themselves as discriminated against or ‘oppressed’ have described their experience as being invisible except as a negative image. Ralph Ellison ([1952] 1976) for example, shows black Americans rendered invisible by being represented only through white eyes, lacking a positive identity of their own. Toni Morrison takes this further and shows how, in white American literature, a negative presence of African-Americans becomes:

… the vehicle by which the [white] American self knows itself as not enslaved, but free; not repulsive, but desirable; not helpless, but licensed and powerful ... (1993: 52).

She describes the way in which white literature constructs the African-American as a ‘serviceable other’ whose existence serves the needs, interests and desires of the dominant group. Similar observations can be made about the construction of ‘woman’ in relation to ‘man’, ‘disabled’ in relation to ‘able bodied’, ‘homosexual’ in relation to ‘heterosexual’ and so on. Each person who inhabits an identity defined by a dominant group as inferior or abnormal serves the interests of that group by providing them with a construction of what they are not.

‘Multiculturalism’, or approaching difference in an accepting or even celebratory way, does not address issues of structural discrimination. ‘Prejudice’ is a concept that focuses on individuals and whilst it is important to recognize our own prejudices and understand the psychological processes whereby we project unacceptable aspects of ourselves (‘our shadow’) on to others we also need to ask how it is generated. So working with difference also involves recognizing socio-cultural discrimination and oppression and the historical and socio-economic processes that create and maintain it. ‘Scapegoats’ can be blamed for the all the problems of a group or community and both individuals and whole sections of a society (such as Jews, Muslims, immigrants or the unemployed) can be scapegoated, particularly in times of socio-economic recession when it is tempting to seek over-simple solutions for complex problems.


List about 15 adjectives that you could use to describe yourself and consider which of these are central to your sense of identity and which are peripheral.

Which groups have you felt yourself included in and which excluded from? Think of a time when you have felt like the ‘ugly duckling’ in the fairy tale; and of a time when someone you (or your group) distanced yourself from may have consequently felt like this. If you are part of a study group you may like to read Hans Christian Andersen’s story of The Ugly Duckling and explore the feelings of the duckling as he is driven out. What do you think it is like being a member of the accepted group and what does the duckling feel when he has fledged and been accepted by the swans? You may like to role-play the story and experience what it feels like to be included or driven out. Take care to have a facilitator, as this can be a powerful experience.

With colleagues or friends explore the ways in which current government policies and media representations cast some groups as responsible for complex socio-economic problems.

References and Further Reading

Ellison, R. ([1952] 1976) Invisible Man. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Morrison, T. (1993) Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. London: Pan Books.

I have drawn on 2 of my own papers in making this contribution:

Strawbridge, S. (1994) ‘Towards anti-oppressive practice in counselling Psychology’, Counselling Psychology Review, 9(1): 5–12.

Strawbridge, S. (1999) ‘Counselling and psychotherapy as enabling and empowering’, in C. Feltham (ed.), Controversies in Psychotherapy and Counselling. London: Sage.

There is an enormous literature on discrimination. In addition to Chapter 12 you could try:

Fanon, F. (1970) Black Skins White Masks. London: Paladin.

Fernando, S. (1991) Mental Health, Race and Culture. Houndmills: Macmillan.

Jones, O. (2011) Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. London: Verso.

Plummer, K. (1995) Telling Sexual Stories: Power, Change and Social Worlds. London: Routledge.

Showalter, E. (1987) The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830–1980. London: Virago.