Is Equality Discriminatory?

Today I present a thought experiment. You walk into a supermarket, fill your basket and head to the check-outs. There are several checkouts open. How do you choose which one to use? Your answer might reveal more about you than you realise. If you chose by queue length, whether it was “baskets only”, whether it was “cash only”, or even which cashier was laughing and joking with the queue, you might be attacking the very fabric of a fair society. If your first criteria was the race or gender of the cashier then you might be a true progressive: maybe the most socially responsible thing to do is pick the cashier who is a member of the greatest number of disadvantaged groups.

You might think this sounds a little ridiculous; surely equality is about not judging a person by criteria irrelevant to the situation. Yet I often encounter the same reasoning applied in other areas. For example many people, famous authors among them, say that readers who do not check the gender of authors are as bad as those who deliberately relegate female authors to so-called women’s fiction. My choice to select books based on enjoyment, useful contents, quality of prose, and other criteria relevant to the book is decried as a mistake, or even unconscious prejudice.

Even if strictly filtering my reading on the grounds of the author’s minority rather than their work were more ethical than not discriminating, where is the balance point? Do I have to read exactly to match the world’s demographic, or read a deliberately smaller sample of dominant group authors? If a group is 30% of my country’s population but 10% of the world’s population, do I have to ensure 1-in-3 or 1-in-10 of my choices are written by a member of that group?

It could be argued that deliberately seeking out books by authors who happen to be a member of a minority offers up new perspectives, but is it actually of benefit? It would be relatively easy using author photos and names to pick authors of, say, African descent: but if they are multiple-generation Europeans then do they still count as a minority voice? Is the perspective of a South African of Caucasian descent automatically closer to mine than that of the British of Afro-Caribbean descent I went to school with? I am very much in favour of experiencing multiple perspectives, but saying that the validity of someone’s perspective is different based on skin colour feels racist to me.

So, if you think I should be reading more books by women recommend good books that happen to be by women. But do not insult me, or them, by saying I should read them because they are by women; that they are somehow good because they are by women.

Do you believe not judging books by their author’s genetics is more prejudiced than positive discrimination? Do you believe arguing that readers should prioritise minority fiction is just as bad as refusing to read books by certain minorities?

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2 thoughts on “Is Equality Discriminatory?

  1. I think this is a tricky subject. It seems like the “color/genderblind” argument is universally maligned, and inappropriately so. I think it’s quite possible to just not care who writes what you read, and thus your collection of authors may not be representative in any sense. I don’t know if that’s the worst thing in the world, and certainly wouldn’t call it racist. Sure, some racists may use that excuse, but you can’t use deductive reasoning to assume everyone who does this is racist.

    I do agree that people coming from different backgrounds have different perspectives, so if you are expressly trying to broaden your spectrum of reading, it’s probably prudent to take a closer look at the author and their backgrounds. I think, as you mention, backgrounds are more detailed than their race or gender.

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    1. I suspect racists, sexists, and other discriminators do care: otherwise minority writers would not use pen names.

      I agree that people should broaden their horizons, but isn’t one of the skills of a writer to portray something that is not autobiography; if we accept that someone must be female to have a valid perspective on women’s issues (to the extent there even are issues solely for women) then must we also accept that Sarah Palin’s views on abortion are automatically more correct than John Scalzi’s?

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