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What is reverse discrimination?

The following situations are hypothetical. However, I invite you to read the following and submit your responses as comments to this post:

Scenario one


Participants in a workplace human rights workshop are provided with an overview of human rights law for the workplace. Then they are presented with the following scenario and asked to decide how they think the law applies to the situation described:

Two men are holding hands and occasionally kissing while waiting in line at a driver licensing office. A person waiting in line approaches the men calling them “fags” and telling them their behaviour is “disgusting”. The same person attempts to engage others waiting in the line to join in the demeaning discourse.

The workshop participants decide the following:

  • The behaviour violates every person’s right to be free from discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation
  • The behaviour creates a poisoned work environment for the people working in this office
  • The operator of this office (in this case the government) has a legal responsibility to intervene and demand that the person stop making the comments
  • The staff, especially managers, acting on behalf of the employer, have an obligation to intervene in this situation

Do you agree or disagree with the findings of these workshop participants?

Why or why not?

Scenario two

The following is a transcript of a conversation that took place between the workshop instructor and a participant following the exercise above:

Participant: You’re telling us that these two men have the right to file a complaint because they were offended by the other guy’s comments, calling them “fags” and whatever, right? Because they are gay, right?

Instructor: Right. Furthermore, I am telling you that the employer, the operator of this office (the government), has a legal duty to intervene and stop the behaviour.

Participant: Okay, well I’m not gay. What if I found the men’s behaviour to be offensive to me because I’m straight and I asked them to stop? They could file a complaint against me, right?

Instructor: Remember that anyone can file a human rights complaint. A complaint against you may be successful if you were being derogatory or demeaning.

Participant: So, the gay guys are protected if they are offended by people’s comments about them, but I am not protected if I am offended by these guys touching and kissing in public. “I’m tired of this reverse discrimination.”

Can you spot the major differences between the two scenarios presented?

What do you think reverse discrimination means?

Post your responses as comment to this blog entry. I will write further about the topic of reverse discrimination in two weeks. Stay tuned.

Andrew Lawson

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Andrew Lawson

Trainer and advisor at Learn Don't Litigate
Andrew Lawson is a human rights and health and safety trainer and advisor, currently consulting to both the federal and Ontario governments. Since 1996, he has conducted extensive legal research in the areas of human rights and occupational health and safety law. He has worked in the people management business for over 25 years. Read more
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4 thoughts on “What is reverse discrimination?
  • Thanks for your insights. I agree with your thought that in the arena of discrimination “things are not always what they seem at the surface level . . .” I am interested in hearing more responses to the questions I have posed in this article. Keep ’em coming!

  • Ken says:

    Everything requires context and careful analysis of our own perceptions. First, those who are in a “minority” situation are necessary left in a defensive state since their rights and recognition are always under threat. As an Aboriginal person, I can’t tell you how often I have to deal with derogatory racist remarks and outright hate speech. Even though I am highly educated and working in a professional setting, my rights and recognition of my skills and credentials is often downplayed, because I am viewed as “pretty good for an Aboriginal person.” I am fortunate to have many wonderful white friends, but for the many who do not, the temptation to become resentful and even hateful of those who belong to a group that is oppressing you (both at an individual level and systematically through institutionalized racism or discrimination) is great. So, reverse discimination on an individual level can and will exist, but it is important to understand why and have some grace. Reverse discrimination can also exist institutionally, if we are not monitoring our systems well.

    In the example, it was the language and approach used that would result in a complaint, not the sexual preference of the person whom the complaint is made against. As Kellie mentioned, the system should allow for each person to express their comfort or discomfort with a behaviour so long as it is done so consistently regardless of the genders of the pair engaging in that behaviour.

    Finally, we have the problem of perception. Things are not always what they seem at the surface level and this goes for both sides of the discrimination discussion. Often people are seeking negative behaviour on purpose to justify the stereotypes. Meanwhile, others might receive a comment that wasn’t meant to disciminate, but might very well perceive it as discriminatory (remember that survival mode I mentioned above?). Even if the student asked the couple, politely, to refrain from public displays of affection, the same way he might ask a heterosexual couple, they might lodge a complaint, assuming his motivation was discrimination.

  • Thanks for your point of view, Kellie. I invite others to express their points of view on this topic. I will summarize all your comments and provide you with some legal definitions and commentary on “reverse discrimination” in two weeks.

  • Kellie Auld says:

    Well, to me discrimination is discrimination meaning using language that is derogatory in nature or demonstrating behaviours toward others that a normal person would find to be offensive. I suppose what the student was trying to convey, when using the term ‘reverse discrimination’ is that he or she is perceiving that the majority (meaning those that are heterosexual) are being told they have to be mindful of respecting the rights of minorities and he or she feels the minority has more rights than the majority. I guess to him/her it may possibly feel that is reverse discrimination. I think the point this person may be missing is that it was the language used that was offensive toward the gay couple. I’m not so sure about the poisoned work environment other than if no one said anything to the person that made the offensive comment. I do see it being the responsibility of either the employer or employer representative to tell the name caller to stop. It can get confusing unless you really take time to think about the scenario. If I were the student in question (who claimed to be offended by the hand holding and kissing) I would ask that student if he/she would be equally offended by a man and a woman kissing and holding hands while waiting in line? If so, then discretely and politely tell the couple that he/she would prefer they not be so openly affectionate in public as it makes him uncomfortable. We all have our rights to speak up, and we need to exercise those rights respectfully rather than offensively. Just my take on it. Looking forward to the follow up.