Racial discrimination as defined in international law is "any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life." 1

Discrimination may be distinguished from prejudice which is made up of unfavourable or discriminatory attitudes (not actions) towards persons of different categories. Racial, sexual and other types of discrimination can exist at the level of personal relations and individual behaviour as well as be institutionalised as legal or administrative policy. The term discrimination refers to modern industrial societies characterised by a generalized ideology of equality of opportunities and rights, but which exclude from them certain categories of persons, sometimes small minorities but often large and important ones or even majorities such as women.2

Discrimination is the selection for unfavourable treatment of an individual or individuals on the basis of: gender, race, colour or ethnic or national origin, religion, disability, sexual orientation, social class, age (subject to the usual conventions on retirement), marital status or family responsibilities, or as a result of any conditions or requirements that do not accord with the principles of fairness and natural justice. It can take a variety of forms and may include the following:

  • direct discrimination, for example, refusing to admit as students, employ or promote individuals because they are black, female, disabled or because of their sexual orientation;

  • indirect discrimination, for example, setting age qualifications which discriminate against women who have had periods away from work because of family responsibilities. 

Discrimination and Harassment refer to intentional or unintentional behaviour for which there is no reasonable justification. Such behaviour adversely affects specific individuals or groups on the basis of characteristics defined by the 1992 B.C. Human Rights Act. These characteristics include age, race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, political belief, religion, marital status, family status, physical or mental disability, sex, sexual orientation, and unrelated criminal convictions.

1 United Nations. The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Article 1.

2 Seymour-Smith, C. 1986. Macmillan Dictionary of Anthropology. The Macmillan Press. LTD

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