The Counseling Center: Let’s Talk About… Understanding Discrimination

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Many of us have heard of non-discrimination policies which announce that organizations do not discriminate on the basis of sex, age, race, national or ethnic origin, ancestry, religion, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, veteran status, or any other protected classification. We often read this without stopping to consider what it means and why it is in place. Many organizations proclaim value in respect, inclusivity, and equal opportunity. And yet, discrimination continues to occur. According to the American Psychological Association report on The Impact of Discrimination, almost half the country reports significant, recurring discrimination.

What is discrimination? Discrimination is often confused with prejudice. Prejudice involves often negative pre judgment of an individual or group based on their identity. Discrimination involves negative behavior or actions towards an individual or group on the basis of their identity. Discrimination can take various forms, explicitly and implicitly, at individual and systemic levels. Examples of discriminatory behavior include threats, harassment, disparaging comments, name-calling, unfair questioning by police, being denied the right to marry, making assumptions about one’s identities, or microaggressions. Microaggressions are brief and daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults to the target person or group based on some aspect of their identity. Microaggressions are often public yet remain unchallenged. Such discriminatory behavior is not okay regardless of intent to oppress.

On a personal level, it is important to understand the impact of discrimination on one’s feelings, thoughts, behaviors, and perspective of the world. Discrimination impacts an individual’s physical and psychological well being. Common emotional reactions may include:  anger, anxiety, paranoia, fear, depression, self-blame, sadness, frustration, hopelessness, resentment, powerlessness, self-doubt, isolation, stress, mistrust, irritability, confusion, and feeling invisible or not heard. Experiencing marginalization can lead to social, economic, and academic strain due to increased difficulty with concentration, social withdrawal, struggling to have access to basic needs, and/or discomfort participating in class discussions and study groups.

Discrimination affects not only individuals but entire communities and generations. Most populations that experience discrimination do not experience it just once, but repeatedly. These populations and communities have been marginalized, pushed to the edges by being denied a voice and a place in society by those with power and privilege. Repeated exposure through individual, community, institutional, and historical traumas can lead to chronic stress and longer-term difficulties in employment, academic success, maintaining relationships, and health disparities.

These problems around discrimination and marginalization are complex and systemic. Students from marginalized groups can be the target of negative beliefs, behaviors, or judgments from others on the basis of one or multiple aspects of their identity, including but not limited to: race, gender or gender identity, ability, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, sexuality, age, and/or religion. Some individuals identify with multiple marginalized groups, and may experience further marginalization as a result of their intersecting identities.

What can we at Pacific University do? First, it is important to acknowledge the reality of discrimination and its impact. To say discrimination does not exist or to deny the impact of discrimination is not helpful. In fact, it invalidates one’s experience, essentially implying “you do not exist” by dismissing an integral part of a person’s identity. For those who do not understand these historical and current experiences of marginalization, seek out readings, classes, and events for more information. Be curious and build empathy with others’ experiences. Learn more about people, cultures, traditions, and values that differ from your own. Become more aware of your own biases and beliefs about other people or groups of people.

What are your coping strategies when you encounter discrimination? Below are some recommendations to help minimize the negative impact of such experiences. Each person finds their own ways of coping. It is important to choose the strategies that fit for you.  

Ensure Safety. When you encounter discrimination, confirm that you are safe from further physical or emotional harm. Before reacting to it immediately, you might want to take a deep breath or create a moment of silence to consider whether you want to respond in the moment or not. One option for response is to submit a Bias Incident Report Form (at with the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. Or contact a confidential space, such as the Student Counseling Center, Campus Wellness, or our campus chaplain.

Seek Support. Try not to ignore or minimize your experiences. Too often people who experience discrimination are met with expressions of disbelief and skepticism when they share their experience or misguidedly are told to “let it go.” Reach out and connect with the people who care about you and validate you. Feeling connected to your support system can help reduce feelings of stress, self-doubt, loss of control, and isolation.

Cultivate a positive identity. People who regularly experience discrimination tend to internalize those messages and blame themselves for overreacting or being overly sensitive. Learning to shift the perspective from self-blame to self-assertiveness can empower individuals with validation and worth through finding their own voice and placing blame where it belongs, on the systems of oppression. Practice responding to yourself with compassion and affirmation. Seek out positive role models and communities.

Take action. Find opportunities to become involved in social action to address oppression and marginalization through empowerment and change.

Build community. Engage with others through off-campus and on-campus groups such as the Student Multicultural Center, the Center for Gender Equity, the Veterans Resource Center, Nā Haumāna O Hawai‘i, the Black Student Union, the Hispanic Heritage Student Association, the Asia Pacific-American Student Union, Campus Wellness, the Muslim Student Association, the Rainbow Coalition, the Vietnamese Student Association, the Interprofessional Graduate Student Diversity Coalition, and more.


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