What Discrimination Looks Like

When you think about discrimination what do you imagine? Most likely someone without a college degree, working a less than stellar job. Perhaps someone who has been abused. Do you imagine someone with a college degree, nearly no debt, working for a nonprofit and happily able to pay their bills? Probably not. Do you think it’s even possible for that person to be discriminated against? Do you think it would affect their life?

I’d like to use myself as an example of how discrimination can hurt those who look highly successful, and how discrimination is far more pervasive than we think it is as it’s often invisible. Often, people who experience discrimination but who are doing fairly well in other areas of their life won’t report because the police and legal system aren’t stellar towards people who are in an oppressed category, and because it’s long, painful, and sometimes expensive. You never know who has been affected by discrimination or how it’s changed their life. These are my examples. I am one of the more privileged people I know, so I’m sure that nearly everyone else out there reading has more, but if I can have my life impacted by discrimination, then so can anyone else. It is a serious problem.

From the moment I entered the workforce I have experienced discrimination. The following story reeks of privilege and I understand that, but even with that reeking of privilege, I want to point out the gender discrimination that happened. When I was 16, my parents decided that I should probably get my first summer job. When my brother was my age, he had gone to work for my dad’s company. My dad worked for a company that made staging equipment, and my brother went to work in the shop doing physical labor. He was paid $10/hr. Obviously having parents who can get you a well-paying summer job is a huge privilege. I am not denying this. However when I reached the age to start working, my father made the same request: could his daughter work the same job that his son previously had? The company responded with “we don’t let girls work in the shop. It’s not the right environment.”

As some background, I was entirely physically capable of any job that my brother was. I was swimming almost 12 hours per week at the time and in incredibly good shape. There was absolutely no reason that I should be denied that job. The company didn’t even try to cover it up by saying they didn’t think I was capable of the job, they simply said that they would not hire me because of my gender. What they offered me instead was an office job paying $8/hr. Now as all of you know this is highly illegal. Thankfully, my mother is a lawyer and not someone who takes that kind of shit lightly, so she called them up and kindly informed them that they would pay her daughter the same amount of money they paid her son or she would sue their asses off. I was so lucky to be able to get a job for $10/hr, but they didn’t hire me back the next summer and hired someone for a lower pay rate, despite the fact that I was an incredibly dedicated worker at a really sucky job (data entry is the most soul-killing endeavor ever). My brother on the other hand worked for nearly 5 summers there, easily making more than I made at any other job I could get. I now know for a fact that I’m starting out my post-college life with less than he did. In addition, in college he was offered a job through my uncle’s river rafting company that a. paid well and b. was amazing. I was not offered this same opportunity despite expressing interest.

Again, I understand that these things didn’t leave me in a really bad situation. I am not homeless. I am not without a job. I wasn’t left with no way to start saving for college. However they did leave me with a significant dent in my finances that my brother didn’t have, when in nearly every other way we were identical (with the exception that I had a better GPA than he did, but apparently that counts negatively??). In the long term, these things make a difference. They limit my ability to do things like take unpaid internships. They make my current position as a VISTA a much more significant risk than it would be for him. They mean that I’ll be starting with less resources than he has, and that impacts my future. They have significantly contributed to my anxiety surrounding money. They have left me feeling like less of a person in many ways. They have impacts, even where it appears that they don’t.

But beyond sexism, and the effects of discrimination that I may be able to make up for in other ways (like be being a super awesome badass), I’m also currently experiencing some discrimination that may seriously impact my life and will likely be a lot harder to recover from. Last week, I asked my therapist if she would consider basically “prescribing” me an emotional support animal (a cat to be specific). As y’all probably know I have an eating disorder, depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and sub-threshold borderline personality disorder. One is entitled to an emotional support animal if you have a disability which affects your ability to do basic functions in your home (I would argue that the inability to eat due to eating disorder, the insomnia due to anxiety, and the lack of personal safety due to self-injury would qualify here), and if the animal will improve those symptoms and is not an undue burden to the landlord. This applies even if the landlord has a no pets policy. Cats really do alleviate my symptoms. They are incredibly helpful for soothing anxiety, they lighten my mood, they help me sleep, they calm me if I’m having a bad day or having difficulties with food, and they are really really good at interrupting purging and self-injurious behavior (seriously have you ever tried to hurt yourself when there’s a cat who keeps knocking your razors on the floor? It’s too ridiculous to even attempt).

Having this animal is important to my safety and mental well-being. In fact, it directly impacts my quality of life, my ability to function at work and at home, my health, and perhaps even my life (I don’t imagine I’m anywhere near a suicidal state of mind right now, but it’s happened before and it is a very real possibility for someone with my conditions). However when I called my landlord to run it past him, let him know that I had appropriate documentation, and make sure he didn’t have any questions, the response I got was “No, no way no how, you are being underhanded and dirty, you are an improper tenant, and you don’t get to live here if you want to have this animal that you need for your health”. This response has directly put me in jeopardy as my anxiety and anger shot through the roof. Since then I have been exhibiting some unhealthy exercising and eating practices, and it took all my self-control not to self-harm after that phone call. Looking at me, no one would know the kind of impact that this discrimination is having on me, but it is serious and it is potentially life threatening (because yes, not eating, over-exercising, purging, and self-harm are all potentially life threatening).

In all sorts of places that you would not expect, there is discrimination and its consequences are real and they are serious. For all the privilege I have dripping out of my ears, I have now been put into a seriously unhealthy position because of my mental health. I am now left with the choice of whether to attempt to manage my mental health without what would be an extremely helpful tool, or to try to go through a court battle (which I don’t have the money or time for, which would stress me out immensely, and would most likely exacerbate all of my symptoms). No matter what someone looks like or how their life appears, you have no idea how systems of power affect them. They are pervasive and intensely harmful. This is one life, one set of stories. Imagine multiplying that by all the people my age, or all the people with my mental health status, or all the women. We have not solved these problems. They are very real.

P.S. The little cutie in the featured picture is the baby that I really want to take home with me.

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