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To improve society, start by looking at the world through a minority group's eyes

1 July 2020




The way we experience our country depends in large part on our background and our identity. The opportunities afforded to us, and the rewards we receive, vary accordingly. The way the world appears to one person may be very different to the way it appears to their neighbour or colleague, particularly if one belongs to the majority culture and one to a minority culture or group.

An important challenge for minority groups is to get the majority to see the world through their eyes.

When minority groups fail to achieve this, emotions often boil over into anger. But when they succeed, which is no easy feat, it is a time for celebration.

Three weeks ago, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision that was an occasion for such a celebration. The court, by a 6-3 majority, ruled that you cannot be fired for being gay, bisexual or transgender in America.

The decision concerned three cases: a skydiving instructor who was fired after he told a client he was gay, a child aid worker who was dismissed after joining a gay softball league and a funeral home director who was

The US 1964 Civil Rights Act outlaws discrimination in the workplace on the basis of race, colour, religion, sex, or national origin. There has been uncertainty around whether "sex" encompassed sexual orientation or gender identity.

The US Supreme Court found a simple way of dealing with the issue. Put simply, the majority held "an employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex".

Think about a man and a woman working for the same employer, both of whom are attracted to men, but are essentially identical employees in all other respects. If the employer fires the man for the sole reason he is attracted to men, it is discriminating against that man for traits or actions it tolerates in female colleagues.

Similarly, if one employee was assigned male at birth but now identifies as a female, dismissing this employee for that is penalising the employee for traits and actions the employer tolerates in its staff who were assigned female at birth.

By that reasoning, the existing discrimination law protected LGBTQ individuals in the US from discrimination. Put simply, you cannot discriminate against somebody because they are gay or because they are transgender.

In New Zealand, each one of the three employees considered in the decision would probably have a case against their employer. The New Zealand Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination on a number of grounds including sex and sexual orientation.

This means that you cannot treat an individual differently because of their sexuality or gender identity, including when it comes to employment, or even pre-employment processes.

This has been the case since 1993. The act precludes discrimination on other grounds, too, including age. Recently, in Perry Morris v Sharda Transport Limited, Morris was found to have been discriminated against when his employer dismissed him by saying he was looking for a "fit young person" in his place.

One key objective by minority groups to strengthen their position in society is prevention and protection from discrimination. However, discrimination laws only go so far.

A recent report found that LGBT New Zealanders continue to suffer widespread discrimination in New Zealand, despite there being laws in place to protect them.

Then there is the most poignant example of this issue - the death of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement that has called for action and change for Black people facing police brutality and racism across the globe. Black Americans are protected from discrimination on the grounds of race under US law, but this has not prevented the widespread issues that have prompted protests across the US and the world.

Floyd's death unleashed a collective wave of anguish and demands for American society and lawmakers to see the world through the eyes of the Black community. This anger ricocheted across the world prompting calls for broader change - such as removing colonial or civil war era statues, and changing product branding that was based on outdated stereotypes. New Zealand has seen calls for such change on its own shores.

No doubt there is much more work left to be done. The journey of history is slow and painful. Ideas that were once accepted or even celebrated may now be cast out as unacceptable by society at large.

A good starting point for healing and change is for those of us in the majority culture to look at the world through the eyes of minorities who are discriminated against.

The US Supreme Court decision on LGBT rights is an example of a step in that process. Six judges, two of conservative disposition, looked beyond their own world view and interpreted a 1964 law in a way that reflects social realities and addresses historic injustices.

Important victories such as this will encourage those minority groups seeking to reclaim their dignity and worth. A decision to be celebrated.


Cullen - The Employment Law Firm was one of the first eleven law firms in New Zealand approved to provide employment law services to Government and the public sector.


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