The word "discrimination" carries in itself a negative connotation, implying that it would be unfair or unethical.

There are however, cases where "discrimination" would be justified and no one in their right mind would find the situation unfair. I'm not talking about lack of qualification (If I'm hiring a driver and I refuse someone for not having a drivers license, it's not discrimination), but about cases where the decision is made solely on ethnicity, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, marital status or similar attributes, and could indeed be discriminative in a different context.

For example, in a movie about Napoleon the lead actor cannot be black, or a woman, etc. because he has to look similar to Napoleon. For a religious institution, or an organization of people of a certain political, ideological or social affiliation etc. it is also not unexpected to employ only people who belong to their group. I cannot become a rabbi if I'm not Jewish, and cannot become a Catholic priest without being Catholic. There are other similar cases where attributes which should not be considered a factor for an average job (like a factory worker) can be a factor and it's not unethical or unjust to discriminate in its case.

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    Discrimination doesn't have to have negative connotations. In fact, the "negative" reading is not even the first one given by the dictionaries I checked just now.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 13:37
  • @Robusto : maybe it's a recent trend then? One cannot read a newspaper or an internet forum nowadays without the word "discrimination" screaming from every other article, always in a negative connotation. I mean, in casual reading I don't even remember having seen the word "discrimination" outside of a sentence when someone accuses someone else of discrimination - justified or not it's not the question, as the one using the term intends to use it in its negative connotation. The only exception I remember was scientific articles, but there the term wasn't used on people.
    – vsz
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 13:42
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    Policies against discrimination typically specify illegal discrimination as prohibited.
    – GMB
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 13:48
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    The argument could be made that we live today in a society in which people strive to be politically correct, so as not to offend anyone. Frankly, I think that some people need to be offended, especially the overly politically correct! Hey, I'm not a big fan of Mexican cuisine. Am I engaging in discrimination? Well, yes. I have a discriminating palate. Food for thought. Don Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 14:17
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    @Robusto: 'Discrimination doesn't have to have negative connotations.' This has been discussed here before; the word has negative connotations because some people pick up those vibes. It is a subjective matter rather than a matter of what enlightened people might prefer. However, that doesn't mean that the word shouldn't be used with non-negative intent, in an attempt to re-educate. If it is felt necessary to play safe, one can use 'discriminating' which as an adjective is often felt to refer to a laudable attribute. Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 21:58

9 Answers 9


I think differentiation may convey a more neutral meaning:

1. a. The act or process of perceiving or showing a difference.

b. The state of becoming differentiated.



The term for a "legitimate" ground for discrimination is "bona fide occupational qualification" (BFOQ). That is, you need to "discriminate" in favor of someone who can actually do the job.

Regarding Napoleon, he can't be "female," or too dark, or too TALL.

  • It appears that Bonaparte stood 5'6", which while hardly tall, was not all that short in his day.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 12, 2014 at 2:01
  • @tchrist: I guess you could use someone 5' 8" (below average height today, average in 1800), but a "six-footer" probably wouldn't do.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Oct 5, 2014 at 20:04

Try distinction, which dictionary.com defines as:

  1. a marking off or distinguishing as different:
    His distinction of sounds is excellent.
  2. the recognizing or noting of differences; discrimination:
    to make a distinction between right and wrong.
  3. a discrimination made between things as different; special regard or favoritism:
    Death comes to all without distinction.
  4. condition of being different; difference:
    There is a distinction between what he says and what he does.
  5. a distinguishing quality or characteristic:
    It has the distinction of being the oldest house in the town.

People are often praised by referring to their discriminating taste or their ability to discriminate the truth from all erroneous information. It seems to be pejorative only when referring to people or their cultural mores. It remains a useful word when wishing to express a negative aspect. As a positive or neutral expression, I like to draw a distinction based on consideration of all relevant factors.


I would go with exclude. For example, "Non-white people are excluded from Napoleon auditions because Napoleon is a historical character and was white." However, I'm not sure why you'd need this word for your examples since you are saying the actor must be white, or the priest must be Catholic, as opposed to the actor must not be black, or the priest must not be Jewish. You are right, however, that the word discrimination when specifically used to exclude a group or groups does mean unfair exclusion.


The term "selective" comes to mind, as does a list of its synonyms:

discerning, discriminating, discriminatory, critical, exacting, demanding, particular; fussy, fastidious; informal: choosy, persnickety, picky, finicky

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    What does informalchoosy mean, and where did you get this list from?
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 11, 2014 at 22:23
  • I tried to edit this. He just needs a space between informal and the examples choosy, etc. Edits have to be 6 characters or more.
    – Theresa
    Commented Oct 5, 2014 at 3:33

Biased sounds less harsh although the meaning is the same, or very close.


The concept sounds like congruence. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, it means

Agreement, harmony, conformity, or correspondence.

In your construct, there must be agreement or correspondence between certain critical characteristics of the individual and the role to be played.

But, understand that what characteristics are key many vary over time, place and culture. Many positions within religiously affiliated entities do not have adherence to that religion as a job requirement (although they may in the past). Whether an actor has blond hair or black hair may matter to people who knew the character being played, but not to others. The ethnic appearance of images of religious figures may change over time (consider the northern European features of Jesus in many paintings). Does it matter if African Americans are among the townsfolk in a western film, even if there actually were none in that vicinity at the time (assuming their ethnicity is not a key story element)?

  • @jwpat7 I need to work on sloppiness (and apparently quality of answers)
    – bib
    Commented Jul 12, 2014 at 0:09
  • Actually, sloppiness is already pretty easy to do, without working on it more. Commented Jul 12, 2014 at 3:13
  • @jwpat7 Yes, but I want to raise it to an art form.
    – bib
    Commented Jul 12, 2014 at 11:14

One can filter or sift through inappropriate attributes.

The list of answers varied greatly. However, after filtering the list for the terms requested, and the context desired, the OP selected one question as an accepted answer.

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