Recently I have been in a number of conversations about the nature of bigotry. Who is a bigot? Who is not? What actions make someone a bigot? What actions should be forgiven because those making them are not necessarily bigots and when? These questions are important for a lot of reasons. Especially when we are discussing privilege and minority derailing tactics like tone policing or when we are having comparatively minor conversations about Paula Deen or Jonah Hill.
It’s a very contentious topic as, we are all aware. Whenever someone is calling someone out on their privilege blindness or worse calling someone out on a clearly bigoted statement, the privileged individual we are speaking with immediately becomes offended: “I’m not a bigot!”, “Some of my best friends are [insert oppressed minority]!”, or even “You’re the real bigot for making everything about [oppressed minority issue]!”. Whenever a celebrity makes a bigoted statement and there is backlash, many privileged people rush to discourage dissent with statements like “Everyone lay off! They have learned their lesson!”. Here’s the thing though: No, they have not learned their lesson. None of us have learned our lesson. It is just not a single lesson that can be learned at once. Society in general is bigoted and all of us make up society.
We were all taught to be bigoted in many ways, some conscious and some not. That’s right, you’re a bigot right now in some ways and you may not even know it. Yes, you. Me too. All of us. We’re all bigots. Because bigotry is not an on/off switch that one can just flip when they have ‘learned their lesson’. It is a trait that has been passed down from generation to generation and is as common these days as wearing shoes. Even minority groups have internalized bigotry towards themselves in many cases. All groups are quite capable of being bigoted towards other groups too, even if they themselves are victims of bigotry. Bigotry is a cultural norm. It is that pervasive in society. You unconsciously prefer people who are like you to people who aren’t for numerous reasons. So do I, everyone does.
And I’m sorry, but you may never get done with your lessons. In fact, it may be part of your human nature to be bigoted towards people who are different from you. Studies have been done which suggest that bigotry has at least some natural basis. Reinforced by a culture which actively promotes this aspect of human nature and you can see how difficult a problem this is. Unlearning this kind of deep imprinted way of being takes work and time. It takes a constant proactivity and it takes real work and it may never end. It’s important you realize that.
In addition, you have issues of insensitivity. Often, someone is offended but the perpetrator simply had no idea that their actions could be hurtful in the first place. You will never ever know all the ins and outs of the way in which members of groups you do not belong to operate in the world or how bigotry affects them personally. You will never know how to never unintentional hurt anyone different from you. The very best you can do is be open to continued learning and apologize when things come up.
So there is no sense in getting all bent out of shape when someone suggests you or someone else may have done something offensive or suggest you or someone else is a bigot. Whoever it is, they are a bigot.
This is something that intersectionality should have taught us and I think we all know that on some level. We know that privilege is here now in one context and gone in another in the same person. That privileges we have and don’t have are only useful in discussion in relation to the privileges or lack thereof of the people around us at the time and the specific issues being addressed. In that way, it is clear that we are all capable of bigotry. We all possess privilege over someone in some context. We all enjoy a leg up on someone. Privilege is not a points system where you get to compare with others and win or lose based on tallied scores. It is entirely contextual.
The question is: Does being offensive or propping up the bigoted status quo matter to you? For me, I have all the forgiveness in the world for those who are capable of realizing they have made a mistake and apologizing sincerely. Provided they go on to also realize that they will definitely make more and that they have to be proactive in the future in order to make good on their apology(s). I need to know someone has an understanding that unlearning bigotry is a process and not an on/off switch. I need to know someone is happy to have learned something rather than angry and defensive and/or full of explanations and rationalizations when they are called out. I need to know someone is part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
The world is not divided by bigots and good people. To me, the world is divided by bigots who are part of the problem and bigots who are part of the solution. This division of bigots and good people so harmful! It destroys our ability discuss and fight bigotry at all as all kinds of people react so strongly to any mere suggestion that they are being placed in a group we have decided is directly opposite of a ‘good person’. We all believe we are good people. How dare anyone say otherwise?
I firmly believe we would be much better off we all realized that we were all bigots and work towards the common goal of sorting out how to minimize that in ourselves as a species.
Yes, you. You are a bigot.