Much as autobiography makes for bad biography, self-appraisal makes for fallacious judgment of one’s own character. Nowhere is the disparity between that which we believe about ourselves and that which is actually true about ourselves more evident than in the appraisal of our own racism. One would think this would be something I wouldn’t need to mention given that the most disgustingly racist remarks frequently begin with the words, “I am no racist, but …” Yet our blindness to what racism is and how utterly helpless we are in our inability to see it in ourselves is in part responsible for why racism so successfully manages to hide and flourish in plain sight. We’ll never be able to help our neighbor eradicate that mote in his eye until we recognize the beam in our own.
For the sake of scope and precision I prefer to use the more inclusive term “bigotry” over “racism,” as it also covers sexism, nationalism, islamophobia, and so on. Where I live there is a common bigotry that says the French are arrogant. I can neither confirm nor deny this as I have never met “the French,” I have only ever met individual French people. In what little time I have spent in France, and I doubt it amounts in aggregate to more than a month, I have met various people who were born in France and who speak French. I liked most of them. Some of them I had no opinion about one way or the other. A very small number I did not like. I have a suspicion that I very well may have reached the same conclusions about them no matter where they were born.
The point is, the common “wisdom” that the French are arrogant was of absolutely no value to me whatsoever. It didn’t help me reach any decisions or avoid any problems, nor was there the remotest prospect that it would. It had no bearing on anything I did while in France. I can therefore only think of it as an evil thing to believe, as any predisposition to hate or judge someone before meeting them must inevitably be.
Still, as an American living in England I am frequently called upon to “represent my country” in ways I never agreed to. If someone likes Americans but doesn’t like me then I have become, to them, uncharacteristically disagreeable, “for an American.” Similarly, if someone likes me but generally dislikes Americans I am the exception to what Americans usually are. I’m not allowed, in the opinions of some people, to just represent myself, for the absurd reason that my mother happened to be occupying a particular part of the planet when I was born, and that part didn’t happen to be this part. For this reason bigotry is to me every bit as absurd as astrology, though certainly more loathsome, and makes just as little sense. Bigotry is, in essence, a malignant superstition.
This is not to say I am not a bigot. I am. But I am an unconscious one, an accidental one, inculturated to automatic, reflexive assumptions that are often bigoted, against which I must fight every day. I know this because people of color tell me it’s true, true of me and other white people. We mean well, they tell me, but we know not what we do. And I am compelled to believe them, because no one is an expert on hatred quite as completely as someone who is the continuous object of that hatred. Despite this easily confirmable fact, it is usually the white guy in the room, on Fox News or some place like that, explaining to us why Donald Trump isn’t really a bigot, or more specifically a racist, and people who claim otherwise are overreacting. I think we need to listen a lot more to victims of bigotry, women, the handicapped, people of color, foreigners, Muslims, Jews, and so on, if we want to gain better insight into our own bigotry, and we need to listen a lot less to the white so-called experts who try to minimize the problem.
Courtesy of the great twentieth century philosopher Karl Popper, there is one bigotry that we are encouraged to nurture and promote: bigotry against bigotry itself. We are free to characterize the virulent, overt practitioners of bigotry, to write them off, to lump them together, to revile and repudiate them, to label them and discriminate against them. We should and must refer to them as “you people” and “them” and speak of them disparagingly with our neighbors. That is not merely our right, it is our moral duty. The only way to defeat intolerance is with intolerance.
Donald Trump is a bigot, a racist, a misogynist, an Islamophobe, because people of color, women and Muslims tell us he is, and that should be good enough for us. For this reason we are morally compelled to be intolerant of Trump and people who support him. The victims of Trump’s bigotry have suffered all their lives at the hands of people just like him. That makes them the experts among us, and we should always listen to our experts.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.