‘Bigotry’ vs ‘Racisim’

If you’ve ever wondered why some folks differentiate between the apparent synonyms ‘bigotry’ and ‘racism,’ here’s why I make that distinction: Anyone can be bigoted, but racism is built in to our social structure.

My guess is that most adults have some strain of bigotry in them, controlled or not, recognized or not. This isn’t to excuse ourselves. I believe that I have a responsibility to recognize my own bigotry and to try to overcome it. I hope that most people feel the same way.

Here’s how bigotry is defined:

  • n. The attitude, state of mind, or behavior characteristic of a bigot; intolerance.
  • n. The character or mode of thought of a bigot; obstinate and unreasonable attachment to a particular creed, opinion, practice, ritual, or party organization; excessive zeal or warmth in favor of a party, sect, or opinion; intolerance of the opinions of others.
    (https://www.wordnik.com/words/bigotry) “

Here’s how racism is defined in the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition:

  • n.  The belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others.
  • n. Discrimination or prejudice based on race.
  • n. The belief that each race has distinct and intrinsic attributes.
  • n. The belief that one race is superior to all others.
  • n. Prejudice or discrimination based upon race.

    https://www.wordnik.com/words/racism

Based just on the dictionary definitions, you could say that racism is a particular sort of bigotry.

However, when I talk about racism in America, I’m usually talking about institutional racism or systemic racism, where things like laws, social norms, corporate regulations, habit, convenience, and tradition lead to discrimination against Black people (see also: systemic misogyny).

Systemic racism is based so much in the foundations of American life as to be invisible to white folks here. I’m guessing that it’s a lot less invisible to Black folks.

This kind of racism can lead to situations where individuals with no ingrained racial bigotry can unknowingly support highly racist structures. These individuals would probably be outraged if anyone pointed it out to them. “I don’t hate Black people,” they might say or think. “How on earth can anyone call me racist?”

I used this example recently when discussing this topic with an acquaintance. Imagine a law firm where every lawyer is white. You look at the corporate bylaws, and see that there is nothing obviously racist there. You listen to the conversations among the lawyers, and none of them say obviously bigoted phrases. So; where is the racism?

Then you look at the hiring practices of the firm. They tend to select recent graduates of certain colleges. Those colleges in turn select students mainly from certain high schools, which all tend to be exclusive private schools in wealthy towns. The hiring managers also rely heavily on recommendations of current and past members of the firm.

The entire selection process may as well be a ‘white filter’ that leads almost inevitably to the situation you see in the firm; no diversity at all. The various levels of this filter (town, school, college, legacy hires) were very likely set up by bigoted people with very strong biases toward helping along only white students and white graduates and white job candidates, possibly so long in the past that no one now remembers them. But their influence is as strong as the concrete and granite foundations of the elite schools they founded.

If you’re ever confused by something about racism you see on social media, for instance seeing someone write that ‘Black people can not be racist,’ when you’ve personally known bigoted Blacks… It’s likely that the writer is using the word ‘racism’ the way I’m defining it in this post.

Feeling Overshadowed

I responded to the question “How does one stop feeling bad and overshadowed by everyone else?

“If you are learning something difficult, try not to compare your progress with that of other students. It doesn’t help you, and only fosters a false pride or a false discouragement.”

I wrote that statement a last year, while thinking about an incident that had happened a few weeks earlier. I had been training in a martial art for the last three years. I’ve been struggling, because I’m not naturally athletic, and I’m somewhat hapless and clumsy (and have been most of my life). I consider my progress to be slower than most students, and I’ve come close to giving up several times.

In early September last year, I traveled with our instructor and several other students to a weekend event in another state. At the event, I worked out with a person who was perhaps 15 years younger than I am, and based on how much they were struggling, I guessed that they had been practicing for six months or so.

While we were training we chatted quietly, introducing ourselves. I asked them how long they’d been at the training center, and they told me “six years.”

I was startled, but instantly had a feeling of pride that I was so much stronger in the art than they were, and in only about half the time. A few days later, I was thinking about this conversation and remembered a young woman who trained with us for a few weeks. This woman picked up everything she was taught almost instantly. Within three weeks of starting, she was doing better than I was. She remembered all of the techniques, her movements were fluid and well defined, and she never even seemed to be struggling. After less than two months, she stopped coming to class because the art didn’t interest her enough for her to work it into her busy schedule.

I remembered how discouraged I was when I had compared myself to her, for whom everything I struggled with came so easily.

That is when I realized how futile it is for me to compare myself with others. The fact that I am ‘better’ than one person, but not as skilled as another, doesn’t have any effect on my progress.

I don’t know what you are feeling overshadowed in, whether it’s something you’re learning, something you’re doing for work, some sort of sport, or whatever other activity, but let’s say it’s a topic you’re studying.

Think about these questions, and consider how you would answer them:

  1. Why are you studying this topic? (whatever it is you’re feeling overshadowed in). Is it to be “the best” at it, or is it for work, or for personal satisfaction? In my case, I realized that I’m studying this art for my own improvement. There are no awards for being better than anyone else. Even if there were, I’m not very competitive, so that wouldn’t interest me. When you’re tempted to compare yourself (which you are probably doing at some level, or you wouldn’t be using terms like “overshadowed by”), remind yourself of your true goal in studying the topic. It’s probably not to be “the best” (however you define that), so, honestly, why does it matter if someone else is better at it than you are?
  2. If no other person in the world knew you were studying this topic, would you keep studying it? Answering this question may help you understand your true motivation. If you’re secretly hoping for recognition, you may discover that recognition isn’t a good enough goal to keep you moving forward. Or you may discover that recognition isn’t really all that important, and that you have deeper motivations that will sustain you through the inevitable rough stretches everyone has when they’re learning something new.
  3. How would your life be different if you were no longer overshadowed by others? Would you feel more courageous, or more determined in your efforts, or would being on the top of the heap somehow help you learn faster?

At some point, it may occur to you, as it has to me, that comparing yourself to others doesn’t help you learn better or practice more. Say that you discover yourself in a group of ten others all studying the same topic. After comparing yourself, you realize you are the “top dog” among this group. The next day, you find yourself among another group, all of whom are better than you are. On day one, you feel strong and encouraged, but on day two you feel discouraged and beaten down. But guess what? You haven’t changed between day one and day two. Your skills weren’t better yesterday but somehow worse today.

The comparison hasn’t helped you improve. In fact, feeling overly adept yesterday might make you relax and stop trying because you’re clearly awesome, but on day two you might want to give up training forever, since you’re so bad compared to these paragons around you. If feeling overshadowed is making you glum, try your best to stop comparing, and just focus on showing up and practicing with focus.

I won’t pretend to understand what drives people like top athletes to be the best in the world. I’m not interested in being “the best” at anything, and I’m not sure how my quality of life would be better if someone declared me to be “the best” at something.

If you are willing to consider my advice, it would be this: find something to do that gives you personal satisfaction and dive into it. Do it for its own sake, for your own sake, and because you love it, not because you can be better than someone else at it.

I suggest to you that if you adopt this attitude, of doing things because they are interesting, or fun, or challenging, you’ll have a happier, more satisfying life than if you spend your time worrying about how you compare with others.

Boredom and Awareness

I responded to this comment: “I feel like I need to try something different every day. I get bored easily when I do the same things all the time. How do I overcome this?

Pay attention to one boring thing each day. If possible, pay attention to the same thing each day.

Really pay attention.

Watch every single aspect of what you’re doing. Say you’re washing your cup and bowl after breakfast. Don’t try to pretend that washing your bowl is the most important thing you can do, or that washing your bowl has great meaning. Just pay attention to it. Look at the shape of the bowl and the cup. Someone had to design every single aspect of each of them. They may be beautiful in and of themselves, but perhaps their beauty has escaped you before, or you once noticed that they are beautiful (say: when you were purchasing them), but you’ve forgotten to notice lately. The water & the scrubbing pad or washcloth have temperature and texture. You are breathing. There is so much to be aware of during the two minutes it takes to do this one chore. The chore is part of your life, and your life is valuable, so this small space in the morning also has some value. By paying attention to it, you’re becoming aware of the value.

Maybe you will not see a change right away, but I can pretty much guarantee you that if you pay close attention to this one chore every day, your perceptions will change. Over years, you might even change, perhaps a lot, by learning to see the value in this one small span of time in your day.