‘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.


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.

How do you come to terms with the fact that you’re just ordinary?

I was asked “How do you come to terms with the fact that you’re just ordinary?” 

My answer is: Help others.

Very few people actually do this. That means that you’ll no longer be ordinary. In fact, you may appear to be extraordinary in the eyes of those you help. You can help build houses, give blood, raise money, visit isolated folks in nursing homes, staff phone banks. The need is literally endless.

Another possible side effect of helping others is that you’ll stop worrying so much about whether or not you’re ‘just ordinary,’ or how you appear to others. Knowing that you are contributing to the world can help you worry less about how others see you. 

Do a web search on ‘volunteer opportunities near me.’ you’re almost certain to find something that appeals to you. 

Seeing history

I’ve been thinking about how I’ve seen history at various stages of my life.

Grammar school: History is a long series of headlines & dates & names to be memorized. What happened where, & who the leaders were. 

High school: Started getting a glimpse of why things happened, & how what happened at a particular time affected what happened later. And a lot of it wasn’t because of some person doing something on purpose; sometimes things just coalesce. 

Reading after I was out of high school: Finding out about how these events affected people who weren’t mentioned in school very often, people who were treated as background canvas for the big painting described in my school history classes… & realizing I cared more about them than I ever did about the leaders. 

And, eventually, realizing how much of the story I was told in school was propaganda, wishful thinking, & covering up embarrassing details (embarrassing mainly to the men who want to be seen as wise leaders but who are, all too often, venal cowards).

One of the biggest things I learned about the stories of history is how much it means now. History is not dead. 

People make decisions now, every day, based on the history they’ve been taught. People died this weekend* because of those stories. 

I don’t have any brilliant insights to share, I’m just thinking out loud.

If there’s an insight, it might be something like: Be skeptical about what your leaders tell you. 

Care more for the people breathing with you now . . .  than about the distorted, fun-house mirror images of your ancestors as told to you by people with agendas that are (very likely) not wholesome.

I’m a sucker for a sales pitch. But I’ve been burned so many times I’ve finally started being aware of the pitch, at least sometimes. 

When someone starts getting you riled up, slow down for one second; turn aside & ask what THEY hope to gain from your anger & fear.

When you’re in an “us against them” situation, are you with the right ‘us?’ 

Learn to see the con, then think about whether the confidence scheme you caught might not be the only one being played on you. 

Of course, I’m being really grim here, on a weekend when Weekend Twitter never had a chance against the tide of sewage in the news.

I still think that trust is possible, at least between individuals, and that it’s valuable, something worth working for. 

Building trust between individuals in a world full of very subtle manipulation must be one of the biggest questions we can explore.

It’s really risky, but the alternative is isolation & paranoia, which doesn’t build strong people or strong societies. 

*I wrote the original version of this post on Aug. 13, 2017, as a series of tweets during the weekend of the Charlottesville, Virginia far-right marches and counter-protests.