My first real understanding of the impact that bigotry could have was in my early twenties. Now, I’d come across other forms of bigotry, of course I had, it’s everywhere and I’d gotten a lot of hate over my lack of being a Christian from certain family members, so I did understand what it was, but not it’s impact or it’s insidiousness.
I’m Maori (the native peoples of New Zealand), but I’m also mostly white-passing, so folks assume I’m white and treat me accordingly. But a part of my Maori identity is the use of tattoos to express my deep inner identity and self. I was working as a check out operator in a supermarket while I was studying at university. And the supermarket bosses told everyone that if you get tattoos they must be hidden under the uniform or we’d get fired. So, most of my workmates didn’t know I actually had tattoos. Sometime near to my resigning for “greener pastures”, I was leaving work with a workmate. This woman wasn’t really a friend, but someone I considered to be an ally and a mostly nice person. That day I’d gotten changed after work into normal clothes so I could get to class without having to sit there in a lecture hall in my uniform. As we were walking out, this workmate noticed one of my tattoos. She was surprised and suddenly afraid of me. She said something like: “I didn’t think you were that kind of person, you’re so nice.”
I was absolutely gobsmacked. I was so shocked that I replied with “Well you never know about people.” Since that day, I’ve replayed that moment over and over again in my mind and I wish I’d said to her that I didn’t expect such a nice person to be a bigot either.
The problem was she assumed that because I had tattoos I was some kind of criminal, or some kind of horrible person or a threat to her well-being. And that by hiding my tattoos and being a nice person, I had lied about my “true” nature. This assumption that only bad people have tattoos cut so deeply into my heart that I’ve never let go of that memory, and every time I think about the nature of bigotry, I think of that moment. In her mind, I could not possibly be anything other than a bad person, simply because I had tattoos. It didn’t matter that we’d had a comfortable working relationship for two years. It didn’t matter that I’d never said or done anything horrible, if anything I’d been overly vigilant about security in my job and been accused at points of being too nice. But to her, nothing about who I really am as a person could have countered her belief that tattoos made me a bad person.
That is what bigotry is.
Now, I realize my example is pretty tame in comparison to folks who are murdered and assaulted because of bigotry. I’m lucky that my defining experience with bigotry didn’t involve any threat or violence. But it still describes in very succinct ways to me exactly what is wrong with bigotry.
Bigotry is the assumption of threat in a person based not on what kind of person they are, but some descriptor, like tattoos, or race or age or religion or gender identity, sex, sexuality, nationality… the list goes on. It’s the assumption of the nature of someone’s moral fiber based on something that is not their actual moral fiber.
Another more current example is this whole bathroom issue in the US for and against trans folk using bathrooms. The biggest issue that people have against people using the bathroom of their gender identity instead of their sex is that it enables rapists to go into women’s toilets and commit assault. It’s bigotry because these people are assuming that because someone is a trans women they must be a sexual threat to others, when in actual fact a vast majority of (if not all) trans women just want to pee. This assumption is also sexist towards men because it’s assuming that all men, by their nature, are also a threat to women.
Bigotry is assuming someone’s moral nature is bad not because of actually being a bad person, but because they’re a part of a particular population. It’s about the assumptions made of people, and ignoring their actual reality and individuality.
The only real solution to bigotry is to educate oneself, and to look at each and every human being as a human being, first. To resist making assumptions about a person’s nature, or an entire group’s nature, before getting to know them.
It’s hard to not immediately rely on our assumptions when meeting people, particularly if you’ve had bad experiences with a certain group, but we are all humans, and to er is to be human. All we can really do is our best. Maya Angelou said: “Do your best, and when you know better, do better.” And that’s how I try to approach the world, I think if more people did this, it would be a kinder world.