Bigotry, the herpes of white privilege

To a bigot, bigotry always looks like something else.


No one wants to be a bigot. People will twist themselves into all kinds of logical and rhetorical contortions to reframe what seem to be clear instances of animus toward a given group.

White nationalists? Oh, they’re not anti-anyone — they’re just pro-white. And, you know, pro-white dominance. But only as a precaution, in case anyone comes along who wants to dominate white people.

Anti-immigrant descendants of immigrants? See, they just want to have, you know, a country. Yet rather than directing their ire northward, to the throngs of Canadians streaming across the border and overstaying their visas — by official count the largest cohort of “illegal aliens” in the United States — they look instead to their North American neighbors to the south, those whose melanin was absorbing sunlight on this continent long before Columbus misread a compass.

Bigotry is like herpes. People who have it tend to camouflage or explain away their behavior, like an outbreak of genital warts or cold sores.

This is not a wart; it’s a stress zit from economic marginalization. That cold sore is really a leftover bruise from your brush with affirmative action, which took your spot at a good college and your steady job and handed them to some undeserving slob who was supposed to remain in the permanent underclass. What part of permanent did that cold sore not understand?

Human beings have a blind spot when it comes to their own malevolence. Rarely are people unreservedly bad, weak, selfish or unjust without some rationale, however self-serving. Bad acts and impulses need a thick coating of virtue, or at least inevitability, in order to be socially digestible. Even despots like Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot took pains to justify their atrocities as being in the national interest.

If you’re comfortable enough with bigotry to vote for a bigot who ran on a bigotry platform, why not just own it?

In the case of raw bigotry, of course, the distaste is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the United States, only a couple of generations have had it drummed into them that racial, ethnic, gender and other biases are the worst kind of taboo. And while implicit bias and micro-aggressions remain rampant, it’s a mark of progress that both have finally been named, exposed and — increasingly, if reluctantly — acknowledged.

Still. If you’re comfortable enough with bigotry to vote for a bigot who ran on a bigotry platform, why not just own it? What’s left to hide? Why is it more acceptable to vote for a bigot than to admit to being a bigot yourself?

There is no acceptable answer. Bigotry is not just an affliction; it’s a symptom of ignorance and fear. Bigots — whether hard or soft, active or passive — cling to their prejudices as if life as they know it depends on them. Because, in some measure, it does.

Too many prefer to fool themselves that the pus of white privilege dries clear with no flaky residue.

So is prejudice, or pocket, to blame for our current predicament? This is not a zero-sum game. Choosing to prioritize economic anxiety over bigotry is itself an exercise of white privilege, which in turn is fueled and sustained by bigotry. It’s a luxury to be able to dismiss statements and actions that pose no threat to you. And when, for white people of good intentions, the pervasiveness of white privilege grows wearying, when you feel defensive and overwhelmed by its ubiquity in every crevice of our social architecture, it’s a luxury to choose to ignore it, or to explain it away.

Having infected the country from its earliest origins, the herpes of bigotry is permanently embedded in America’s ganglia. It is the true culture of this petri-dish experiment of a nation. We should use what we know to strengthen the antidote.

Some try. Others seem to get off on having sores to scratch. But too many prefer to fool themselves that an outbreak is just a heat rash, or that the pus of white privilege dries clear with no flaky residue.

White privilege says: that’s quite a blister you’ve got there, buddy. There’s an ointment for it, but it stings to apply, and it may leave a mark.

Besides, isn’t the diagnosis inconclusive? Better leave it alone, see if it heals on its own.

You know. Eventually.

I'm a lawyer and global development strategist interested in corporate governance and social responsibility.