I have been thinking a lot about prejudice. Brexit, and now the election of Donald Trump, have made me really question what prejudice is, what I experience in my life, and what it means for others around the world.
I live in a melting pot of a city. I don’t describe London as a tolerant society; tolerance implies you don’t like something but you’re not going to throw your toys out of the pram about it. It’s a diverse and largely integrated society.
I know for a fact that there are people in London who experience racism; there are women who experience sexism; there are members of the LGBTQ community who experience homophobia or transphobia; there are disabled people who experience discrimination. But in London, a vast and populous city, prejudice pretty much goes down like this:
99% of the population is fine. Doesn’t discriminate. Doesn’t care about something as inconsequential as your skin colour or accent or who you fuck or how you walk. At worst they’re unclear how to help you in a particular circumstance, or speak to you about a particular issue, in case they inadvertently do or say something you find offensive. But confusion is not the same as prejudice.
But every now and then, someone is a dick. You see it, and a lot of other people around you see it too. Sure, what the dick said or did hurts you for a time – but all those other people, they’re on your side. And the person who comes off worst in this scenario is the dick.
That’s my experience of prejudice. I see it happen, but far more often I see it not happen. When it does happen, the vast majority finds it unacceptable. And if we don’t give the words or actions of the dicks amongst us credence, they don’t have all that much of an impact.
Prejudice is something that happens infrequently, and can be shaken off.
In a city as populous as London, ‘infrequently’ can mean fairly frequently in a chronological sense, of course. Someone might experience racism once a day – but in a city where you encounter literally thousands of people every day, that’s a statistically small part of your life. That’s a different subject, for a different time.
Right now I want to talk about the sort of people who elected Donald Trump as president – a man who calls Mexicans rapists and wants to ban Muslims from entering the US. They don’t experience prejudice in the same way as I do. For these people, prejudice is pathological. They are not isolated dicks – they’re the majority. They are not challenged and ignored – they have the popular vote. The people they abuse don’t experience prejudice infrequently – they experience it habitually.
And no one wants to be the only gay (or black, or Muslim, or woman, or disabled person…) in the village, if they can help it.
So the persecuted Muslim man leaves his bigoted home town – leaving no one there to challenge prejudice and show the bigots that there are more similarities than differences between him and them and there’s nothing to be afraid of. The bigots’ lack of experience grows, and turns to a lack of understanding, then fear, then intolerance, then inexplicable anger and violence. Meanwhile the Muslim man has moved to an integrated society such as London – where his existence changes nothing – or to a less diverse community such as a suburb of Birmingham but where he is in the majority – where his existence changes nothing, and the very existence of that community seems to feeds the fears of the society he left.
But on a personal level the Muslim man feels safer and happier. And the bigots in the town he left also feel safer and happier. So it’s win win.
Only it isn’t. It clearly isn’t.
I don’t understand the bigotry of people who don’t live in an integrated society expressly because I do live in an integrated society. And this is why events like Brexit and the US presidential election have taken people like me by surprise. I had no idea how the disenfranchised masses felt. I could not and still really cannot conceive of irrational prejudice on such a massive scale. I am stunned that white middle class men – for they are the astonishing majority here – could ever feel they were being treated like the underdogs. I cannot wrap my brain around the selfish nationalism that has allowed this to happen. Here. In the US. Across Europe.
People have made associations between Donald Trump and Hitler; between Trump and various African dictators; between Trump and Putin. And with pretty good cause, if you listen to their rhetoric.
I understand that some people desperately wanted change. But I cannot grasp a desperation so deep that they would vote for Donald Trump.
But I believe that the key now is not vilifying people for their prejudices, but trying to understand where they’ve come from. Instead of building a wall, Donald Trump should be travelling through Mexico. Instead of banning Muslims, he should be sitting down and talking to Muslims.
Instead of dividing societies we should all be trying to come together.
Not all differences of opinion can be overcome. But the ones born simply of ignorance can.
If anything good comes from the current global political shift, I hope it’s greater communication. I don’t think I am alone in wanting to understand.