Almost nobody is intentionally bigoted, but basically everyone has said or done something bigoted in their life, often without being aware. That’s not a bad thing, so long as you are willing to correct that behavior; making mistakes is the most effective way to learn.
Within individual cases, accidental prejudice often manifests as implicit bias, which is the unintentional application of social stereotypes by individuals. Even if you don’t try to be bigoted, what you say can be clouded by societal perceptions. After all, humans are hardwired to pick up cues from their society, and unfortunately discrimination is no exception.
Examples of this include seeing African American Vernacular English as an inherently “lesser” or unintelligent” form of English. Due to the anti-Black racism inherent in society, almost all of us regardless of race have been socialized in some way to see this as less intelligent despite the fact that it’s just another dialect of the numerous dialects in the English language.
Another example is misgendering. Many people are taught to assume what people are based on how they appear, using gendered terms like ma’am or sir and gendered pronouns such as he or she. Nearly everyone is guilty of this at one point or another, but it’s not fair to trans people, especially those who don’t pass as one binary gender or don’t even desire to adhere to binary gender.
Unfortunately, sometimes society ingrains discrimination so deeply that an ignorant act can be completely removed from its discriminatory context in the average person’s mind. A good example is the word G*psy, a centuries old ethnic slur for the Romani people, a term used famously in the Victor Hugo novel and later Disney movie “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” It’s become so common in use to mean a free-spirited wanderer that it’s even become a name, which is a way that ethnic discrimination manifests everyday in society. A similar example of an unintentional usage of a slur happened when Cardi B referred to her daughter’s eyes with a slur against Asians, completely unaware of the connotation it had.
Just because someone does something bigoted doesn’t mean that they’re bad people, or even personally bigoted. It also doesn’t mean that if someone was bigoted in the past they don’t have potential to change. We’ve all seen cases of big name celebrities being chased off of the internet and even actual projects for saying offensive things in their past. While they still should apologize for behaving that way in the past, it’s bad faith to think someone is going to have the same beliefs they did years ago, especially if their current behavior indicates otherwise. The key is that, as previously stated, they must apologize and work towards unlearning and actively opposing that same bigoted behavior in the future.
Nobody is too far gone, from the accidentally bigoted, to the casually bigoted; even openly hateful people can unlearn their hate. Programs like Life After Hate enable former members of hate groups to unlearn their bigotry and become more compassionate, understanding people as a result.
Chances are, you’re less bigoted than a neo-Nazi. Therefore, there are other things you can do to prevent yourself from perpetuating prejudiced behavior. In cases like misgendering, it’s important to apologize and furthermore, not center your own feelings in the apology. Similarly, many white people freeze up or center themselves when they’re told their behavior is racist. Doing something racist doesn’t mean you’re bad, so long as you work against that behavior from then on. This extends to any and all discrimination; being told you did something bigoted will never feel worse than facing bigotry throughout your life as a marginalized person.
It can also help to analyze your privilege and make sure you’re able to empathize with those outside of that. If you’re middle class or above and think that people can make it out of poverty by working hard, consider how much more work it takes to get to a stable financial situation when you’re working from zero rather than working from a stable income and a safety net. If you’re a non Black person who hears someone speak in African American Vernacular English and sees it as an indicator of lower intelligence, consider why you jump to that assumption. Virtually all of us have some privilege and some marginalized identities, so it’s important to center empathy and learn to grow from your mistakes to become a more compassionate person to those around you.