I am a self-confessed racist. If you think that means I should not be writing in a Catholic magazine, I would remind you that you are a racist too.

I discovered this descending some narrow stairs on the Tube. Coming up was a West Indian, so I stepped aside to let him pass. And I felt good about it. Why? Because it confirmed my self-image as a liberal, high-minded person who was tolerant towards those of a different race. And you can’t get more slimily racist than that.

Of course we know that there are provocative areas such as anti-Semitism; we avoid those with great care. Yet that extra degree of care is in itself racist. When those who wish to be critical take pains to emphasise that their remarks are anti-Zionist and not anti-Semitic, they may be being sincere or they may have convinced themselves about the purity of their motivation despite their latent feelings.

But it’s broader than that. When different nationalities spring to mind – say, Italian, Irish and German – are they accompanied by characteristics which, if we are not careful, give us a convenient background against which to form our judgments? If you have ever said of someone “typical Italian”, you are racist.

But it’s broader than that still. Psychologically similar are any automatic reactions to identifiable groups. For the young, it may be the old dodderers who have lived too long and disproportionately use up our resources. For the dodderers, the young are the ones who immaturely reject values which our great wisdom assures us are essential. And let’s not forget class – as George Bernard Shaw wrote in Pygmalion: “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him.”

We can extend this into detail. Why are taller men more readily promoted than their shorter brothers? Why are the bespectacled thought to be more intelligent than the clear-sighted? Why are the attractive less likely to be found guilty in court and more likely to get higher damages when they win a civil case? Why are we more prone to believing someone with brown eyes rather than blue eyes? Why do those with foreign names get fewer professional job interviews? Such irrationalities, and many others, have often been documented.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection