IDEOLOGICAL change takes time. It can’t happen overnight. There is no switch to flip, capable of transforming one state to another if it wasn’t ready already threatening change. You cannot simply elect a person and consequently turn the world racist.

It’s comforting to believe the face we put on society is a state of natural beauty. One where inequality is abhorred, injustice railed against, where good prevails and the meek inherit. These are the stories we tell to make ourselves better, to shield us from the things that would disrupt our days. Choosing to believe we inhabit a just world gives us permission to live passively. We watch, we lament, we move on.

Ideas take time, but one person can tip the scale. Their words prick the skin encasing the horrors, letting them leech out into the world. One person can venture what others dare not, and appear to shift the mood in an instant. This is not speedy contamination, but the confirmation of something that already exists. Trump and Brexit have not made people racist — they’ve merely tested the water and beckoned this shy sickness into the safe space they’ve made. Racism is ubiquitous. It goes deep. It runs all the way through, like lettering through rock. However you cut through society, it’s there. Many just choose not to see it.

On Twitter, a 2016 Daniel Radcliffe interview surfaces, acknowledging racist friends, illuminating the silent complicity that makes space for toxic ideals. In talking about white supremacists, he outs himself as a bystander, considering himself — as we all do — far from the shadowy figure of the racist. It’s an acknowledgement of the system and the inaction that perpetuates it. He, like so many, is having trouble in the hermeneutics of racism. It shows up and we don’t see it. Why take the time to look when privilege shields you from it?

Herein lies the trouble with our representations of “the racist”. We want an identifiable evil in something that knows stealth. It can be selectively hidden and difficult to spot. People contain multitudes. They are capable of bad things and the simultaneity of a normal life. No one person can possess it fully, nor embody it entirely. In the course of each day, each year, a whole life, there will be enough counterpoint to test the barometer’s assessment. A cracked pot still looks sound from almost every angle, not revealing the fundamental fault without rigorous inspection. Depending on the vignette, different conclusions will be drawn, consciously or unconsciously. “He’s not a racist, he’s my friend.”

We want something simple and overt to denounce. Racism is complex and a master of subtlety. Racists walk among us. They are us. She’s not just the shaved head and the jack boots. He’s not just the swastika tattoos, the white hood, the trigger-happy cop. The racist makes a casual joke. The racist permits a slur. The racists hands free passes to the mates, aunts, the drunk guy on the train. The racist laughs along, keeps schtum, minds their own business.

The racist is a shapeshifter, as racism is a liquid thing, capable of different permutations, of adapting to fit the conditions. It is not locked into a universally observable state. Thoughts are private. Words selective. Company assessed. Prejudice runs for cover under threat of exposure, growing bolder when the coast is clear, veiling itself in exceptions and excuses.

The racist does not see himself in the representation. There is no magic mirror to consult, to affirm or deny the questions of self, to make verbal the introspection and offer it up to challenge. Our mirror lies in the experience of those at the sharp end of injustice. Words time and again we choose not to hear. We create a filter to shield us from our own complicity in brutalities. A white cop killed a black man today. Noise. A white man shot an unarmed black boy. Noise.

Children are taught to think along binaries. We nurture this simplicity even as we’re taught that the accumulation of degrees changes the angle. We name what we’re sure of. The problem is that so much of what we think we can name exists outside of our view, in the shadows of a normal life. In these dark corners we maintain, our private thoughts and feelings, we can grow hate without noticing. A bad experience, an anecdote, a revisionist history – all can lay down invisible roots, undisturbed, in the quiet solitude of the ordinary mind. Our ideas are ours alone. If we don’t say them out loud, no-one can challenge them directly. Inequality is so hard to shift when it shapes how we view the world. An innate understanding and excusing of it lies in all of us, in different ways.

We grow up with a sense of right and wrong more akin to the rhythms of a fairytale. Unquestionably good, undeniably evil. This training of the eye starts early, though a training of the heart is necessary to make better distinctions as we grow and move through the world. We have to learn to separate the value from the person, to consider both separately and then together, and never to substitute one constituent part for the whole. A good husband. The quiet woman. Never that and a bit racist. Never that but a bit of a homophobe. The single story of a person is misdirection, permitting us not to notice anything that counters that seductive simplicity.

Fairytales by their nature should attune us to spotting the extreme. They teach the child to draw lines in the sand, to form judgments and values that put things unequivocally in their place. Nuance comes later, but is rarely applied as it should be. We’re still looking for the dark mark, the aposematism of the human race that helps us sort the good from the bad. We want an aesthetic of racism. Something to recognise, something clear and distinct that prompts us to act. Something that absolves us from having to speak up or ditch our problematic friends.

WE are looking for the villain. The ideas that harm so many are not easy to spot because they don’t contour the face or twist the spine. They live in the hearts and on the lips of ordinary people. Dark ideas are easily cloaked, and in their easy cloaking, we permit ourselves not to try and find them. We convinced ourselves that we’d point them out if confronted, but we never do, because we look without seeing. We’ve taught ourselves to glaze the eye in the presence of injustice, to gaze through hate because it’s easier than confrontation. Radcliffe has done what we all have: distanced ourselves from the extreme, failing to see how we’re tethered to it.

The boy wizard makes headlines as he hits out against Hollywood’s racism, oblivious to the consequences of his acceptance. No news outlets pick up the dog whistles, the meaning that reveals itself to people of colour in the looseness of his words. Of course they miss it. Dismissal of systemic racism’s existence is the very reason it continues to exist. Our allowance of the casual instances gives racism breathing room. We create the conditions to incubate ideas through inaction. No-one is born racist. It happens over time, where planted seeds are given nutrients and growing room, fed by silence, by dismissal, by making excuses for others, by calling them “friends”.