Sometimes my White friends who are learning about anti-racism will get frustrated because their efforts are not always fruitful and because they continue to make mistakes. Here they are, slowly learning and examining themselves, and they say or do something with good intentions, and someone like me comes along and tells them that while the effort is appreciated, the end results are still problematic. It can be deflating and it’s common to see people throw up their hands while exclaiming that it seems they can’t do anything right.
I don’t experience these feelings or thoughts very often anymore, and I have to remind myself that most of my White peers haven’t had the same personal experiences nor the time committed to anti-racism principles as I have had. This doesn’t mean I am better than any of them, it only means that I have been doing this longer and have developed – over time and after messing up A LOT – a different perspective on critique that comes my way related to my White privilege.
One of the things often explained in anti-racism writings, trainings and conversations is that we are going to make mistakes. We are always going to make mistakes.
WE ARE ALWAYS GOING TO MAKE MISTAKES.
This is something that can be easily understood, but no matter how well we know it intellectually, it doesn’t feel like something inevitable when it happens. It feels terrible – at least it usually did, to me. Knowing that I am bound to make mistakes forever doesn’t stop me from feeling remorse when I realize – or have pointed out to me – that I have derailed a conversation, or have made an assumption about someone or their identity, or when I make a joke I think is funny which is offensive or hurtful to someone else. But knowing I am bound to make mistakes forever does help me recover from that guilt and disappointment in myself, and it does help me get back on my feet, brush off the dust and get back on the path toward my goal: combating racism.
There is actually some freedom in knowing I am never going to “get this” exactly right. I don’t have to hold myself to a standard of perfection because everyone knows I will never attain that standard anyway. So why is it still so mortifying when I/we mess up?
We certainly have a lot of examples in the public eye where people have made major mistakes around race, and I know no one wants to find themselves on the front page of “Racism Times” (you know, the publication which outs anyone who does something stupid related to race). It’s important to distinguish between people being vilified for their initial racist action and their response to the public outcry, though. Too often, people get defensive rather than stepping back and examining whether there is truth to the critique being lobbed at them. When people make the news for racist words or actions, the story tends to drag on and on if they deny they’ve done anything wrong, or try to explain how their actions are justified. When people admit they were fully in the wrong and that they are going to do something to learn more and be better, the furor tends to go away. Unfortunately, people don’t respond this way very often.
A while back someone asked me about navigating the “minefield” of winter holiday greetings. They were scared to offend someone by saying the wrong thing – what if they said Merry Christmas to someone who doesn’t celebrate it? Exactly how far down the road of developing generic holiday greetings would we go before people realized we’re making a big deal out of nothing?
My response was this: I don’t know about you, but the people I know who make a big fuss about holiday greetings are the ones who celebrate Christmas – NOT the people who don’t celebrate it. Of course, many employers, especially in service industries, now have policies which require their employees to use generic greetings and holiday language. Certainly, the only reason employers and others have made the switch to more generic holiday greetings is because some of the non-dominant groups made a fuss, and understandably so – they weren’t being represented AT ALL. There is a difference, however, in making a fuss because of no representation EVER, and making a fuss because even though you are represented the majority of the time, you are not represented every single time, by everyone.
Still – what does one do if they mess up and extend a greeting that’s offensive to someone? Well, humility goes a long way. Instead of getting huffy because someone corrects you, why not apologize and inquire about more details so you can have a better understanding? Here’s a possible exchange, and the sort of thing I have both witnessed and been involved in myself:
Me: Merry Christmas!/Happy Holidays!
Them: Actually, I don’t celebrate Christmas/any holidays at this time of the year. I’m not Christian/Jewish/religious.
Me: Oh, dang, I’m sorry. You know, I’ve been saying this so long that sometimes I forget to be more inclusive in the way I speak. Gotta keep working at it! Are there other times of the year when you celebrate something important to you/Do you have something you celebrate that is kind of like the equivalent to Christmas in terms of importance, or your community coming together with a lot of fanfare?
Them: Not really, just the usual federal holidays/Yes, I’m (insert faith) and we celebrate _____ during (month/time of year)/Well, I’m atheist so I celebrate certain things along with my family but I don’t ascribe to the religious aspect of the holiday . . ./Other response about their traditions.
Me: I don’t know much about (insert holiday/faith/tradition). What’s the significance/what does it represent/how do you celebrate it?
And so on. Humility + willingness to learn about someone else’s way of doing things = evidence to the other person that you have room in your life for more than your own perspective and experience. The more you practice having this sort of response, the easier it becomes to receive critique and the easier it is to know that the world isn’t going to end because you flubbed again.