The Inevitable Oops: What Can We (White Folks) Do When We Mess Up?

Mistake-making and my relationship with it have increasingly occupied my thoughts since my last blog post. In fact, I have been working on writing the following for quite some time, delayed because of both life circumstances and finding more and more to say.  So expect additional posts on this subject soon. 

Many years ago, one of my African American graduate school classmates spoke of how much harder racism was for him in western Massachusetts than in southern Florida where he grew up, attended segregated public schools, and experienced school integration.  I remember him explaining how the overt, blatantly hateful racism he encountered in Florida was expected.  It was predictable. He could sometimes intentionally avoid it.  But the racism among liberal white people in liberal western Massachusetts was more insidious.  It lurked around corners, hid in shadows, and rarely gave any warning before it showed its face.  For him and many of my other classmates of color, it was shrouded in:

1. “You’re so articulate!”

2. “Really? You’re a doctoral candidate?”

3. “Where are you from? I mean, where are you really from?”

4. “Hey, you’re Latino! Can you help me understand why Latino people are always _____?”

5. “When I look at you, I don’t see your race.  I just see you because you’re a human being.  I mean, we’re all a part of the human race, you know?”

6. “You have such a beautiful smile. You should smile more.  You often look so angry.”

7. “Your hair is so beautiful! Can I touch it?” (said while already touching hair)

While many of these statements are well-intentioned, their impact is to diminish, erase, dehumanize, divide, and maintain racial inequities.  This is what the above statements really communicate:

1. “People who look like you aren’t articulate.  And by articulate, I mean how middle/upper class white people speak.”

2. “People who look like you don’t get doctorates, and I don’t expect people who look like you to be smart enough to get into a doctoral program.  You’re probably here on scholarship.”

3. “People who look like you aren’t really American.  It doesn’t matter for how many generations your family has been in the U.S., you will always be less American than me.”

4. “I don’t see any difference between you and other people in your racial group.  Unlike white people, people of color have the same opinions and experiences as everyone else in their group.”

5. “It makes me feel more comfortable to think about our mutual humanness than about our racial identities and how those identities are relevant.  When I say I don’t see color, it allows me to ignore my biases and your unique lived experiences as a person of color, which makes me feel better about myself.”

6. “Black people are scary and dangerous.  When they smile, it makes me feel more comfortable and safe.”

7. “Your hair is different from what I’m used to, and I’m curious about it. Also, I have the right to touch your body, and if you don’t want me to, it’s because you’re too sensitive and don’t understand that I’m a good white person.  Besides, your personal boundaries are not as important as my need to satisfy my curiosity.”

In the book, Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation, Dr. Derald Wing Sue defines the relentless, daily onslaught of overt and covert slights as microaggressions.  A popular YouTube video likens them to mosquito bites: one or two bites are annoying, but the cumulative impact of multiple bites all day every day makes it harder to function and can cause a prolonged state of stress resulting in negative mental and physiological health outcomes.  The chronic nature of the bites can also cause someone to react in a way that seems disproportionate.  As my brilliant friend, Rosetta Lee, once said, “Anyone who has taken a road trip with kids understands the concept of cumulative impact.”

While white folks can work on cultivating self-awareness and acting with intention, what do we do when, not if, we make mistakes? 

I explored this question anew after unknowingly yet publicly using a racial slur at the National Association of Independent School’s annual People of Color Conference (PoCC).  In addition to hundreds or workshops, PoCC provides three racial affinity group sessions throughout the conference, during which participants dialogue with people who share their racial self-identification.

As a member of the white affinity group facilitation team, a role I played for the better part of 12 years, I attended a mandatory pre-conference training for all of the racial affinity group facilitators.  I was one of approximately 15 white people among a group of 50+ facilitators. 

During the morning session, we were asked to reflect on our multiple identities, including race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and body size.  Each identity was written on its own piece of chart paper and posted around the room, and we were asked to stand under the identity heading that was the most salient for us.  I stood at the “White/European American” heading with two other long-time friends and co-facilitators.

All of us were given guiding questions to discuss, chart, and report back to the room. One of the questions asked us to consider the advantages of being part of the identity group, including what made us proud to be a part of it.  The word “proud” threw the three of us, and the word “advantages” didn’t seem to us to be strong enough to describe the unearned powers and privileges white people get every day.  This discussion ate up significant time, and we agreed we could spend the next six hours listing white people’s specific unearned powers/privileges and only scratch the surface.  What we finally wrote down was:

            “Advantages” (unearned powers and privileges)

We were conscious of time running out, and we had not yet gotten to the second or third questions, so we moved on.

Enter mistakes numbers one and two: 1) We did not apply to the activity what the three of us already knew: that white people frequently change the rules either because they made them in the first place or simply feel entitled to do so, as the three of us did by changing the language in the facilitator of color’s prompt, and 2) We did not consider that many of the people of color in the room did not know us well, and unless we listed specific unearned white powers and privileges, we ran the risk of giving the facilitators of color the impression that we were denying our power/privilege.  After all, both of these – white people changing the rules at whim and denying their power/privilege – are common microaggressions; they contribute to racism’s accumulated impact on people of color. 

Therefore and, in retrospect, understandably, there were immediate murmurs of upset when I took the microphone and began to speak about the first question.  I attempted to explain that we didn’t feel the word “advantages” went far enough, so in order to call it like it was, we changed it to “unearned powers and privileges.”  My sentence began, “We changed it because we wanted to call a spade a spade…”

“OUCH!” exclaimed one of the Black/African American affinity group facilitators, “Do you know the history of that word?”  Simultaneously, there were gasps and expressions of anger and incredulity throughout the room.

I froze.  My heart pounded.  I was mortified.  And then I lied. “I know a little bit about it, but I won’t say it again. I’m sorry.  Thank you for calling me on it,” I responded in an uncertain voice.  In truth, I had absolutely no idea why what I had said was wrong.  I thought I was talking about a gardening tool. 

The two other white people in my group spoke briefly, and the palpable tension in the room remained. The person facilitating the activity jumped in, “We had an ouch and an apology, and that doesn’t always happen.”  And then he moved to the next group.  We were only the second group to report out, and I imagine part of his decision to move on was motivated by wanting to make sure each group had sufficient air time.  Personally, I was grateful for the diversion, but I also worried the move would exacerbate the tension; it could be read as the facilitator rescuing me, a white woman, from discomfort. 

My flight response was in full throttle.  I wanted to cry.  I wanted to run away and hide.  But I knew I needed to stay.  Hold in the tears.  Do what I encourage my training participants to do: stay in the discomfort.  Breathe.  Reflect. 

So I stayed and did my best to listen deeply to the remaining groups.  I stayed during the catered lunch.  I made some small talk, but I was mostly in my head.  If I had actually known a little bit of the history of the phrase “call a spade a spade” and had still used it, I thought, that would have been worse than using it without knowing its meaning. 

Lunch ended.  Everyone sat in a large circle.  A microphone was passed around.  An old but still present part of me wanted to be defensive.  Wanted to not have made a mistake.  Wanted someone to tell me, “Don’t worry about it.  It’s ok.  I forgive you.  It’s not a big deal.”  I wanted to correct whatever assumptions I suspected people had already made: that I was a completely clueless white person who had no place in the room.  When one of the participants started sharing a personal experience with racial profiling, he looked straight at me.  I thought, he is probably looking at me because he thinks I don’t understand or acknowledge my white privilege, and he feels he has to educate me.  I wanted to jump in and say, “Wait, just so we’re clear, when I said ____, I didn’t mean ____.  I’m not one of those white people who denies their privilege. I completely understand white privilege.”  I wanted one of my friends of color in the room to say, “You’ve got it all wrong.  Sarah’s not like that.  She’s one of the good ones.”  My brain knows there’s no such thing as a “good white person” and a “bad white person” and that such binaries are both inaccurate and destructive, but emotion isn’t inherently logical.

I focused on my breathing.  Let go of trying to control what people think about you.  It’s a futile endeavor.  Besides, he’s not talking about you, Sarah, I told myself, he’s sharing his story.  He’s sharing his pain. Listen to his pain.  Hear his truth. 

I waited for a few of the folks of color to speak before asking for the microphone.  With my legs folded protectively up against my body, I said, “I learned something this morning.  And I learned it at other people’s expense.  I caused pain, and I wish I could take it away, but I know I can’t.  I was dishonest when I said I knew a little bit about what the phrase meant because I was embarrassed.  But I will do a ton of self-education before the conference is over, I will never use it again, I will interrupt it when I hear it, and I will work proactively to teach other white people about it so they don’t make the same mistake I did.”

Throughout all of this – throughout the initial reaction to my words, the rest of the activity, lunch, my comments when I had the microphone, and each subsequent person taking the microphone to give voice to the pain I caused – the ONLY, and I mean ONLY, thing that allowed me to hold it together and not dissolve into a puddle of tears was knowing that later that afternoon I would be alone with my other white co-facilitators and I could fall apart then.

Because even though it wasn’t the people of color’s job to take care of my big feelings and my pain, it was reasonable as a human being to expect someone to take care of me.  Because “suck it up” and “move on” don’t help sustain a person through difficult work.  Because I didn’t ask to learn a racist phrase, but I learned it in childhood nonetheless.  Because racism robs everyone, including white people, of a piece of their humanity.

So when I broke down later that afternoon and my white colleagues held me both literally and figuratively, I was reminded again of why it is so important for white people engaged in racial justice work to build community with one another. And it doesn’t matter how long a white person has been doing racial justice work or how conscious they are, they will inevitably make mistakes.  And we need to be both humble and honest about that.

That night, I hit Google. Apparently, despite doing racial justice work for almost 15 years and despite having taught middle school U.S. history, I never learned that the word “spade” became a derogatory slur for Black people in the 1920s.  So while even W.E.B. DuBois had used the phrase “call a spade a spade” in his writing, once the word “spade” took on a new meaning, the phrase did, too. Known as “the one drop rule,” it doesn’t matter how much or how little African heritage a person has (one drop of blood), they’re still Black. In essence,  white purity is contaminated.  So in my attempt to explain why the word “advantages” wasn’t sufficient to describe how profoundly white people benefit from racism, I managed instead to offend and cause tremendous hurt.

In my closing remarks during the last white affinity group session of the conference, I shared the story of my mistake with the 501 white people in attendance.  I shared it with my children when I returned home. I shared it with my parents. I shared (and continue to share) it with my friends and my children’s teachers. 

I used the experience to develop a workshop for the annual White Privilege Conference (WPC): “The Inevitable Oops: How White People Can Persevere Through Their Mistakes and Keep Their Skin in the Game.”  I shared the story of my mistake with the workshop participants at two consecutive WPCs, and then I asked them to share with a partner the story of one of their racist mistakes.  I encouraged them to choose one that still felt charged, unresolved, or haunting.  Then I asked them to “mine their mistakes” – to explore what they learned about making mistakes as a child:

• What did you learn about making mistakes as you were growing up?

• What did it mean about you if you made a mistake?

• What consequences, if any, did you face if you made a mistake?

• What strategies, if any, did you learn to protect you from the consequences?

One participant shared that, as a child, she learned to apologize over and over again because, if the adult couldn’t get a word in edgewise, she could delay punishment.  She saw this learned behavior – this brilliant survival strategy – show up in the story she told of her racist mistake.  Likewise, many other participants also saw this kind of direct link.

My years of healing from early childhood sexual abuse have taught me that we cannot transform our behaviors unless we: 1) identify their earliest roots, 2) find gratitude for the ways the behaviors may have served us well or even protected us at one time, 3) notice how we still inhabit the behaviors, 4) have compassion for ourselves, and 5) commit to practicing new, intentional behaviors.

If you are so inclined, I invite you to find someone you trust and use the above questions to mine your own mistakes. Ask someone you trust if they are willing/able to hear your reflections. And white folks, notice if your impulse is to talk about it with a friend of color versus a white friend; if so, pause, reflect, and consider talking to a white person first (and maybe second and third).

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