No one is right all the time. We make mistakes. We step in it. We say the wrong things. It’s a normal human occurrence. What we do and how we handle it when we say or do the wrong thing is what illustrates our character far more than the wrong action or statement itself. A white person attempting to be an ally to the black community will absolutely still have occurrences when they say or do the wrong thing. Because you can never see the world through a black person’s eyes, some things simply won’t be apparent to you and your foot will go directly into your mouth. Learn how to be ok with that. Learn how to treat that as an opportunity rather than a reason to stop your efforts to be a better friend of the black community. What can you do to still be a good white friend when you are the unintentional source of racial discomfort in your friend’s life?
When we think about our relationships with people of different races, we are likely to commit micro-aggressions or have biases that we aren’t even aware of. You can’t possibly check the box saying you know all of the micro-aggressions and you’d never commit any of them because they vary by recipient and context. Language evolves over time and the origins or meanings behind common phrasing gets lost. I have used the phrase “low hanging fruit” several times in my life to reference things that can be accomplished quickly and easily when compared to a whole list of others things I need to do. I personally don’t love that phrase because it has always conjured imagery of an old dude’s balls that dangle super low, but then I giggle because I’m a child, and I use it again the next time its applicable. Just this week during an inclusion program, I happened to learn that for some people it can mean something very different and far more hurtful. I was surprised to find out that for some migrant workers and immigrants in this this country, this can be received negatively due to false connotations that these people are lazy and thus will pick the low hanging fruit rather than performing a thorough harvest. It boggles the mind that a group of people being hired to do the hard work that others don’t want to do could be called lazy, but as a black person, I obviously am familiar with the sentiment.
Of course whenever I have used that phrase it has never been with this intention or the knowledge that this could be hurtful to someone I’m speaking to. What’s important here is that my intent doesn’t matter. At all. Not one bit. What matters is that my words could make someone feel yet another tiny cut that shapes their negative experiences in this world and I don’t want to be a part of that. Because I now have this knowledge, I have a choice in how I proceed. New imagery replaces my old mental associations and I now choose to simply say what I mean rather than this turn of phrase to get my point across. When you know better, you do better. It isn’t hard. Might I use the phrase again because I am used to it popping out of my mouth before thinking about it? Yes. But now a little piece of my brain will remind me of what I learned and I will choose to pick something else the next time. I also learned that for some blacks in the south, it conjures imagery of lynchings where the beaten, burned, murdered bodies of black people hung low from trees. Holy shit. I had never heard of this. See how varied the impacts of our words can be? For this reason, it is a life-long endeavor to be a better human that actively seeks to avoid adding to the ills of our society. There is no such thing as complete and we will all say or do the wrong thing at some points in our lives.
So what do you do when you’re tasting your toes because of a racially charged faux pas? Some people buck against the discomfort with exasperation expressed as, We can’t say anything anymore! You plead, I didn’t mean it that way, and scold with, You’re being too sensitive. Rejecting the notion that you can be wrong is what keeps society at a stand-still. We cling to ignorance rather than accept responsibility for being ill-informed. Back-pedaling is seen as weak rather than strong enough to grow. We can change that, one citizen at a time, by refusing to be that person. I’ll let you in on a secret; black people don’t expect you to get it right all the time. What is expected is if we are brave enough and kind enough to inform you when you’ve said the wrong thing, that you receive it thoughtfully, apologize, and work to not continue to say and do things that are offensive. These are basic skillsets we expect in children when they hurt their friends, so we shouldn’t expect to be above it as well-adjusted adults.
There’s nothing wrong with the words I’m sorry. There is also nothing wrong with asking for a better explanation of why something is offensive so you are better able to internalize it and also pass this information along to your other white friends who are guilty of the same offense. Here’s another script for you to use free-of-charge:
“Oh my gosh (or insert expletive of your choosing)! I’m sorry. I had no idea what that meant to you. I hope you know I would never say or do anything to intentionally cause harm to you or your community. Thank you for letting me know that this was offensive.”
I know we can do better by enacting these seemingly minor changes in our everyday lives. I include myself, even as a black woman, because I accept the fact that I may also fall into this circumstance with friends that are Asian, Latinx, gay or any characteristic that makes them different from me as this extends beyond race. Accepting the reality that I will be wrong, and that I will make mistakes is a powerful personal space to exist in because it shows me how I can continue to grow and gives me a runway to consistently improve on being a better human being. Assuming you’ve learned all there is to know and that you’re too “woke” to be guilty of committing an offense creates a recipe for disaster in your multicultural relationships. Rejecting the information from your friends of color that you have made an error shows them your compassion is limited, and that you don’t actually grasp the monumentally difficult climb toward social justice in this country. It demonstrates an arrogance that causes systemic racism to continue to thrive. One should almost welcome the moments when we make an unintentional misstep because it’s a chance to learn and move the needle in our own lives and show your black friends that you mean it when you say change begins with you.