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The Mistakes We Make are Fixable…If We’re Willing

Twelve individuals of various races and genders standing in a line

I think I’ve told over 1000+ people that making mistakes is a thing that we all do. As a DEI Consultant, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve made a mistake. Whether it was from misgendering someone to using incorrect language when referring to a particular identity. I’ve made mistakes.

The thing about mistakes when you get called on them it's embarrassing. Especially when you call yourself a DEI consultant; there is nothing like being called out in public for a mistake you’ve made. I’ve been embarrassed numerous times.

And usually, the first thing we want to do when we feel embarrassed is to either apologize so profusely that it takes the attention away from the actual mistake and the person who was harmed or we want to deny, deny, deny. Using language like, “That wasn’t my intent,” and “I didn’t mean it like that.” Or at the very worst, “Why are people so sensitive nowadays.”

Neither of these approaches is community-building approaches. They are community-destroying approaches. To deny someone's humanity and vulnerability; to simply say folks are “too sensitive” is to tell the person who was harmed that their dignity means little to nothing to us personally and they in turn should get over it. the other problem is making the apology about oneself versus apologizing and doing better and assuring the person who’s bringing the concern isn’t continued being harmed and that they can trust that you will do better.

I am 50 years old and in the time I’ve been alive the language and the understanding of our social identities have evolved. We are not just our race, we are a total sum of our identities. We all have dominant/power identities and we all have marginalized identities. So even though my marginalized identities are: fat, Black, Queer, temporarily disabled, and woman; my power identities are: middle class, light skin (colorism), traditionally educated, and masculine-identified. Before I move on, check out the clip that I love to use in conversations about intersectionality. This clip is provided by the National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC and I think it provides a great roadmap to the beginning discussions of intersectionality.

When we recognize that privilege is not based on opportunities and privileges we receive but about the barriers we do not have to face or experience; we can begin to understand that power identities do not remove us from the barriers we face with our marginalized identities. In other essays on Medium, I’ve discussed the privileges that are associated with colorism. For instance, it’s my job, in spaces where I have the most power or the opportunity, to clear the way for darker-skinned folks to have space at the table. I can use the privilege of my light skin and proximity to whiteness to push open and hold open that door. However, that privilege doesn’t erase the fact that oftentimes being in such proximity to whiteness because of colorism is often violent and isolating. These two things do not negate each other. And it is not always easy.

To be honest, I haven’t always done my best at using my privileged identities. I haven't always been good at hearing how I’ve failed or harmed someone. Hell, even though I’ve grown in the past 16 years in my understanding of power and marginalized identities it's hard to hear how I’ve failed or harmed someone now.

Some of the most common fears I hear from people (mostly white) are:

  1. I don’t want to make someone feel like I’m being a “white savior.”
  2. I don’t want to lose my job; mistakes can cost me my job or speaking up could cost me my job.
  3. I don’t want to lose my family/friends/connections/network

This means: I don't want to be a pariah.

I get that. Who wants to sacrifice themselves? Who wants to be seen as the outsider?

The thing is though when we pair this idea of “mistakes” with our personal values we dig down into the truth. Which is often, “I don’t know how much I believe in this and I’m not sacrificing what I want/need for someone else.”

If we are consistently single-lens focused we will not be able to “do” Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging. How can I feel like my voice matters, my thoughts matter, and my place in an institution is valued if we are not willing to stand in our personal beliefs that we all deserve equity. Are we willing to stand in our personal beliefs/values regardless of the outcome?

As I tell white participants in my workshops, it doesn’t matter if the person thinks you’re being a “white savior.” You’re not supporting equity just for them. You are supporting equity because you believe in the power of community. You believe in supporting and uplifting the voices of the most marginalized. You believe that equity means you believe in eliminating barriers for EVERYONE; not just the people who look like you, sound like you, went to the same schools, share the same identities, etc. This is where a lot of people get hung up on political identities and ideologies. Hey, I personally don't care that you’re a conservative. But I do not agree with limiting or taking away or not giving rights to individuals based on their social identities.

Let’s take poverty for example. Sometimes in my workshops, I will have white participants push back on marginalized racial identities; they’ll say, “well, I grew up poor so I don't know what white privilege has to do with me. I didn’t get any special treatment cause I was white.” And that is likely. However, again privilege is not about the stuff we get; it's about the things we did not have to endure. So if you are a poor white man in America; it’s not as if “white” and “man” trump poverty. It’s that as a poor person in America you did not have to deal with racism, patriarchy, sexism, etc. You did however deal with classism. And also, the ways that white poor people are treated in this country are very different from the ways in which poor BIPOC folk are treated. We cannot separate race from this discussion because of the ways in which this country was founded. It was founded to separate not just individuals based on race but also based on money. The system of slavery consisted of poor whites being used to abuse, torture, and enforce white supremacy over Black folk in particular. And when the enslaved were free; the tensions were stoked between poor white folk and the newly freed around wages and work. Each poor person struggled separately to find a foothold in a country that could care less about either group. But racial politics played a strong part in the gaps in family wealth between the races over time.

Nine individuals of varied races and genders are sitting around a table. They are labeled poor, middle class, the rich. An elephant is serving the rich individual pie.

Mistakes in the ways in which we communicate will happen. We have to be aware of our social identities and the spaces in which we have power. We cannot do this work without community. It’s just literally not possible. We have to dismantle the white supremacist belief that individuality is king. Movements begin and move forward as a collective.

If you truly believe that people deserve equity then stand in your values. Stand in them. Sometimes you will succeed and sometimes you will fail. You will find that the more you stand in your personal values, that equity is important for us all, you will be able to handle the moments when you make a mistake. You can apologize, and recognize that the person coming to you is giving you a gift and that they want to stay in community with you.

Often, when we are checked for our mistakes we want the check to land lightly or sweetly. However, we have to be ok with however it lands. We might want to be loved on but the person we harmed or who is checking us may not be in the emotional place to do love. They might be angry, sad, frustrated etc. And we have to be ok with that.

I sometimes see allies talk about BIPOC folks “alienating” them from the movement because people are sometimes not nice. Then like others have said, you’re not an ally. An ally, “gets it” or at least tries to “get it.” They accept the feedback and they move forward. If you are feeling tender that's ok. If you are surprised by their feedback, that’s ok too. But if you are standing. in your personal values you will recognize that this gift is a learning experience and you’ll move forward regardless.

As allies, we don’t get to speak for the marginalized folks we are holding the doors open for; we are the shields when needed, the shoulders to cry on when needed, the sounding boards for difficult conversations and much much more.

Mistakes will happen. This is a reality. We all make mistakes. This is also a reality. If you are really about that equity life you will do what you can to do/be better.

I hope you’re doing the work!

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