“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!” Did I really, just, fucking, say that? “Shit.” I was hosting an event and my mind suddenly filled with a lot of shame, anger, and embarrassment.
I thought I had internalized all the right words to make everyone feel welcome. Then I said “ladies and gentlemen.” Then I pushed the foot further into my mouth by talking even more about the gender make up of my audience in the binary, excluding anyone who doesn’t identify as a man or a woman. I knew it was wrong. I didn’t know how to get out of it in the moment. What I should’ve said… “Wow, that wasn’t very inclusive of me now was it? I meant folx, y’all, everybody!“
Instead I just moved on. I pretended like I hadn’t said it. Hoping that I could gently move through it and it would go unnoticed. Old habits die hard but I want to be the person who owns and points out the inherent and unconscious bias in our shared language. I want to be intentional. I DIDN’T DO THAT. This is a feeble attempt to right the wrong but also to hold my future-self accountable.
Up until that moment I sat (almost) comfortably in my own self-righteousness. It’s easy to fall into that place of ego. Humans do it all the time. I am begrudgingly human, it’s the thing I hate most about myself. And, love most too…humanness is messy and confusing.
I got a message from an audience member pointing out the shittiness of the statement and my lack of awareness or acknowledgment of it. It had not gone unnoticed and I was a hypocrite. I want to create a welcoming space, but I wasn’t walking the walk. It hurt to be called out. I wanted to defend myself or make excuses, give myself a pass- but that would be dishonest. It was anonymous so I couldn’t apologize and acknowledge my wrong-ness to them. Instead of falling into a shame spiral filled with endless fear and self-loathing, I decided to write about it. Explore and share the complexity of this moment.
I am a straight, white, cis-gender, English speaking, American citizen. I am married to a straight, cis-gener man. I have 3 children. I live in the suburbs. I drive a mini-van, on purpose. I have an advanced degree and a good paying job. Most of my identities do not make me unsafe. I get a lot of passes and I have an enormous amount of privilege. People do not challenge me most of the time. I have the choice of going through my entire life unchallenged. How many of us have that privilege and don’t even realize it?
I realize that writing this may sound like I’m making this about me. Some self-obsessed pleading for acceptance or acknowledgment of my goodness and righteousness in the world. But this is about me. It is about how I choose to show-up to critique. How I listen. Who I decide to be in a world that is asking more of me than I am used to. Who I believe deserves to feel safe, seen, and welcome. If I believe, as I claim to, that everyone has this right then I cannot just say it. I have to DO it. All the time. Accepting and allowing my own discomfort plays an enormous role in that.
I also realize that I run the risk of being judged when I put myself out in the world in a public way. I cannot write a piece like this every time someone doesn’t like me. And I don’t. Believe me there are plenty of people who don’t like me. Standing up for my beliefs over the past few months has lost me friends and family members. I am sad that those people are no longer in my life but happy to speak out and stand up for what I believe is right. Even good liberals fuck up. I’m not willing to hide behind my liberalness or use it as an excuse to give myself a pass. Another aspect of white privilege that we don’t often realize is a belief (more like an ingrained, socialized expectation) that meaning well and being nice entitles us to being liked. No one owes me anything. Especially if I don’t show up with humility.
Marginalized individuals live their lives in fear. Big fear of being killed, hurt, or of losing their livelihood every day. But the other hurt is the kind of hurt that Ijeoma Oluo describes like a constant but unpredictable punch in the arm that one must always brace themselves for. I own that my verbal clumsiness and lack of courage in the moment to correct myself contributed one of those punches and I am sorry for that.
Everything we do here is to create honesty - inner honesty and interpersonal honesty. Safe, brave spaces where people can speak their truth. If I’m going to teach it, I have to hold myself accountable. Above all else, you have every right to acknowledge and point out another person’s insensitivity. You have every right to let someone know when they have hurt you. The mantra of The If You Could See Me Project is “it’s not my job to stay quiet so that you can stay comfortable.” I made someone uncomfortable because of something I said. They had the courage to make me aware of it. I made a mistake. I feel shame and embarrassment and disappointment in myself for having not grown quite as much as I thought I had in my thinking and my speaking.
I want to own it, so I don’t continue making the same mistake. I want to share this experience so that maybe you too can be more open to hearing another person’s pain and adjusting your language and actions to make them feel as safe, seen, and welcome as it is possible for one person to make another person feel.
I would love to hear from you.