Yesterday, my four-year old said something profound and refreshing, in the effortless, unrehearsed way four-year-olds say almost everything. She told me, “I’m really smart. But sometimes I’m wrong.” The timing of her statement was exquisite, as I had spent most of the morning brooding over some unexpected wounds and the loved ones who unintentionally created them. These wounds led me down a path of questioning motives and behaviors, good intentions and profoundly negative impacts, and the many ways in which we can be wrong, even when we are smart, kind, generous, and empathetic. Even the wokest among us prove to be acutely problematic on occasion. In the moment I simply responded, “Everyone is wrong sometimes,” but I let those words sink deeply into my own spirit.
The beauty in my daughter’s simple statement, of course, is the space it holds for multiple truths about herself. She acknowledges her own intellectual strength, without dismissing her fallibility, and the skill to do so is both powerfully healing and tragically lacking in Western culture. Too often our fragile egos and a perversely overwhelming drive to protect them gets in the way of doing the most important social justice work before us—the work we must perform on ourselves.
Take me as an example. I use ableist language. Not as often as I once did, but more often than I’m proud to admit. “Stupid, lame, crazy,” are all words attaching negative value to human states of being none of us are qualified to judge. “Crazy” is just a derogatory term for “mentally ill,” “lame” is a word that demeans the differently abled, and “stupid” is a word to describe someone as intellectually inferior to oneself. So if you stop and think about what it actually means to use one of those terms as an insult or as a descriptor, you start to really feel like an asshole. “She’s acting so mentally ill!” Is it empathetic and justice-seeking to demean someone for presenting signs of needing help or treatment? Of course not. This language is intensely problematic, and the damaging assumptions and stereotypes it upholds need to go.
Yet when someone points out that I’m using ableist language in a given moment, what happens? Honestly, it hurts my feelings for a minute, and a small part of me wants to shout out, “That’s not what I meant!” Still, I resist this urge, and I thank whoever is calling me out, because I understand intellectually that my problematic behavior doesn’t make me worthless or unlovable. It just means my good intentions aren’t serving me well through my language, and I need to make some adjustments. I’m an empathetic human being. But sometimes I’m problematic.
So often we seem gripped by an immense fear that admitting we are wrong about anything important disqualifies us from being well-meaning or conscientious individuals. It’s as if the possibility of imperfection lessens the value of anything we bring to the table of humanity, ever. And this dangerous dualism upholds a mountain of oppression and injustice, by preventing us from being accountable for the ways in which we embrace these destructive forces.
When it comes to systematic white supremacy, this dynamic is too prevalent for words. What I need all well-intentioned white folks seeking to be allies to know is this: You are guilty of complicity supporting systemic white supremacy. This is not an accusation of personal immorality. This is an acknowledgment of a devastating ideological poison which has saturated every inch of the globe, leaving no soul untouched, yet remaining largely imperceptible as the air we breathe. Do you ever breathe? You are infected with it. Profoundly. You are not so special or so good as to have somehow magically escaped.
If I, as a woman of color, have to vigilantly inspect my view of self and of my brothers and sisters, if I have to search my language, attitudes, and behaviors, to be sure that I am free of it, then you must fight it from within yourself as well. And you must be willing to hold multiple truths about yourself within your consciousness if you’re going to accomplish this. You may very well be a compassionate human being seeking social justice as best as you know how. But sometimes you will do and say things that serve racism. Are you willing to be called out? Are you willing to acknowledge your problematic language and actions (or problematic lack of action) and make some adjustments?
If so, consider removing these phrases from your collection: “I don’t see color,” “I have a black friend/significant other/child,” “I don’t have a racist bone,” “I have been doing racial justice work for X amount of years,” along with the knee-jerk reaction to deflect blame and avoid self-examination. Instead, try adopting a stance that invites constructive criticism and self-reflection. Remind yourself, “I’m still learning. I’m learning about how much I have personally benefited from a system which violently oppresses People of Color. I’m learning about my contributions to this system and doing my best to reverse them.” And instead of defending your good intentions when problematic words or actions (or lack of action) are pointed out, listen. Because no matter how much you learn about racism, sometimes you will still be wrong.
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