You’re Going To Fail: Be A Witness

IMG_9707When I failed at breastfeeding, people rushed to tell me that I didn’t fail. They’d try to reassure me that I wasn’t a failure, that I was a good mother, a good person, fed is best, etc. This bothered me.

I realized it was because it reminded me of when I say, “I’m fat,” and people rush to say NO you’re not fat! You’re beautiful! As if the two things can’t be true at the same time.

Failure and making mistakes has somehow become a thing in our culture that we do not want to acknowledge, because it seems to so many people that if we fail – if we make a mistake – if it’s revealed there’s something we have yet to learn – somehow that makes us a bad person. This attitude stands out particularly when it comes to confronting racism within ourselves. It’s dangerous white fragility. Most white people can’t accept the racist things they’ve internalized and then perpetuate – so they can’t effectively participate in dismantling racism.

A friend recently made a racist mistake. In thinking about how they wanted to respond to their mistake, they looked for a blog post to share about what it means to make a racist mistake. They were frustrated they couldn’t find a blog post talking about racist mistakes without saying it was okay to make the mistake.

It’s not okay to be racist. It’s not okay to make racist mistakes, or be accidentally racist.

Our cultural institutions were specifically set up to perpetuate discrimination against non-whites. It’s our history, our legacy as white people, and our responsibility to face it and take it on. It’s very uncomfortable to confront in ourselves because we know how awful it is.

If anything is certain in a human lifetime, it’s that we fail. Over and over again. It’s how we learn. As children, we do this pretty naturally – we fall over and over, but get up and keep learning to walk. We are constantly corrected and guided in manners, behaviors, cultural traditions. We absorb and practice and keep practicing. Somehow as we grow into adults this becomes offensive in social situations with other adults, even as we celebrate other adults for embracing growth.

My crunchy mindfulness jam is I use the Twitter daily meditations quite a bit. Today’s is, “When having a bad day, become the witness and stay present in every moment.” I really like the concept of being a witness, particularly in relation to one’s own mistakes. A witness is someone who sees an event and can relate the story to others, often in the context of aiding justice. The witness doesn’t have to be unemotional about what happened in order to help justice be done – just has to truthfully communicate what happened.

What do you do when you fail, particularly in social justice issues like doing something racist (or sizeist, ableist, sexist, etc.)? Here are my suggestions for how to be a witness to your failure:

  1. Calm down. 
  2. Talk to a mistake buddy. 
  3. Make a plan. 
  4. Follow through on your plan.

1. Calm down. If you’ve been called out/in by someone else or realized a mistake on your own, you’re probably going to freak out a little. Maybe you feel angry and offended, or panicky and sick. Take some deep breaths, as slow as you can. Take a step away from wherever you’ve made the mistake: say something like, “You’re right. I hear you and can see how hurt/angry/upset you are. I am going to think about this.” You may think it’s strange to not include an immediate apology, but apologies in the heat of the moment are sometimes harmful. Apologies blurted in the moment are at worst quick attempts to defuse or shut down the situation, and at best are often more about regret and panic than thoughtful, humble remorse. You also probably can’t follow through with a concrete plan of action if you’re responding in the heat of the moment. Additionally, if you are angry or offended, an ingenuine apology will make everything worse for all parties. Go for a walk. Do some chores.

2. Talk to a mistake buddy. Find someone that you can talk to about the mistake you made. Make sure the person is consenting and appropriate to talk to – if you’re white, you shouldn’t go to a PoC friend to talk about your racist mistake, or if you’re thin, don’t go to a fat friend to talk about a fatphobic mistake; this puts them in a position of providing emotional labor and education to you and talking about your mistake may harm them, too. Better to find someone who is roughly at the same place or further along in their social justice journey as you are. I suggest this specifically because if you are in the angry/offended category and you talk to someone else who would react by being angry/offended, you’re going to be in an echo chamber. You will have trouble talking about what went wrong, why, and how to make it better if your mistake buddy also can’t see the mistake.

3. Make a plan. Daniel Tiger says, “Saying I’m sorry is the first step. Then, how can I help?” Think about how to craft your apology. Don’t center your feelings (“I feel terrible about…”). Don’t give excuses (“I’ve been having a rough time lately with…”). Those feelings or reasons may be valid to your experience, but they only take away from an effective apology to someone you’ve hurt. Keep it simple: “I’m sorry.” Validate their experience: “I can see that I really hurt PoC/you.” Name what you did: “what I said/did was racist.” Make a statement that shows you understand how serious it is to be oppressive (and have no expectations for forgiveness): “I understand if PoC/you need to take a break from our friendship to protect yourself.” State what you’re going to do to in follow up: “I’m going to do better in the future by [things you’re going to do.]”

What to actually do? That’s a personal decision. You should at the very least work to center the voices of people you harmed and learn more about the cause you harmed. Consider what changes you can make in your life to make a difference. Simply taking time each day to think about these issues can make a difference in revealing these issues to yourself before you make a mistake out loud. If you have the means, consider reparations – even small donations to local or national charities helps causes.

4. Follow through on your plan. Actually do the work. Be careful with communicating your plan, though – if you talk too much about it, or you start getting lots of loud applause/approval for your ways of making amends, it can easily become a shitty performance piece. 

Be a witness to your mistakes and failures. State what happened and work within yourself toward justice. Feel the discomfort and pain. You should feel embarrassed, guilty, ashamed, or angry at yourself when you fail or make a mistake – just not so much that you cripple yourself into shutting down and doing nothing. Be a witness to your mistakes and failures.


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