If you are anything like me, you hate to make mistakes. Yeah, that’s right, you will never see me running through the streets, celebrating, yelling about how I just made the messiest mistake. As a perfectionist (to my dismay), I can often be a bully to myself when even the silliest little mistake is made. For instance, I was giving a short presentation to a class of fifteen or so college students when I got caught up and forgot the word I wanted to say.
Not a fancy word.
One I use daily.
I should have just laughed it off because, well, it was a little mistake. Instead, that embarrassing moment has crept into my thoughts five or six times in the past week, and I cringe every time. This is just one piddly little case of my discomfort of making mistakes, so you can imagine how I feel when I screw something up that really matters–like causing harm to someone because of my ignorance, lack of awareness, and/or the privilege I hold with some of my identities.
The journey of learning about my privilege has been long, painful, and frankly, uncomfortable (but SO worth it). Notice I said “has”. That’s right, I’m still learning. I am making mistakes on the daily. I’ve had a few people (mostly people with whom I share identities) tell me recently that I know so much about diversity and inclusion, and they are often intimidated to engage in any kind of conversation regarding privilege or differences because they don’t know enough to say anything on it. Well, I am here to say that…
“We are going to make mistakes.”
We will never always know everything about human identities because there will always be more to learn. The thing is, the avoidance of making mistakes will leave us feeling comfortable, and growth seldom happens with comfort.
What if we all start to take accountability for mistakes, knowing we are going to make them? I see a world of normalizing mistakes causing more people to try…to take risks.
During the week of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the university I work for held a series of civil rights events. I attended two of the events: one was about having courageous conversations, and the other was a workshop put on by Spark Creative (Chicago) called “Overcoming Bias through Agility”. Both of these events challenged me to think differently about having courageous conversations and making mistakes while doing so. One of the activities we did included pairing up with another attendee and counting to three repeatedly but one at a time. For example, I would start with one, my partner would say two, and I would say three. Then my partner would say one, I’d say two, and she’d say three. Our goal was to try to get it as clear and perfect as we could for a while. It was much more difficult than you would think it would be. It was challenging, and my partner and I found ourselves making a lot of simple mistakes. Whenever I made a mistake, I would hit my thigh and beat myself up by saying…”Ahhhhhh! Why is this so difficult?!” or by just laughing because that’s what I do when I am uncomfortable. My partner just laughed the whole time, and we found that it was difficult for us to even talk because we continually made mistakes and the uncomfortable laughter just ensued.
The facilitator added a new rule to the game a few minutes in that included the need for us to go faster and be more accurate. Guess what happened?
We. got. worse.
I could tell that we were getting defeated but still laughed through our discomfort. Others in the room were getting frustrated by this activity. Then the next rule came: when you or your partner makes a mistake, look at each other, and in unison, hold your arms above your head and yell, “TA DA!”.
We all sort of laughed because it sounded pretty ridiculous to say TA DA when a mistake was made, but we did it. We were celebrating our mistakes. We were taking accountability for the mistakes we had made and we were in good company with another person who was cheering us on. It was actually enlightening…how good it felt to have added this rule to the game. You see, it felt so strange to be so forthcoming about owning our mistakes and moving on, but isn’t that what learning and growing is all about?! I know the reason for having this activity at a workshop about bias was to show us that mistakes are inevitable, and when everyone is taking accountability for their mistakes, it normalizes mistakes and encourages people to take risks.
I understand that there are some cases when mistakes shouldn’t be celebrated, for instance, when someone has been discriminated against and their safety is at risk. This blog post is for the average day person who wants to do good things. Those who intentionally try to do harm can be included in another post, so what I am focusing on is the average folx of the world who do not want to cause harm intentionally. Something I want to believe is that everyone is doing the best they can with what they have, and we need to give grace where mistakes are made. If you are a good human and don’t want to cause harm to others, then just take the leap and be courageous in your conversations. Talk about race, sexuality, religion, and politics.
Listen to others, and allow for mistakes to be made.
When you unintentionally hurt someone, own it. Even if that’s not what your intent was, the reality is that the impact was great for the other individual. It’s OK to make mistakes, and it’s even better to hold ourselves accountable. A lot of times, this process is internal. It requires self awareness, and the vulnerability to take risks. Educate yourself on your identities and privileges, and read up about the experiences of people with different identities than you. Google can be a beautiful thing, and YOU are responsible for understanding your identities and the space you take up.
Before I went to college at the University of Northern Iowa, I had never even thought about my racial identity. If someone asked me to describe myself, I would not have said that I was White right away. Why? Because it’s a privileged identity I have. Think about the identities you hold (race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, ability/disability, body size, citizenship status, family structure, etc.). If you have never had to think about that being a big part of who you are, then chances are, it’s a privilege.
In an attempt to be vulnerable and honest, even when it hurts, I am going to share an example of when I found I was making mistakes, owned them, and chose to do better. When I was in high school, I took a job at Foodpride, a grocery store in the neighboring town. It was the cool and funny thing to label it as “FagPride”, and when people asked where I worked and I wanted to be funny, that’s what I would tell them. I now cringe at the fact that I did that, but I did. I didn’t take ownership of it then, but I do now. I understand that I was coming from a place of not knowing how name calling can be detrimental to a group of people, and how the word “fag” has been used to keep LGBTQ folx marginalized in our society. I also cringe because it was a way that I tried to blend in with what was “cool” and said harmful things that affects the community I am part of today(yikes).
Maybe you have an experience similar to this one that includes something you used to say or think about that was harmful to a person or a group of people with certain identities. We ALL have been there. When I am speaking with someone on the topic of sexuality and something harmful is said, I connect with this part of my story (even though I cringe) and I think about how we have to start somewhere. I try my best to encourage people who are willing to share and to listen about how I’ve been there or how I am still there in the learning process. The worst thing we can do is to be so afraid to make mistakes that we stop talking and listening about things that matter…things that share insight to our stories and give a glimpse of what someone else is experiencing.
We have to do better about encouraging each other to take risks and extending grace when someone we love makes a mistake. When we yell “Ta Da!” with a friend or family member, we are showing that our values include making the world a better place and that as humans, we are all in this together. When we know better, we do better.
I pledge to do better.