This post passed through my Facebook memories and it helped me to synthesize some of what’s going on. Maybe it will help you, too.
This activity has circulated for a while in parenting and teaching circles in the hope of teaching children to understand the power of words.
In case you can’t read the text on the photo: You give kids shaving cream or toothpaste or something similar and ask them to squeeze it all out; they delight in this. Then you ask them to put it back in the container. Obviously, this is fruitless. The moral of the story is: things you say can’t be taken back. Once they’re out, they’re out.
I saw this and I thought … this is part of why so many white people dig in their heels about racism.*
Acknowledging we are wrong brings to mind years (decades?) of tubes of toothpaste and cans of shaving cream in our wake. All the damage, all the hurts that we were/are (potentially inadvertently) responsible for. We see all of that, collectively in one messy pile, and we feel like a horrible human being.
Nobody likes to feel like a horrible human being, so we don’t acknowledge that messy pile, and we continue to hurt those around us in order to protect ourselves.
To paraphrase Maya Angelou: when you know better, do better.
That messy pile of jokes and slurs and negative assumptions and offhand comments and staying silent? You own that, regardless of where and when you pivot. You own that whether you acknowledge owning it or not. Those around you know you own it, whether you acknowledge it or not.
You can say, “I didn’t know. And I feel stupid and ashamed for not knowing. Now I know. Now I will do better.”
Also know that even in the process of doing better, you’ll still mess up. Because we all mess up, because we’re human. Anyone who tells you that they’ve never spoken or acted in a way that was demeaning to a minority either lacks self awareness or is lying (or both). And also because this stuff is baked in to our culture. Fish not knowing what water is and all that.
When someone tells you their story, listen. To the best of your ability, put aside your own self-defense and listen. If you don’t believe them, if you’re trying to rationalize the other side, pause for a moment and ask yourself: what if what they are saying is true? What about that possibility makes it so uncomfortable that you’re trying to poke holes in it?
We can rant about the system. (And agreed — the system desperately needs an overhaul.) But… we ARE the system. Know better. Do better.
As an addendum to that: support people who are trying to change. Support people who are doing better because they learning. Too often, someone who had a different way of looking at things 5 or 20 or 50 years ago is vilified for flip flopping or for “well, you used to ___.” Maybe they didn’t know then, but they know now. They were part of the problem, realized it, and want to be part of the solution. Let them become part of the solution!
*Applicable to any power differential.