Maybe society (especially FaceBook) should come with Community Agreements like our GLSEN presentations and workshops. When we set agreements like: Lean into Discomfort, Call In instead of Call Out, Oops/Ouch, and Use the Language You Have, we set expectations that IT’S OK to make mistakes because that’s how we learn.
With these agreements in place, we let people know that since we all come from different experiences, education, and levels of understanding around sensitive topics, people may still be inadvertently using harmful language or ideas. Just because people are using the language they have and it may be old or offensive, it doesn’t mean they are a terrible person. When we know better, we do better.
With these agreements in place, when we need to call in someone on some language or idea that they’ve used that is offensive (an ouch to someone), or perpetuates systems of power (an ouch to society), they understand that it’s just a mistake (an oops) on their part. It doesn’t mean they’re an awful person or that there is any judgement, and is a teachable/learning moment. We are calling them in to learning about things beyond their privilege and comfort.
It often feels a little (or a lot) uncomfortable to be called in, especially publicly, especially if you’re new to conversations like this, but Community Agreements help set that idea that we are all here to learn and that we all WANT to learn because we don’t want to hurt each other.
Last night I was thankful that we set Community Agreements even though we just did a short presentation and discussion for a college class, because we did need to gently call in someone on their language. A well-intentioned, kind person inadvertently said that she had “colored friends”. I think she surprised even herself because she was nervous. As the presenter, I could have ignored it, but that’s not my job. I also saw how the People of Color in the room reacted to that comment (an ouch for them), and knew they likely would not be the one to call in the person.
Because we’d set Community Agreeements, after she spoke we took a quick pause and I addressed briefly how we use the term “People of Color” now instead of “colored”. This Love Warrior took the call in wonderfully, apologized quickly for the “ouch”, and we continued on.
That moment of vulnerability allowed others in the room to lean into their discomfort more as well, and one of the people in the room with a marginalized identity explained how sometimes they want to be the person to call someone in when someone says something that’s an “ouch” for them, but they can’t. They’re frozen.
I explained what I’ve learned from Jay Pryor, that in moments like that, our reticular activating system hijacks our brains and washes out our thinking and reasoning ability. Essentially, we’ve been triggered, and it takes time for the cortisol to fade away enough to be able to think rationally again.
I think that was an eye-opening moment for many in the room, because many people with identities that inherently hold privilege assume that their “friends of color” or “LGBTQ friends” will say something if they make them uncomfortable, but that is not always the case. We discussed that the burden should not be on the people with marginalized identities to educate others, and that’s a job for allies.
At the end of the evening, one of the women of color came up to me and thanked me for being her “light”. As an ally, I’m always glad when I know I’ve made someone feel more comfortable, but I do this work even if there is no thanks, because the work of allyship shouldn’t be done for approval or thanks, it should be done because it’s necessary.
In this work of creating a safer, more inclusive society for everyone, we’re all going to make mistakes. It’s OK to make mistakes, as long as we’re willing to learn from them. There will always be people who have learned a little more on this journey, so when they call you in, the best thing to do is to say “thank you”, apologize, and move on instead of getting defensive. After all, it’s not about you or your feelings, it’s about ending the actual harm that is done to others. I think if we keep that at the forefront of our minds, we can do this. We can lean into discomfort, we can call in others or be called in and we can change the world, friends!