The problem with land mines is you don’t know they’re there until it’s too late.
But not all land mines are hidden in the ground. Some come out of our mouths: verbal land mines that we don’t even know are there until the damage is done. One young woman, a schoolteacher named Cami, called So Well Spoken with a story about a co-worker who insulted her unexpectedly by calling her “uppity.” That word has an intense racial history dating back to the 1880s, which apparently this co-worker knew nothing about … making it even more upsetting when Cami’s colleagues attacked him for it.
“The tone of that conversation felt really accusatory to the person who used the word,” Cami said, “and so I don’t think that he was really able to hear what they were saying, because he felt like he was being attacked.”
Things got so heated that she went and talked to him afterward, calming him down before finally sharing her reactions to what he said. That long delay made things tougher for her.
“I feel like I should have the space to react the way that I felt,” said Cami. “But I also felt that if I had shown that in the moment of that conversation, it would’ve shut the conversation down. It would’ve made the person so defensive that he couldn’t hear anything that I had to say.”
So what can you do if you step on such a land mine, or if you catch the shrapnel unexpectedly? Here are some tips from Nicole Sanchez, VP of social impact for GitHub and the founder of the tech diversity consulting firm Vaya Consulting:
- Say you’re sorry … FULL STOP. You may have an explanation or excuse for what you said, but that can wait. The first thing to do is make it clear that you are sorry and let that sink in. “It’s very much about getting comfortable owning a mistake,” says Sanchez. “Intent doesn’t really matter in that moment.”
- Ask for more information. Cami’s co-worker said what he said out of ignorance, a lack of knowledge about the cultural baggage the word uppity has. The cure for ignorance is curiosity, and it’s a great way to start rebuilding trust. She suggests saying something like, ‘I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you. Can you explain to me why uppity is so loaded?’
- Do not expect the offended person to teach or explain anything to you in that moment. If the other person doesn’t feel like explaining, it’s OK — accept that. Sanchez gives Cami a lot of credit for having the presence of mind, and the patience, to be the peacemaker in this situation. “We’re expected to both have a reaction and then educate everybody on why that reaction is justified, how everybody should proceed. And that’s a lot to ask one person to take on,” Sanchez says.
- If you witnessed the incident and want to intervene, hold off. It’s easy to react so strongly that you eclipse the person who was actually hurt, making it harder for them to discharge their pain and be part of the solution. “It makes me invisible in the equation and doesn’t allow me to explain my feelings in this,” Sanchez says. “And quite often, they get it wrong.”
Fortunately, Cami’s encounter had a happy ending. She says that she and her co-worker found common ground through this experience, and it actually gave them a platform to discuss race in meaningful ways.
“We’ve traded a lot of books on the subject, we talk about how we’re going to talk about race with our students, since we serve a community of color,” says Cami. “Our relationship has become one in which race can be discussed frequently, and it doesn’t always have to be tense. And I think we’ve both learned a lot.”
If something like this has happened to you, we want to know. Tell us about an encounter or a conversation you had where race was at play (yours, the other person’s or both). If it was awkward — or even awful — what might have made it better, or prevented it from happening at all? If it was awesome, what do you think you did right? Your story could end up featured on So Well Spoken as a way of helping us all handle issues of race and diversity just a little bit better.
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