Updated: Jul 16
I'm a diversity educator by trade, and I often pride myself on the diversity of my social circles. I get paid to teach people how to be respectful, how to extend grace during tough moments, and how to disrupt racism and oppression in the workplace. This may lead people to believe that I've got it all figured out-- perhaps I have achieved such a level of competency and self-awareness that I no longer struggle with bias or micro(ish) such as aggressions and inequities. WRONG! News flash -- I just made a MAJOR mistake last week. Here's the "tea...":
I was e-introduced to a colleague who's name appeared (according to my biases) to be a "girl's name." I was so excited to meet this person since we were supposed to explore how we could collaborate on a social justice effort. I finally meet this person on Zoom, and to the immediate-eye I could not tell if they were male or female-identifying. My brain unconsciously deferred to female because of the name-- what a way for my brain to reach conclusions without me knowing! #BIAS
My colleague had VERY clearly included in their Zoom name the pronouns they/them. However, in my own vernacular and communication style I continued to refer to them as "her or girl." WOW. What an embarrassing mistake to make! I didn't make this mistake once or even twice, it was a routine mistake that I made until my level of self-awareness kicked in. My colleague had not corrected me at any point, displayed no signs of discomfort, was actively engaged in the conversation, and we were have a great time. YET, it doesn't change the fact that I had done harm in that moment.
So what do you do? Do you let it go because you don't want to ruin the mood or make things awkward? Do you act like it never happened? After all, they didn't mention it so why should you? Do you speak up and accidentally say the wrong thing again? Isn't it just better to keep quiet and avoid using pronouns all together? Surely there's no harm in just referring to them by name, right?
These are just few of the questions that I get when I talk about these types of encounters, and quite frankly, I asked myself those questions early on in my career. Here's what I did:
I owned my mistake.
I did not make excuses.
I asked my colleague how they were feeling and if I had harmed them in anyway.
I asked for grace, but verbally committed to doing better.
Every time I messed up after that, I held myself accountable again.
I went through a mental checklist of why/what/how/who as it relates to my behavior.
I DID BETTER, but I was not perfect.
By owning my mistake and resisting the urge to be defensive, I disrupted my privilege by not centering the incident on myself. I did not ask for forgiveness because often times that comes with the expectation that people must forgive. I did not wait for them to correct me because that's not their job. I had enough cognitive information and discipline to make better decisions, and I required my behaviors to catch up. I denied the privilege I would have by not using their pronoun. But wait...there's more...
A week later, I was in a meeting with another colleague who referenced the colleague I mention above. She and I were having a great discussion, and she made acknowledgement of great work that our colleague is doing. She referred to said colleague as "her" a number of times, and I politely nudged her to consider using they/them because that's how they identify. It was a moment where I went BEYOND remorse and into reform. It was a time where I could help shift the language that we use when addressing a colleague that ultimately leads to culture shift. This is allyship, and this is critical work.
#InTheGuarden we don't make excuses. We all make mistakes; therefore, we are all capable of learning and then committing to DOING better. Remember the old saying, "don't just talk about it, be about it?" Well...here we are...