Owning Mistakes

Estimated Reading Time: 11 minutes

I am unlikely going to get it right (even in this post).  I'll come close at times but this kind of work must come with a recognition that if I'm open-minded and reflective, coupled with being decisive and willing to try to use my privilege daily to advocate, promote, and protect marginalized voices, I will hopefully do less harm than good.  I think that's a realistic goal and one that I'm ok with--even though I would like it to be more than that.  

This acceptance is about recognizing that we work within systems of oppression that privilege certain people over others and individually, none of our individual work is likely to restructure the system.  As someone who is a benefactor of this oppression with various markings of privilege (white, male, middle class, perceived as heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical, cisgender, etc), it can be a challenge to do right by folks who have been historically and currently marginalized. I've been trained to ignore in the best case but more often perpetuate the systematic oppression in how I move through the world and view all the "others" out there.  So there's a great deal of unlearning and learning that I must do in order to just aim for that goal of doing less harm than good.
A picture that has a word ballon that says "What Did You Make Today?" and another one below it that says "Mistakes"
Image Source: Topher McCulloch

So what the hell am I talking about?  Well, I'm thinking about fellow people who are situated higher in the hierarchies of privilege and are involved in this work of elevating marginalized voices and doing what is possible to restructure the power system. We are going to make mistakes and do harm to the very people we are trying to engage with and advocate with.  It's inevitable given our positions, our cultural trainings, and blind spots.  For me and what I would encourage other similar-minded folks to remember is that we need to not only accept that we'll make mistakes and be called out for it, but that we should be ready for it, acknowledge it and where possible, atone for it when happens.  This is essential.  

I often have experienced, heard, or read about the reactions of people like myself is to feel affronted and abandoned when chastised for big and small mistakes made.  And I'm not excluding myself here.  When I have been called out for misspeaking or misrepresenting folks who are marginalized, my mind quickly races to defense mode and I look to contextualize or assuage the impact because, of course, my intent (and heart) was in the right place.  I have seen and certainly experienced somewhere in my head that desire to wrap myself in a protected bubble of privilege that allows me to leave the conversation and act like it's not my fault that "they" misconstrued my help and go about my life with no further impact.  But, in my best moments, I am able to step away from that reaction.

I have been increasingly able to catch myself in these moments but it's not always done immediately or effectively (that is, I doubly mess up by misstepping in the first place and then fumbling the acknowledge/atonement phase).  It can be an ugly process and I recognize that the progress I have made is in significant part due to the patience of others who use their valuable time and energy to help me understand and do better. 

So why do I bring this up?  Well, I regularly use this blog to share books and thoughts that recognize the importance of ideas, stories, and histories of folks who have or are margianlized and how they are presented/misrepresented in American society (e.g. my Books for White Folks series, this resource of recommended readings for engaging in conversation around racism, a discussion about a play named Straight White Men, and episodes from my shortly-lived video series, the Weekly Pop on memes, race in fantasy, and privilege).  I think about these issues a lot because I have come to some level of understanding of how much inequality pervades our world and how that is baked into the fabric of society.  I use this blog as one means of calling it out but I've increasingly learned it's not enough to name it, I need to do things but what things and how to do those things are challenging to figure out.  

In this case, I want to reflect on two events that happened Winter 2019 that remind me how action can sometimes be confusing and uncertain, and even paralyzing. My intention isn't to lament so much as it is to share with others, particularly white folks, how navigating privilege, allyship, and trying to do right is not always clear or right.  But it is something we must continue to engage in if we are invested in undermining social inequality and social injustice.     

Incident 1
I was contacted by a local and upcoming festival.  I was referred to them by another colleague and they were interested in my sitting on a panel about the absence of people who have been marginalized in a festival's storytelling genre.  I'm always excited when people ask me to speak because, it's an opportunity for sharing, dialogue, and learning.  

But my immediate reaction--thanks in very much from readings and resources mentioned above--was to ask if the panel had people on the panel that were representative of the kind of absence of representation they were interested in discussing.  They admitted that it was limited and so I asked if it would be ok if I used my network to find a replacement for my spot and help them fill the last spot; the last thing the panel needed was another white guy.  They readily agreed and I set off to my networks.  I asked friends if they or people they knew could fill the spot.  Sure enough, I found two amazing people who were available and willing.  I introduced them to my contact and they would now be on the panel.  

Great!  Mission accomplished, right?  Mostly.  The more I thought about it and again considered some of the books that I have read, I was left with a question of whether I should have advocated for some compensation for these folks since inevitably they were being brought in front of a predominantly white (and probably male) audience to (in part) educate the audience about lack of representation.  That is, they were laboring for white audiences without due compensation, something folks who are marginalized are regularly called to do.  While many do out of goodwill, necessity, or other reasons. it still irks me that I didn't think to take my advocacy further.  Some might consider this a small thing but it's still something I'm thinking about how to manage better in the future.  

Equally challenging around this though was the appreciation that I received and I'm still reconciling that.  In posting about this situation and requesting contacts, a few people applauded my work in trying to make the panel more diverse and practicing good allyship (a term I use but can feel ambiguous about).  Such points left me with the consideration that I was recentering myself into the narrative (and yes, I'm doing that here too but in the hopes of helping others like me understand the trickiness and importance of this work)--making it about me.  I'm still not sure what to do with that but it's there and I have to rethink such practices next time.  

Social media certainly emphasizes that centering of self in any narrative but I think I could have shared information about the panel without emphasizing that I was originally asked and was stepping back. For some, this is a small thing or an attempt to even discredit myself or handwringing, I know. But I don't see it as that. I see it as thinking about the kinds of symbolic exchanges going on and if my goal was to encourage space and voice for other folks, then I still need to be careful and thoughtful about how I include myself in the process of making space.  That is, at its core, how much of what I was doing was virtue-signaling and saying, "Hey! Look what I'm doing here! I'm being a good person."  And that just doesn't sit well with me--especially as I think about it in the context of the second incident.   

Incident 2
If incident 1 might be considered small or even neutral, I fear that incident 2 was harmful. I'm on many list-servs related to my academic interests and follow many amazing people on Twitter that coincide with my academic interests.  On a listserv recently, there was a call for papers and that call for papers was on a topic that I'm quite interested in (open education).  In a follow up email, someone that I respect greatly and regularly refer to in my discussions of open education, made a point about the call not being clearly for open access papers--that is, it would be another potential pricey journal issue about open education (making learning materials and research less costly and freely accessible).  This person made a great point and I thought it needed amplification, so without thinking, I took a piece of what this person said and posted it to Twitter with quotations and tagging the person as well as the publisher.  I called for the publisher to make the issue open access.  

I thought I was doing something good; advocating for something I believe in and invoking the words of a well-known scholar whose voice has not given the legitimacy that it deserves (reiterated by a recent blog post by this person).  But then, I heard from the person.  I learned that my quoting without further context created tension and bothered people in this person's circle.  When I read that, I oscillated between slapping myself upside the head and laughing at my idiocy.  With a mere tweet that I could send without too much thought, I had caused some level of disruption to this person's life.  That wasn't my intention but that was my impact.  

My first thought--to no surprise--was to explain what happened (as I saw it) and defend myself in part.  For many of us, that's our default.  If I "know" (more like, believe) that I acted in good faith, then it's not my fault--that's how we might think about it and decide to not respond, move on, or disregard the harm done.  

Instead of reacting, I took some time to read and think about what the person said and what I had done.  I recognized the impact I caused and decided that if I'm going to do right, then I need to own what I do.  I apologized and was specific about what I was apologizing about.  I identified the harm I caused and how I would avoid the mistake in the future.  Finally, I asked how I could rectify or mitigate what had happened and offered some ideas that came to mind to show that I was concretely thinking about this. 

This was an important and, albeit brief conversation to have.  It led me to writing this post and reflecting over the past year about what other ways might I be making mistakes and whether or not I am getting feedback (and responding appropriately).  Of course, this led me to think about other things as well.  This person was quite gracious in responding and conversing with me and to that I am thankful.  

But it raises questions for me to think about and be prepared for--what happens when I make mistakes and people are discernibly mad, angry, or frustrated with me.  Can I respond with the same level sincerity that I did in this situation?  I hope that I can and I can try to prepare to think about how to check my ego should such a situation occur.  

So this might be a bit more of a meander than people are used to (or maybe not...).  But I wanted to put this out there to open up the conversation for those of us in more positions of privilege in the hierarchal structures of oppression to think about what it means to engage with and advocate with folks who are marginalized and how we will inevitably make mistakes.  That's ok because we aren't perfect.  The more important piece is how we respond (as opposed to reacting) and where possible take stock of what's going on inside our heads as we're being called out for such mistakes.  

So that's what's on my mind today.  How about you?  What resonated about this piece and how have you navigated such situations?

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