Willing to Make Mistakes

I was recently invited to write a blog post for a Quaker blog. Because it hasn’t been published yet, I will refrain from discussing the content, but something struck me about the end of my writing process that exemplifies a point I’d like to make here now. After spending several days working on a post, I finally had a draft, and was low on energy and time for any major edits. My post, in the most general sense, pertained to systemic oppression. Speaking out about oppression comes with its risks, including the risk of making a mistake.

Looking over my post, I tried to scan for harmful privilege in my words: Was I centering the white experience too much? What assumptions was I making about my audience? Did I make sure to lift up the voices of people of color when talking about racism rather than inserting my own white-centric perspective? I reached a point where I knew my post was probably not going to be perfect on all counts. With only my own biased perspective, taught not to notice my own privilege even when I try my best to be aware, it is impossible to be perfect, to never make a mistake. This struck me most when I decided that my post was done enough, and I sent it in: Mistakes are inevitable. What’s most important is that I keep trying, that I still speak out, and that I am receptive to feedback and willing to apologize.

I have encountered many people who remain silent on serious issues because they don’t believe they know enough about the subject, or because they don’t want to ‘get it wrong’, leaving the talking to the ‘experts’ who they believe clearly said it better. I used to be one of those people. I see the logic in this strategy – after all, making mistakes can sometimes cause harm or discomfort to the very people we are trying to support – but this logic is flawed.

I would rather every single one of my friends take the risk and speak out about trans* rights, and have half of them screw something up – misuse a word, accidentally mix up pronouns, make an erroneous generalization – than to have only a small handful of friends speak out and rarely make basic mistakes while everyone else remains silent. As long as you are receptive to feedback and are willing to apologize for your inevitable mistakes, it is essential that you show up and make some mistakes. In fact, if we never put ourselves out there, we’ll never be able to learn these things!

We must be willing to make mistakes.

A huge piece of acting in solidarity with oppressed groups is also the willingness to take risks, and to take on the consequences of those risks. In some cases, the risks can involve jail time, or violence. In many others, the risk is simply of saying the wrong word, or of centering your own privileged experience without realizing it, and then to be called out for that mistake. Sometimes being called out involves the real anger and pain of someone who experiences your mistake. This can feel awful. This can bring out our worst defensiveness. It’s scary! Something to keep in mind, however, is that your silence is far more harmful in the long run than whatever harm you may have accidentally caused someone in your efforts. It is more important that you try, and that you honor the pain you may accidentally cause along the way and apologize and try to do better.

Even if someone has already spoken out about something more eloquently than you can imagine yourself being, it is essential that you also speak out. Add your voice to the chorus if there is one. There is great power in numbers. Do not assume people know your position. Actively signal your support – no one else can do that for you, and it means way more than you can imagine.

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