The valet wore a tan “Members Only” jacket, Black pants, and a large smile as he handed my husband the keys to his Jeep Cherokee, while my sons hopped into the back seat and I hurled myself into the front. We were feeling that “functional-family glow”: everyone was getting along and we had enjoyed a dinner with flowing conversation (these times had become rarer since both boys became teenagers). A Drake song was playing which provided further proof that this was indeed a special night: a musician whom everyone liked.
Heads boppin’, we pulled out of the restaurant’s parking lot to the stop sign that was fewer than 100 feet away, then pulled away. Suddenly the truck was lit with frightening blue and red strobe lights that almost seemed to match the rhythm of Drake’s song. But it wasn’t a party; it was the police…party over.
I felt my husband, who has a reputation of never becoming flustered, become tense. He gripped the steering wheel tightly, looked up at the rear-view mirror at our boys, and commanded, “Zach and Evan, I want you to watch and remember everything I do with this officer.” They, unaccustomed to their laid-back father speaking so firmly, adopted his energy, didn’t reply, and sat unmoving in the back.
The officer explained to my husband, who was playing the role of “compliant, non-threatening, Black man,” that he had come to a rolling stop at the stop sign, instead of stopping fully. He then took my husband’s license and car insurance and walked back to his car.
It was difficult to see my husband so visibly stressed; and I was sad that the glow of the night went immediately dark, so I cheerily said, “Baby, you won’t get a ticket. Don’t worry. I’ve been stopped and I haven’t gotten a ticket in at least 10 years.”
With no inflection, and a slight hint of annoyance, my husband responded, “Oh, I am getting a ticket, Randi, trust me.”
And he did.
We drove in silence for a few minutes, when my husband turned the radio down, quickly glanced at me and revealed, “you are a woman—an attractive woman at that—your experience with the police has been and will be different from mine and from the boys.” I could tell that he was frustrated with the police officer — and more so — with me. He was annoyed that I was blind to his experience—that for a moment I couldn’t see or understand his pain, fear and stress.
I was viewing his experience from my place of privilege. My experience as a female driver has been easier than my husband’s experience as a male driver. This assertion does not mean that I haven’t taken driving seriously; that I’m not a good driver; that I don’t get stressed when I see or am stopped by a police officer. It just means that my experience has been easier (not just different) than my husband’s for reasons outside of our control.
I accept that in life, some things have been easier for me than for others because I’ve had certain blessings (privileges). Going to college was easier for me than for many of my friends because I was born to parents who had been to college and provided me with constant guidance, information and support along the way. They could pay for my tuition and books, while I had friends who had to sit out every other semester due to financial strain. Did I also study hard in high school and college, perform well on the SAT, participate in extra-curricular activities? Yes. I did my part, but my journey has been easier than some. Admittedly, I sometimes feel guilty, or unexplainably embarrassed, but I must own my story and respect others’ stories.
Similarly, have I struggled as a Black person in America. Absolutely, I have been called Nigger more than once, told I was dumb, left out of activities, followed around stores like I’m a criminal and so on. But, I have listened to my darker-skinned Sistas. I have respected their stories; I sat at rapt attention at the documentary “Dark Girls.” I have received benefits and privileges in this country because I have lighter skin. This is an ugly truth; but it is the truth.
Truth — accepting yours, and allowing others to live theirs — is powerfully affirming, healing and bonding. It says to those in your life, “I see you fully. Even though your truth may make me uncomfortable, accepting it allows us to have a more authentic relationship.” Someone else’s truth doesn’t diminish your story.
But repeatedly, I am confronted about the term privilege, especially White Privilege. I can imagine that a White person who has struggled, worked hard, perhaps come from poverty or abuse, feels as if his story is diminished when someone dare use the term “privilege.” It doesn’t. Their truth is still real and valid; but privilege is a part of their truth as a White person in America; just as being a woman is part of mine. A White person is 78% more likely to be accepted to the same university as an equally qualified Black person; Black men make 72 cents for every dollar a White man makes; a Black college student has the same chances of getting a job, as a White high school dropout; Blacks are less than 13% of our population and make up only 14% of regular drug users, but are 37% of those arrested for drug offenses. Even if a White person is poor, grew up without parents, and abused; he has a smaller chance of being followed in a store or stopped by the police than an educated Black man. White privilege is undeniable.
When someone denies White privilege, they are also denying Black pain and history; and healing can’t begin until someone’s pain is acknowledged. Acknowledging someone else’s pain and struggle doesn’t diminish one’s own. To the contrary, it opens the door for genuine conversations, healing, bonding, and respect. An illness can’t be treated until we accept that we are sick.
My elderly neighbor’s daughter, a thin woman with long, blond hair and a killer wardrobe, used to bring her kids over to play with my kids. They were typical kids in that they had boundless energy: they would climb, jump, run and wrestle until they (or we) became exhausted and ended the playdate. The other mother would gather up her kids and their things and often cheerfully say something about getting “the little monkeys together again soon.”
I don’t think that she was trying to be offensive, or had any idea that what she said could be perceived as offensive. Following the recent coverage of the H & M ad that showed a Black child wearing a sweatshirt that said “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” I have similarly read several comments suggesting that many do not understand why Black people would be offended by the sweatshirt.
I can imagine that many are confused: “why would anyone be upset about calling a kid an animal?” On surface, it seems like an innocent, even endearing, thing to do. Pet names come from a place of fondness.
Communication, however, isn’t just what happens on the surface; communication usually happens on multiple levels. There is what the person said, what they intended to say; and what message the listener received (which can be different based on the listener’s mood, background, culture, race, age, and so on). Two people can hear the same thing and receive it differently (and no one response is less valid than the other). So while a White person may not be offended at being called a monkey; a Black person very well could be.
To justify slavery, Black people were dehumanized and animalized. They were characterized as subhuman and inferior, so that they could be sold along with the other livestock. Black people have been characterized as not as intelligent, advanced or evolved as other races – closer to cavemen and apes on the evolutionary scale.
The animalization of Black Americans did not end when slavery ended. Dr. Martin Luther King was called a “filthy, abnormal animal” in his FBI files, President Barack Obama, his wife and children repeatedly have been pictured as chimpanzees; Serena Williams has been compared to horses and monkeys; Black soccer stars have had bananas thrown on the soccer field; Patrick Ewing was compared to “the missing link” and there are yearly reports of white players and fans mocking Black players at high school basketball and football games.
So when Black people become upset about a Black child in a sweatshirt that says “Coolest Monkey in the jungle” (standing next to a White child wearing a sweatshirt that says “Animal Tamer”) they aren’t ‘being too sensitive’ or ‘looking for trouble’ or ‘making everything about race’ they are reacting to an insult that is weighted by over 300 years of history.
Neversays: 25 Phrases You Should Never Ever Say to Keep Your Job and Friends by Randi Bryant is available for purchase on amazon.com and other major retailers.
I’ve stayed in more hotels than a popular hooker; and I’ve heard more confessions than an elderly priest. As a diversity trainer, I used to travel around the country to various companies and conduct seminars on issues surrounding diversity and inclusion. As a result, I frequently found myself in budget hotels in the middle of nowhere at night, eating “salads” consisting of only iceberg lettuce and shredded carrots, and listening to issues involving racism, sexism, ageism, gender identity, sexual orientation issues and more during the day.
The one thing I’ve learned about myself is that people seemingly feel comfortable telling me things that they are ashamed of or asking me questions that they would never ask anyone else. When I was on a company’s site, I would become the nameless, raceless, genderless bartender, people felt comfortable showing their darkest parts.
Consequently, I’ve heard raw bigotry, extreme pain, and genuine confusion; yet only one sentiment has ever upset me: arrogant dismissal.
That isn’t racist. That’s not offensive. It was just a joke. She is too sensitive. There is nothing more offensive to me – and more importantly, destructive to the process of creating bonds of mutual understanding, healing and community progress – than when someone dismisses someone else’s experience and feelings and declares themselves the ultimate and determinative judge of their own behavior.
I have spent the same amount of time consoling those who are hurt, angry, offended, or indignant that they have been accused of being offensive or hurtful in the workplace as I have consoling those that they have offended. Being accused of being biased, prejudice, xenophobic or homophobic goes against the moral fiber of who most of us have been raised to think America represents. We have been told since we were in elementary school that America is the melting pot, the home of the free, one nation under God. We watch heartwarming videos of kids of different races playing together and of people of different religions praying together during a tragedy.
On the other hand, racists are portrayed as ignorant, dirty, disgusting characters, who usually wear White robes and burn crosses at night; sexists are very wealthy, arrogant men, who openly harass the office staff; and homophobes as bible-thumping folks who think they can “pray” the LGBTQ out of people. Understandably, no one wants to associate themselves with those people, so when someone accuses us of being any of those things; most people don’t deny what they said or did but rather will focus on proving that their words or actions were not wrong, and justifying their behavior and character.
The conversations often go something like this:
HR Director: Sarah, Jack feels insulted because you frequently call him “gramps”, have asked him repeatedly when he’s going to retire, and have cut him off at meetings by saying, “Jack doesn’t understand this generation” when he was giving his input about new ideas.
Sarah: That’s ridiculous! Is he saying that I don’t like old people?
HR Director: I don’t think he is saying you don’t like old people. He just said that he is offended by your remarks and I want you two to feel comfortable working here and working together.
Sarah: I am comfortable working with Jack! I love old people! My grandmother is one of my best friends! Seriously, I call her almost every other day! My dog walker is a retired school teacher. I trust her with my two dogs! I can’t believe that Jack would accuse me of being ageist! Perhaps Jack is just too sensitive because he’s the oldest guy around here. Maybe he’s insecure.
HR Director: Let’s bring the conversation back to exactly what things you said that offended Jack. For instance, have you said that “he wouldn’t understand certain things because he doesn’t know this generation?”
Sarah: Yes, but I didn’t mean any harm by saying that. Geez, it’s true. Jack is 69. He doesn’t know about how tweens will respond to our Twitter campaign. What I said is not offensive!
HR Director: Jack found it offensive.
Sarah: I am so hurt. I really thought Jack liked me. I can’t believe he is attacking me this way.
Sarah is so focused on not being considered a bad person or being labeled ageist that she can’t hear or accept that she may have said something that was offensive to someone else. She isn’t open to even considering how her words or actions were received by Jack. This common reaction is a pathogen to understanding and growth and causes ill-will, gossip, work issues to spread like an aggressive disease.
None of us gets to decide if we have offended someone. None of us can decide what is offensive to another person. Typically what is offensive is rooted in one’s gender, race, religion, culture, life experiences. And since none of us can be knowledgeable about all of these things for each person, if someone claims that you offended them; it’s best to learn how and why, so you won’t do it again. Shouldn’t that be each person’s goal—not to be right—be to do right and strive not to hurt others?
I laughed at Ellen’s tweet with Usain Bolt. I found it funny.It seems that even Usain Bolt found it funny, as he retweeted it. Does that necessarily mean that the tweet wasn’t racist? No, it just means Usain Bolt and I didn’t find it to be.
See, this is the thing: there is not a Dictionary of All Things Racist. There also isn’t an authority on all things racist. There are obvious vile phrases, but most remarks that cause offense are subjective in nature, in that what upsets some will not upset others (because surprise: not all women are alike, not all Black people are alike, not all homosexuals are alike, and so on). So, instead of having these irrational, hateful social media brawls, I just think we need to establish a few things:
Again, accept that most things are subjective. That means that there is no wrong and no right. What some deem racist, sexist, ageist, ableist, etc. will vary from person to person dependent on that person’s life experiences. When some saw Ellen’s tweet, they immediately saw or referenced this
When you consider that someone may be working from that reference point, you can understand why they may be offended by Ellen’s joke. They aren’t wrong for being offended by it; just as you are not wrong for not being offended. People have different experiences, different levels of tolerance, are open to different types of humor.
But, if the joke offended many within an identity group, it is at a minimum, racially insensitive. You have to respect another’s pain: sympathize even if you can’t empathize. Additionally, you should avoid using any insensitive language at work (if you are interested in keeping your job).
Saying that you said something insensitive or racist does not always make you a racist (or sexist, or bigot, or homophobic, etc.). A lot of healing conversations fail to happen because people are afraid of being permanently labeled or our characters being smeared, so they immediately shut down and begin defending themselves. We need to allow room for people to make mistakes, to grow, to learn, we make room for healing. A rapper can make a song that has sexist lyrics and own a company with an extremely pro-female benefit package and be a wonderfully supportive husband. If we tag him a sexist–the conversation ends. If we explain how his lyrics are sexist, we start a conversation and begin change.
We must remember that Ellen is a comedian. Entertainers live on the edge of appropriateness. Music, jokes, art, etc. should be somewhat provocative.
We also must consider intention. Do I think Ellen is racist? No. Do I think that she had the slightest idea that this tweet would offend some-absolutely not. What I would love to see happen is a conversation. Her mistake should be used as an opportunity to learn. To show true caring, she should try to understand how and why the meme was offensive. When you offend someone, don’t put so much energy in defending who you are; but spend time in learning who the offended is and why they are hurt. Through that process, the offended person feels heard, seen and respected; and you grow. That’s how global healing happens–one incident at a time.
Sometimes we mess up. We are human. We do things that we shouldn’t do. We only make things worse when we follow up on our poor choices with a deficient apology. Ryan Locthe’s Twitter apology following his robbery controversy at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil was one giant Neversay.
Let’s first address Locthe’s chosen mode of communication (which technically would be more of a Neverdo than a Neversay). Your purpose for a communication coupled with the intended audience should determine your mode of communication.
PURPOSE + AUDIENCE DETERMINES MODE
Whenever you deliver bad news or give an apology, it should be done in person. It shows that you are “showing up” to fully accept responsibility. Ryan’s first mistake was sending his “apology” via twitter, which is viewed as a light, casual, social medium.
Lochte’s mode of communication was poor and the substance of his communication was even worse. The chart below provides a rough translation of Lochte’s communication:
|LOCHTE’S WORDS||WHY THEY FALL SHORT|
|For not being more careful and candid||· I’m not going to admit to lying|
|For my role||· Suggest that he simply played a part.
· That there are other guilty parties
|It’s traumatic to be out late with your friends in a foreign country||· Makes him the victim instead of the perpetrator|
|…have a stranger point a gun at you and demand money to let you leave||· I am a victim
· You should actually feel sorry for me
· I had no other option
|There has already been too many valuable resources dedicated to what happened last weekend, so I hope we spend our time celebrating the great stories and performances…||· This isn’t a big deal
· Get over it
· I don’t want to talk about it anymore
Since the incident in Brazil and the subsequent apology, Lochte has lost all of his endorsements and loads of fans. I wonder if things would have played out differently had he delivered a sincere, heartfelt and direct apology.