I try to not remember a lot of what my former life in the orthodox church left with me but one thing I do remember and happen to think is quite valid: when asking someone about fasting, in particular about my difficulty fasting as I am quite the eater, they said very simply, “you sin not so much with the things you put into your mouth but with what comes out of it.” The truth of that stays with me over 20 years later. It is very easy to offend people you are talking to if you don’t pay attention to what comes out of your mouth.
I was one of the first people to believe that I was so remote from racism, for sure, I am a good person, I would never do anything to show I am racist. Reading White Fragility I understood how I was in fact born racist by being born into my white supremacy and how a lot of what I say or do, if I don’t pay attention and am intentional in my staying away from prejudice can be a source of microaggressions. Not just to black people. “Of course your son must be really good in Math,” I would stupidly say to a Korean couple visiting my school, “oh, I speak Spanish, I learned it in the telenovelas”, another idiotic phrase I would utter. “You must be really good in sports” – to a black human entering my perimeter.
“I am so OCD” is something people throw around as a joke to describe someone who likes cleanliness and order a bit too much or nurtures a fixed idea. As a person who has been suffering from OCD – the illness – for the better part of my life, this phrase hits like a brick. Every, single time. And I fully understand the fact that it should not be on me to explain why. Just like it would be traumatic for me to explain the way that OCD has eaten days and weeks of my life and how I work with my mind almost daily to overcome it, it would be absolutely the same kind of hard to ask a black person to explain why their heart sinks when we say that in fact all lives matter, not just the black ones or to teach us how to not be racist (not that we truly believe we are).
There is a phrase in Romanian language (not surprisingly, as the language I have spoken from my toddler years abounds in ways to express our prejudices) that points out gay people. “E pe invers” – translated as she is upside down or backward. It struck me when I heard it the other day said at a table where my partner and I had made it clear we are together . Funny … in trying to find the closest English translation to this phrase in an online dictionary, there in plain sight, the word “gay” struck me as one potential translation. This phrase supposes that there is a right way and a wrong way to be and people who aren’t straight are wrong, they are upside down, or contrary to the norm. Much like we assume that white and Christian is the norm, we assume that straight (and in many cases married with kids) is the norm. Completely disregarding the fact that the world is amazingly diverse and that what we know as “standard” may simply only be our limited reality. And just … tolerating the difference instead of celebrating and being curious about it.
Brene Brown proposes an exercise I fully resent and embrace at the same time: what if we were to believe that everybody is doing the very best they can at any given moment. The shitty thing is – when you are on the receiving end of the above – that people really are doing their best. Whatever that is. We all make assumptions and throw phrases around as a joke, without thinking, out of habit, we don’t challenge others when they say something offensive and we don’t expect to be challenged ourselves.
The best assumption we can ever make is that we cannot make, should not make any assumptions and really watch what comes out of our mouths. And when we screw up – for this is actually the only certainty here – get over the discomfort and just be curious if we really want to learn. And then … do better, now that we know better.