“People say hurtful things all the time. Often, they don’t mean it. Language is an imperfect tool for communicating thoughts. But when you are an “other,” when you are a minority or part of a disadvantaged group that has historically been shut out from power, and when the person saying it is a member of an advantaged group, you notice the hurts. You notice them because you always have to assess where the hurtful comment lands on the spectrum between merely inelegant to actively dangerous. Did the person misspeak? Or did the person just accidentally reveal deep antipathy for your kind of people? Or was it something in between?
And what should you do about it? Should you ask them to repeat it? No, because what if they do, what then? Should you confront them? Should you make a scene? Should you play it cool? Oh no, can everybody tell that you haven’t actually been listening for the last 10 minutes because your mind is still wrestling with what’s been said? Should you go to the bathroom and collect yourself? Wait, why are you the one who needs to collect yourself?— you didn’t say anything. Why are you even in this position? You should punch him, that solves everything. Wait, no, that solves nothing. Actually, you should go to bed, because it’s already six hours later and you have work in the morning.”*
Not a week went by in the course of my 37-year career in a profession historically dominated by men that I did not have occasions when something hurtful was said and that very same internal dialogue didn't bounce around inside my head. There are many people who live with hurt and tension related to their otherness EVERY DAY and for many, several times a day.
Language is an imperfect tool. Even as a writer, I know that all too well. As a human being, I know and fear how the words that fly out of my mouth can be weapons of lasting destruction. On this day on which we honor an American champion for justice, I pledge to listen deeply, to choose tenderly, and to speak courageously. Peace be with you, my brothers and sisters.
*Elie Mystal, The Nation, 1/19/2020