Last weekend I was at a retreat. A spoken-word poet named Jenna Tenn-Yuk shared a piece entitled “Everyone loves a Jamasian girl” about her experience having Jamaican cultural roots but a predominately asian appearance. Later, the leader of the retreat was introducing a keynote speaker, who was also Jamaican, and said “Jenna may be a Jamasian girl but he’s the real mccoy.”
The next day, Wendy stood before the 100+ attendees and acknowledged the root of racism in her remark. By attempting to make a clever segue into the keynote presentation, she had diminished Jenna’s experience, mere moments after Jenna shared about the way these different aspects of her identity have made her a minority in both Jamaican and asian circles.
With humility and regret Wendy acknowledged her mistake and sought reconciliation with Jenna. As Jenna shared how she experiences these subtle forms of racism all the time, I realized just how blind I am to all the ways our words and our systems oppress people of colour. I left understanding the deep need for us to listen closely to the ways we talk to and about one another.
At this same retreat, I was a participant in a group workshop on shame. The facilitator, Steven, shared some stories from his own experience. Among many others, one of the things he mentioned was not knowing how to respond when he meets someone who has had a suicide in their family.
I felt myself cringe as I heard this phrase. When we refer to someone as ‘a suicide,’ we are boiling that person’s entire life story down to their death, as if nothing else about them ever existed. I knew this was not Steven’s intention in the comment he made, and yet it represented a lack of awareness in our society about how to talk about mental illness.
Overcoming my own hesitation, I approached Steven after the workshop and shared my thoughts. I told him I was not being judgmental or critical of his presentation, only that I sought to share some of my own understanding around mental illness and how we speak about those who have died because of it. Steven was receptive and even grateful that I initiated the conversation, and I left feeling empowered for speaking up.
One of my family members is in the hospital and I’ve been spending as much time as I can visiting. She has very limited movement currently, and when I offered to adjust her gown for her, my mom jokingly said “be careful, she’s gay,” implying that I might try to somehow take advantage of her vulnerable state.
My heart sank. Personal care for other people is something I do everyday in my job. While it’s true that I am attracted to females, my heart belongs solely to my wife, and I make every effort to avert my eyes in places where other women are temporarily exposed (hockey changing rooms, for example).
My mom knows this about me, and when I expressed my feelings about her joke, she quickly recognized my pain and apologized. She could have been defensive, offered an excuse, or told me to “lighten up,” but instead she took my concern seriously and made a commitment to consider the impact of these types of jokes in the future.
My dear friend Maxx, who is trans, recently posted about wanting to be able to grow facial hair. In response, I jokingly commented, “I could draw it on with a marker for you, if that helps.” I thought I was being funny.
He messaged me shortly after to say that he had been hurt by my comment. He knew I meant it as a joke, but it only reminded him that unlike so many cisgender people he knows, he is not yet able to fully express his masculinity in his body the way he desires. I instantly felt deep regret. Hurting my friend with my ignorance was furthest from my mind in that moment.
I offered an apology, immediately removed my comment, and wished I could do more to show Maxx that I want to be a fierce ally for the trans community. He told me he had hoped I would be receptive to his feelings, and that he is learning to stand up for himself when someone diminishes him for his gender identity.
As Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said, “my humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” In other words, “if I diminish you, I diminish myself.” To all the people mentioned in these stories, thank you for showing me that we can acknowledge our mistakes, hope for reconciliation and forgive one another with love. You have reminded me to consider the weight of my words carefully, and to listen before I speak, especially when the conversation involves those whose experiences of minority differ from my own. We are better for having had these moments together.