I walk my dog three times a day. For some, this is a meditative time to be outside with their canine companion; a chance to disconnect and be with your best friend. For me, it is more like a chore. Living on the top floor of a Manhattan sky rise makes this a process just to get to street level. Compound this with the fact that my dog suffers from high anxiety, deals with prejudice against pit bulls on a daily basis, and the many obstacles of city life—trash for her to get in to, crowds of people everywhere, and some people that set her on edge—it makes for a sometimes painstaking process. Yet I do it diligently, though sometimes begrudgingly.
Last night, I took her for a walk, a bit later than usual. I had got caught up in some binge watching and lost track of time. I knew it was going to be a short walk. Typically when I walk her, I try to have her avoid other dogs and other people. It is always a wild card to know how my very anxious dog is going to react to them. She has recently gotten into a scuffle with another dog. I try to be very mindful of how she engages with others and have learned how to detect when her anxiety increases and ways I can counter it.
The avenue I live off of was uncharacteristically quiet and empty. As I walked her down the street, there was a strange man that approached us. He was a younger man of color, much taller than myself, was muttering to himself and wasn’t walking with any purpose or direction. I perceived him as potentially homeless, but there was nothing to justify that assumption. He just stopped in front of us and didn’t really say anything. I immediately felt myself tense up and tighten up on the leash. I quickly moved out of the way to avoid interacting with him. He started to say something and I retorted “sorry, she is just not comfortable around strangers,” and quickly walked away.
Now, chances are, regardless of who this was, I would have said something similar. But there was something about this interaction that made me more uncomfortable than when most strangers approach us in the past. I felt fear. In addition to having a 70 pound dog that I know will protect me, I am a man that can physically hold my own if I am ever in an unsafe situation. So I am not quite sure where this discomfort or fear stemmed from, but if I am being honest, I suspect that both race and mental health had something to do with it. Something about it being late at night, on a deserted street with a stranger approaching me, with all of the subliminal messages I have received about “safety” and who is defined as “safe” definitely influenced this interaction. I could easily blame this on my dog. I didn’t know this man; I didn’t know how she was going to respond to him or what he was going to say to me. But when I walked away from the situation, my gut said to me “crap, what just happened?” He could have been dangerous…but also, he could have not been. I didn’t stick around long enough to figure out which. I made a snap judgment, and that judgment lead to not giving this man the benefit of the doubt.
I have been doing anti-racism work for over a decade through conferences, workshops, conversations, etc. Yet, this one moment seemed to hold up a mirror to my face and shatter my mindset that I have transcended my own racist biases. I knew that when I said, “sorry, she is just not comfortable around strangers” what I really meant was “sorry, I am not comfortable around strangers, specifically strangers like you.” It has shined a flashlight into my soul to make visible my feelings when it comes to race and mental health.
In her book Rising Strong, researcher Brené Brown describes the process of looking at our own shame stories and learning to uncover the root of them. This shame often relates to our experiences growing up combined with both covert and overt messaging we receive from society. Well…this shame story is an example of internalized dominance if I ever heard one. As a child, we are told, “don’t talk to strangers,” or learn that homeless people are “crazy” and dangerous. These messages, along with the well-documented way white people internalize racial dominance, the assumptions I made about this individual, and the fear I felt (whether rational or not), revealed that my actions had little to do with the dog herself, and more were demonstration of my own biases.
As the Rev. Dr. Jamie Washington points out, “oppression is pervasive and it affects us all.” We live in a world where despite some of our best intentions, we still have very polarizing systems of race, class, ability, gender, orientation, etc. We can go to workshops, conferences, read books, and truly try to engage in the work, but this doesn’t fix everything. Last night was a reminder for me that the work is never over. Despite my best efforts, my own prejudices come back and often bite me in the ass. That is a hard pill to swallow.
So in moments of falling down—when you have made a mistake, when you have hurt someone else, when you have contributed to the narrative of oppression—what do you do? How do you take the most from these moments and find the nugget of truth in them?
Here is the process that I find to be the most helpful:
- Acknowledge it. My friend Brian calls this the “sit in your sh*t” moment. We have to recognize shame and feel it to move forward. We acknowledge the fact that something has happened, that we have not engaged in the most generous way, that we have hurt someone, or that we have just displayed a racists/sexist/ablists/etc. behavior. The more we divorce ourselves from it or justify what has happened, the less we can truly engage in this process.
- Dig through it. We know our behavior was unjust. But sometimes we don’t always know why. We need to explore what in our past has created this moment. We need to expose the roots of our own prejudices if we ever want to move forward. This is a painful process. It is uncovering skeletons in the closet and revealing deep secrets from long ago. If we can’t unearth them and begin to heal the root of the issue and the pain it has caused each other, then everything else we do is just a Band-Aid.
- Apologize for it. I wish I could find the man from above and let him know that I regret my actions. It is through sincerely apologizing to those we have hurt that we accomplish two things. First, we publicly recognize that we have caused a wound and that we regret it. Secondly, the act of apologizing demonstrates vulnerability, the recognition of imperfection, and creates the capacity for greater human connection.
- Share it. I think one of the greatest obstacles to social justice is the inability for dominant group members to share their experiences of times that we have messed up. The more we are able to share our own shame narrative, the easier it is for others to relate and learn from one another. Too often we are so caught up on looking like the “good one” or trying to demonstrate that we are so “woke” that we have moved beyond racism. Or even worse, we throw others under the bus so we don’t have to expose our own oppressive thoughts, actions, or behaviors. By allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and share these experiences, we increase our ability to learn from and connect with one another.
- Learn from it, remember it, and let go of it. These experiences are gifts for us. They teach us how to be humane, and imperfect, and provide us with a roadmap on how to improve ourselves, not only for the benefit of oppressed groups, but also to provide us with the opportunity to liberate ourselves. When we take lessons from the experiences in which we were not at our best self, we help set a chart to where we want to go and our role/responsibility in achieving it. We take these experiences with us to remind us of that course. However, if we fail to take the opportunity to forgive ourselves and practice self-love, we will never get there. When we hear people of getting caught in the trap of guilt, it is because they have not learned from their experiences and subsequently haven’t forgiven themselves for them. Every person on this Earth is going to make mistakes. When we don’t move on from them, we can’t fully show up and engage in the process.
As far as the instance above, I am sorry to that man for whom I made some very unfair assumptions. Some of these could have been true, I don’t know. But I didn’t even entertain the idea that they might not be. The work is never ending. We never stop learning, growing, and undoing our own prejudices. It is hard work, but we need to be there for each other to help guide one another through this gauntlet. Now if you excuse me, I need to go sit in my sh*t for a little while.