For some time now, our political and social climate has been transforming into one of outspoken voices creating change in diversity and inclusion. This shift recently gained fierce momentum with the brutal murder of George Floyd by a police officer. The gruesome video, which has now circulated all over social media and news outlets, shows Floyd pleading with the officer to breathe and calling out to his mother, knowing he is at death’s door. The officer abuses his position of power and kills Floyd amidst onlookers begging him to let the man breathe. The reality we face today of cruel racism is jarring and bone-chilling for people within communities of color. However, the reactionary anger is just as frightening when trying to imagine a future devoid of racism.
Recently, the organization I’m working with, Sanctuary for Families, started a lot of discussion on how to increase diversity and inclusion in the workplace and throughout the work of the organization. In these meetings, orientations, and even conversations with other Duke organizations I’m a part of, I’ve noticed an obvious fear – the fear of being wrong. The fear of saying something potentially offensive, of being on the wrong side of the argument, of causing harm when there is zero intention to hurt.
I was in the legal intern orientation meeting today, and the law students present brought up their own experiences with concepts of diversity and inclusion. One common ground between many of them was that they repeatedly prefaced their thoughts by statements of, “I don’t mean this offensively” or “I’m not sure if this is correct, but..”.
I couldn’t have been more surprised. These were students of law, working for a domestic violence nonprofit. In order to get into law school and develop an active interest in a social issue such as domestic violence and the patriarchy fueling the injustice, they would have had to undergo significant learning along the lines of classes about social justice or in-depth discussions with mentors passionate about prevalent inequalities. Most definitely (or you would hope), they would understand underlying structures and prejudices better than the average American or even a STEM student uninterested in class and structure issues. These law students should feel confident in their discussions of discrimination and inequality because they have undergone such in-depth and oftentimes intensive training on how our society fails people in the lowest brackets. Why, then, are they afraid of giving their opinion, telling their story? If someone who is knowledgeable on social problems is reluctant to speak on social issues for fear of being wrong, what does this say about individuals who may feel even less socially aware or be slightly more introverted and terrified of saying something insensitive?
In the meeting, students raised in Spain, Mexico, and Peru all questioned their thoughts and whether it was right for them to be thinking the way they thought. They were afraid of being wrong about a social problem because oftentimes the outcomes of speaking insensitively, even without intention, can be dire, including public call outs, negative opinions, and punitive correcting words. The issue is – you can’t fault someone for their way of thinking; it’s a consequence of where they grew up and the beliefs of the people closest to them.
The battle for social change often includes harsh, scathing criticism that is given by people striving for a more just system. It’s not fair for us to demean or insult someone in any way because of how they think. This can in turn be counterproductive because it turns individuals away from the side of a debate that is not welcoming or kind and willing to teach. There is going to be a constant fear, especially for people that are more reserved in nature, of being wrong, being spoken down to, or being thought less of.
Therefore, someone has two options: either don’t join a fight for social change because you are not good enough and don’t understand the underlying issues well, or just keep all thoughts to yourself. Both options are detrimental to the general wellbeing of society. Rather, individuals who are more knowledgeable on matters of social work should attempt to meet others in their headspace. Explain to them that it is okay they aren’t aware, it’s not their fault, you can’t be born knowing what is right to say and what is wrong, but the effort that they show to be more aware is what is crucial, and from there attempt to alter a more racist/sexist/etc way of thinking.
My fear is that one day, only a singular portion of the population will speak out about social wrongs, and the other half will be silent or fearful of voicing their opinions. Not only will this create echo chambers, in which individuals seek out like-minded peers to avoid embarrassing interactions and, resultantly, have their ideas parroted out to them, but we won’t ever be able to have the power and strength of minds working together. Our current culture alienates people and ideas that could be our biggest allies. Fear is a dangerous thing.