Three Ways to Overcome Your Fear of Saying Something Racist
Spoiler Alert: Avoidance is not the answer.
Let’s be real, interaction with diverse people can feel like a huge risk these days. Social media callouts and cancel culture have made it apparent that many of us have a big learning curve when it comes to diversity and inclusion. We’re afraid to say the wrong thing, and gain the label of racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic, so we don’t say anything. We allow our fears to cause us to avoid people who fall into diverse categories. But avoidance is a mistake when it comes to moving the needle of DEI (diversity, equity, & inclusion). We have to risk getting it wrong at the moment, so we can learn to get it right in the future. By being willing to take risks, we make it possible to experience diverse friendships and work teams.
I know this all sounds good in theory. But I bet you’re wondering how can we even risk failing in our interactions with diverse people with cancel culture threatening to destroy everything we’ve worked for?
When we fail to say the right thing concerning diversity, we worry that we’ll be labeled ignorant, and unredeemable, so we try to avoid failure at all costs. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The key is to overcome our fear of failure, and these three steps can help.
1. Learn from the failures of others.
I am not a fan of cancel culture, but I do have to admit that it has given the masses an opportunity to learn what beliefs and behaviors are unacceptable. All negative experiences have some benefits, even if they are hard to see or appreciate at the moment. By observing the public failures of other people we can gain learning benefits without paying the high cost of education. By practicing finding these benefits with others’ past failures, you may be able to enhance your DEI knowledge and abilities so that you are less likely to make similar mistakes.
To find the benefits, start by picking three examples of people who were “canceled” for making a mistake related to DEI and write out three things you learned from it. For example, Kelly Osbourne came under fire in 2015, for making an offensive statement during a discussion about immigration on The View. While Kelly may not have intended any harm when she made the statement, her impact was offensive. But Kelly’s mistake provided a learning opportunity for all of us if we are willing to dig in and figure out how good intentions can go bad.
You’re never going to be perfect, but you can be as prepared as possible. Preparation can start with paying attention to the mistakes of others, learning from those mistakes, and applying your knowledge accordingly. By focusing on your efforts on learning instead of avoidance, you will increase your chances of being successful in a diverse world and relationships.
2. Challenge yourself to connect with others.
Trying to make connections with people you don’t know well — connections that could potentially offend someone— is stressful. But how you choose to approach stress is up to you.
I got this all wrong when I was first getting familiar with the trans community. I sat on the largest LGBTQ board in Oklahoma, and instead of taking time to get to know the transgendered people on the board, I avoided them because I was afraid to get pronouns wrong. The fear of messing up someone’s pronouns felt like a huge threat. But it didn’t help me grow, and I needed to face my discomfort if I was going to continue promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. Eventually, I invited a trans person to lunch with whom I had interacted at a few meetings, and she was gracious enough to answer my questions in a safe space. But before I could do that, I had to stop viewing that interaction as a potential threat to my expertise, and instead view it as an opportunity to grow.
If you think of connecting with diverse individuals as a threat, as many of us do, your body will prepare for battle — and you’ll feel like you’re in a battle. I call this the Us vs Them dynamic. On the other hand, if you choose to view connecting with diverse people as an area you are challenging yourself to grow in, then you’re more likely to embrace connection as a growth opportunity.
To build a growth mindset, reflect on past social challenges that you’ve overcome. Let’s say you are worried about making new connections on your first day of work or visiting a new church. Take a moment to think back to those times. Did you handle them successfully? What exactly did you do? When you remind yourself that you have succeeded before in creating authentic relationships, the task in front of you doesn’t seem so insurmountable.
Next, visualize success by imagining yourself doing well, listening with an open mind, and showing empathy and understanding. You will feel more positive, which can enhance your confidence. On the other hand, if you ruminate about what could go wrong, your fear builds, and avoidance becomes more likely.
Keep in mind that even if you are able to shift your brain to stop seeing something as a threat, you may feel similar physical sensations, like nerves and shakiness. If you notice these, growth zone feeling it’s evidence that what you’re doing is important to you and that you are willing to leave your comfort zone in order to grow.
3. Give grace.
There will never be a time when you become so perfect that you say all the right things and never offend anyone. We all hurt people sometimes, even the people we love and many of the people we don’t. You’ll misjudge a person or situation, or make a mistake and disappoint yourself. In these moments, you can beat yourself up or take on a defensive attitude. Or you can choose to give yourself some grace, focus on how you impacted another person, and take steps to make sure you don’t hurt another person in the same way in the future.
Recently during a speech, I mispronounced the word Arab (AIRUHb) as A- RAB. As you can imagine, as a DEI speaker and expert with 25 years of experience under her belt who was being paid to teach others, it didn’t land well. I messed up. The first thing I had to do was own up to and correct my mistake. The second thing I had to do was give myself permission to be human and treat myself with compassion and grace. You must do the same when you inevitably make a mistake.
One way to give yourself grace is with self-care. For example, you’ll benefit from seeking out a friend to talk to whom you know will be compassionate while also holding you accountable.
It’s also important to practice self-compassion when you make mistakes. Remember, we all fail sometimes. Focus your energy on learning from your mistakes, making progress in your actions, and letting go of the goal of perfection — and you’ll be more likely to acknowledge mistakes and do better next time.
With these tips in mind, you can more easily overcome your fear of connecting with diverse people at work and in life.