Just recently, my redoubtable friend Joy, who is African-American, posted a picture to her Facebook wall. It was on racial “microaggressions“: words and actions that communicate an inequitable view of races other than your own. Joy has reason to post stuff like this, and I understand the hope that in eliminating microaggressions, we could well be laying the groundwork for eliminating the macroaggressions that are a sobering reality in her part of the world.
Brilliant, I said. But not all her friends agreed. At least – some of the WASPs didn’t.
They were outraged that their words and actions might be misread where they didn’t mean anything racist or aggressive. That they had to be responsible for others’ interpretation of the words they spoke. That they are “not allowed to complain” about this unfairness on account of being privileged. Such massive chips on their shoulders that all I could do was leave a selection of dips and move on.
I have no idea what it’s like to experience racism or any of these microaggressions. (Well, once. And funnily enough, in the US, when at a get-together I had person after person shouting at me, “YOUR ENGLISH IS SO GOOD!” When the fifth person shouted this at me, I shouted back, “Yeah! And I can guarantee that I speak it better than you do!” But I digress.) If I have, it’s like I said: I have no idea. It may have gone right over my head and would have been far more subtle than, say, the blatant prejudice I have had no trouble recognising when aimed at my Indigenous Australian nieces and nephew. Nonetheless, I am well versed in communications, culture, and relationships, and I know this: that ego has no place when there are racial or cultural relations at stake.
A couple of weeks ago I talked about how the first lesson I always gave my writing students and mentees is on getting creative. The second lesson, in over 20 years of teaching, is always this: “Care more about the work than about yourself”. Forget talent, forget perseverance. The ability to do this is the one thing that sorts the wheat from the chaff, and I can tell who is going to be winnowed away almost from the get-go. Here is how it plays out: if you care about the work, you will be able to put the work through its paces, so it can be better. This means criticism and critiques, and endless edits and rewrites, even when your feelings are howling and kicking on the floor. How can you do this to yourself? Because you have a higher purpose: you believe that the work, and the people who will read it, are of utmost importance.
So let’s take that to communication and race and cultural relations.
Whether you are talking about your immediate circle of influence in your work or business, or talking about these things on a global level, do we care about this world? Do we care about making it a better place? Is this worthy work for us? If it is, then we need to be able to care more about it that about our precious, precious feelings. We need to throw ourselves into it without our egos getting in the way. Oh, the critique hurts? There, there. You can lick your wounds in private; just carry on the work regardless. Because the work is bigger, and far more important, than our precious, precious egos and feelings could ever be.
So your communications impacted someone in a way you didn’t mean. Rather than whining about how unfair this is, seek to understand. And even if understanding is beyond you, you can always scrap that attempt and try to communicate another way.
One of Joy’s friends asked since when have we been responsible for how others interpret what we communicate. Well, although we are not strictly responsible for others’ interpretations, we have actually understood for some years now that the model where sender and receiver are responsible 50/50 for making sure the message is received correctly doesn’t actually work. There is only one way to ensure the message is received correctly: make yourself 100% responsible for it. If it isn’t received properly, try again in a different way. As many times as it takes.
You may say that the subject of race and cultural relations isn’t simple or easy, and you may be right. But addressing it begins in a simple way: care more about it than about your ego, and be 100% responsible for what you communicate, even when people “take it the wrong way”.
Keep trying. The work is worth it.
Image credit: © olly18 via Depositphotos