“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” ~ Maya Angelou
At a rally in downtown Carlisle, Pennsylvania, I watch intently as impassioned speakers speak out against a local distribution of KKK fliers around the city. My blood boils as community leaders denounce the gross and rapid spread of hatred around the community and, more broadly, across the nation. I reflect on the despicable rally in Charlottesville in 2016 and the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. I think about movements which reflected decades of injustice and abuse of power, initiatives like Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement. I even consider verbal ignorance like professional pitcher Josh Hader’s racist tweets or anything that comes out of the president’s mouth. Mostly, though, I’m thinking about myself. What a beacon of hope I am. How passionate I am about social justice. Why the self-appropriated title of “hero” once seemed so fitting.
Throughout these passing events, I’m working to enhance my education. I’m reading biographies by Malcolm X and Michelle Obama. My podcast queue includes NPR’s TED radio hour and prominent news outlets. I have yet to realize how deeply this education will impact me – for better and for worse. I’ll challenge my beliefs, explore new horizons, and develop a better understanding of history. Conversely, reflection and regret will hit me like a freight train. Being ‘woke’ will bring me a stronger worldview, but it will also help me realize I’m not the hero I’d so honorably made myself out to be.
It started with a podcast. On an episode of the TED Radio Hour, a black woman recounted instances of being the victim of racism. The speaker explained how at school the predominantly white teachers and students would repeatedly correct her grammar. When she used certain slang, they – with overwhelming ignorance – taught her how to speak “correctly.” When she did speak correctly, they would say she was acting “white.” Invariably, this woman didn’t just talk about what was said to her or how people acted towards her. She discussed how the actions of the majority made her feel. Somewhere, I’m reminded of the Maya Angelou quote that people will forget what you say and do, but “will never forget how you made them feel.” Subtle or blatant, these offhanded remarks hurt, leaving her feeling defenseless, isolated, humiliated.
If you know me well, you know that I’m energized by a spotlight. My attention-craving personality has introduced me to a variety of people and has helped me make and entertain friends in many circles. But there’s a downside. My hunger for attention is satisfied only by getting a rise out of people. Countless times my mouth has landed me in serious trouble – often for an ignorant, lewd, even harmful remark or gesture. My intentions may rarely be malicious, but the TED speaker’s words shook me. What had I said to others that was disrespectful? Further – and more importantly – how did I, the friendly, shameless, outgoing, insensitive hero make others feel?
Cue the heroism giving way to a darker, truer reality, one marred by stories I painfully recounted one by one. These best capture the tone-deaf lengths my teenage and early 20-year-old persona would go towards commandeering attention. The belly laughs, the raised eyebrows, the retweets, these were the vindicating factors that drove my insatiable need to be liked and appreciated. But at what cost?
For one, in college, I remember a black friend of mine telling a story and using slang. Condescendingly, I laughingly explained to him his flawed syntax. I did to him exactly as the TED speaker had experienced. But his reaction played second fiddle to that of all my other white, male, similar-minded counterparts. They laughed.
During the summer of one of my college years, I remember verbatim a spur-of-the-moment tweet I’d posted regarding some of the girls on campus. I’d tweeted some insensitive content in the past, but this one was so derogatory, so sexist, and, quite frankly, so harmful. It was unnerving to the point which a graduate student confronted me sternly about the tweet. I took it down on his recommendation, not because I felt remorse but because I respected him. But from my friends? Only laughter.
On numerous occasions in college and even after, my affinity for homophobic humour got me into serious dilemmas. On one occasion, I half-shouted an anti-gay remark in the dorm hallway, only to turn the corner and see a fellow student, who was gay. But shame quickly faded to vindication when my friend patted me on the back after having fled the scene. We shared a hearty laugh.
There are many more examples I’m not proud to share. I’ve made homophobic, racist, Anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and many other horrendous statements in my younger years. My youth was not shaped by this timeline alone, but my infractions have not been victimless. Often, I’m left wondering if there aren’t some friends from my past and even present who would recoil at my self-perception as a warrior for social justice. I wonder how I, the hero, the activist, has made those around me feel.
Back at the rally, I’m applauding enthusiastically as another speaker talks about the power of love and strength in the community. But in my head rings a different message, a personal call to action. It’s not a solution to our nation’s problems, and only really addresses my own guilt. But I want to apologize. I apologize for the ignorance, the insensitivity, that has undoubtedly stained the way I’ve made others feel. I apologize to those whom I have hurt. And as I recognize past iniquities, I’m confident in a few things. I’m not the same person that I was in high school and college. I am growing. And I’m learning.
We can use our voice to get cheap laughs, to devalue and to isolate others. Or, we can use that voice to build others up, to fight for them, and to stand up to injustice and evil. If we take the time, not just to think about the shock value of our words, but to consider their power, we can focus on how our words and actions make others feel. If we can model this behaviour, and treat others like this, we can come that much closer to being true heroes.