TERMS, PT 3: They'd Better Not Embarrass Me

Part 3 of Terms and Conditions Series. Click here for Part 1. Click here for Part II.


where we are exploring the underlying expectations that seem to be present in conversations when we talk about racial justice. Each of the terms and conditions we’ll explore fill in the blank for the following sentence: “If black people expect others to get involved against racial justice, then _______.”  Today's terms and conditions go something like this: "If black people expect for others to get involved against racial justice then they'd better not embarrass me."

When I think of these terms and conditions, I think of a news story. In the summer of 2016, a video went viral showing some police officers performing a traffic stop. They approach the window, and explain to the young woman driver that she had broken some obscure traffic code. Only she hadn’t broken any laws; the traffic stop was a ruse to hand her an ice cream cone on video. It seemed like an obvious grap for better press at a time when the news was full of tragic stories of civilians dying at the hands of the police.

Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t

There was a significant amount of outrage in the black community than many people didn’t understand. To this day, some of my white friends lament that, when it comes to joining the fight against racial justice, they’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. When they remain silent and inactive, they’re told they’re a part of the problem. When they try to be a part of the solution, they’re told they’re doing it wrong.

I see the dilemma that my white loved ones are expressing there, and I can understand why one might assume that black people should be careful not to embarrass well-intentioned mistakes from budding allies. But that assumption is--you guessed it!--problematic. Embarrassment is a part of mastering almost any skill in life, and so it is impossible to think that people can become anti-racists without ever making a fool of themselves. At times, you’re going to put your foot in your mouth. You’re going to offend a boundary. You’re going to trigger someone’s trauma. It’s part of the journey. 

If you fall and bust our ass while learning to ice skate or to do slam dunk or learning to ride a bike, you get back up and keep trying, because whatever we’re doing is worth it. So then, people are going to quit pursuing racial justice because they’re afraid of being called out for making a mistake should ask themselves how important racial justice is to them to begin with. 

Bad Form!

Furthermore, it is actually a gift to us when someone tells us that we’re going about trying to be a part of the solution the wrong way. It’s like someone correcting our form at the gym. Bad form may keep you from getting the results that you want, or even cause an injury. So, you would be grateful to someone telling you that you need to straighten your back more or bend your knees more. If people could perceive being called out as a gift rather than an attack, then perhaps we could make some progress toward racial justice. 

My Stupid Mouth

Even the feelings of embarrassment themselves could be seen as a gift. To illustrate what I mean, I’ll tell you about one of my most embarrassing moments. When I was in college, my roommate received a love note from a secret admirer. He read it to me and, for whatever reason, I thought it was hilarious. One night, I was out with a group of friends, and I started talking about how my roommate got this pathetically gushy love note from a secret admirer, only to find out that I was actually talking to the author of the note. When I found out, I wished to God that I could just be a turtle and hide in my shell forever. But I also learned a very valuable lesson that day about keeping my mouth shut and minding my own business.  

A conversation doesn’t have to be shut down because someone feels embarrassed. If the person feeling embarrassed is willing to, they could lean into that feeling and learn something: (1) Oops! Touched a nerve there, (2) I’ll make sure not to do that again, (3) cause I don’t want to cause anyone that kind of harm or myself that kind of embarrassment, (4) Sorryyyy! It really could be that simple. 

What I’m presenting isn’t an argument for intentionally shaming people into becoming anti-racists. But I am suggesting that there may be a type of embarrassment that leads to self-preoccupation and self-pity and there is a type of embarrassment that can help us make better decisions.