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Tereneh Idia: Do not recoil when accused of perpetrating forms of injustice

“We devalue someone or an entire group when our speech does not reflect full humanity.”

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In high school, one of my best friends came out as bisexual. As she remembered years later, my response was, well … 

“You freaked out, Tereneh!” On the woke-a-meter, I scored 0 out of 10.

People say you should have no regrets in life, but I have a few. I regret that I was: 

1. Not a true friend 

2. Unkind

3. A homophobic jerk

My failure was not fulfilling her faith in me. She trusted me, wanted me to know her full self. And she was giving me something even more in return — an opportunity to be fully human. To be clear, it was not her job as a marginalized person to create a teachable moment for me. It was mine as the person of privilege. How?  By loving, by listening. Adapting that Golden Rule of “do unto others.”

With intention and work, I have evolved — and she remains one of my best friends. (Thank you for hanging in there with me.) 

A recent Instagram post by SlayThePatriarchy, an intersectional community of feminist activists, contained the word “crazy.” It’s a word I use all too often to describe a mistake, myself, or just about anything, anytime, anywhere. But STP’s stance is that “crazy,” when used nonchalantly (exactly the way I use it), is insensitive to people with mental illnesses and/or mental disabilities.  

Well, the comment section of the post lit up with many people taking offense to STP’s assertion. I was compelled to write a short response, something to the effect of “thank you for taking time to teach me, I will do better.” For me, it is a win-win; I get to be more thoughtful and considerate of others and improve my vocabulary.  

All too often someone reacts defensively when told they are being racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, or ageist. “Take a joke.” “Get over it.” “Don’t be so sensitive.” “Don’t censor me!” When we center on privilege/injustice, intent is considered more important than outcome. However, when we center on equity/justice, we are reminded that communication is a two-way street. Outcome matters as much — arguably more — than intent.

Words influence perception, politics, and policy. We devalue someone or an entire group when our speech does not reflect full humanity. It is easier to not include them fully in society, pay them less, punish them more, dehumanize them and — in the extreme — kill them with impunity. They are “othered” because we do not need see them as “one of us.” We start to believe they are undeserving of the very respect we expect for ourselves. 

Sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, ageism, and other forms of injustice are rampant. We may not always recognize their existence, especially if we are the perpetrator. Rather than recoil or lash out defensively when someone calls us out on our shortcomings, we should think of it as opportunity knocking. Open up.

Follow featured contributor Tereneh Idia on Twitter @Tereneh15xxx.

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