Privilege. Diversity. Micro-aggressions. Intersectionality. White supremacy. Cultural appropriation. Identity politics. Alt right. Neo con and on and on and on.
It’s enough to make your head swim.
People (self included) throw around these left and right words left and right – sometimes using them as earnest attempts to educate, sometimes using them as weapons. We hurl them into the blogosphere and the memeosphere attacking and judging and criticizing and commenting until it’s hard to have a conversation or even take a breath.
“I’m scared to say anything either way,” a client told me. “I’m trying to understand but all this language is new and I’m afraid if I say the wrong thing or use the wrong word I’ll get blasted.”
Their fears aren’t unfounded. There exists right now a generalized sensitivity and everyone is on trigger-alert. Life in the US comes with a trigger warning right now. (And if you don’t know what a trigger warning is – that’s OK! It’s a warning that content may be upsetting and that the person should read or watch with care. Here’s an amusing overview of extreme use of trigger warnings and people’s responses. Warning: contains cuss words)
So with everyone on high alert and afraid to take a step without offending or being offended, what’s a person to do? (And I am including “left” and “right” here – those who seek to be “politically correct” and those who revile political correctness and those who object to the term politically correct!)
This is when words like compassion, empathy, resiliency and authenticity come into play. Or, to put it more simply: Slow down. Take a breath and think before you speak or react. A simple, general rule is to treat everyone with respect and not assume anything. Let people show you how they want to be. It is human to want to put people in boxes but our fluid, changing society makes boxes uncomfortable for many people.
Unsure about gender identity? Ask: “What pronoun do you prefer?” Unsure about someone’s race or ethnicity? Hold on to your curiosity because it doesn’t matter. If the relationship ever evolves to a place where you’re beginning to exchange stories, you can ask “How do you describe your ethnic heritage?” On all accounts avoid asking “What are you?” or “Where are you from?” (See this great video for shining a light on these kinds of questions.) Because Americans come in all shapes, sizes and ethnicities, assuming that someone is not American is offensive. It is OK to ask “What is your country of origin” if it is clear from an accent that the person was not born in the US.
It is also human to be curious but curiosity can be intrusive. Nobody wants to go around explaining themselves all day. A person who uses a wheel chair does not want to spend their days explaining why they’re in a wheel chair. They just are. And that’s true for just about every other situation.
No one can tell you how to manage your own experience and everyone has to make peace with their own past. Compassion and empathy come into play here too. A practice of self compassion can reduce reaction time to extend a bit of a protective field or lengthen the fuse of reaction.
People are so much more than how they “present” at first glance in the world. Becoming aware of your own biases about gender, race, sexuality, ability etc. allows you to move past first impressions and assumptions – to put those aside and allow each person to be who they will be. The Harvard Implicit Association test is a great way to learn about biases if you never have before.)
We are all more alike than we are different. If we can remember that we are human first and that generally everyone is seeking to make their life work and wants the same basic things for their life and families that you do then that is a connection point and a starting place – even if we have vastly different experiences in the world.. The practice of compassion increases generosity, kindness, gratitude and slows down the reaction response of both offense and attack.
Moving beyond soundbites and into relationship is a radical move right now. Whether it’s at work, school, a faith-institution or wherever people gather, taking the time to slow down and connect and act with compassion helps create a culture where everyone can feel welcome.