I was thinking of Barbra Coloroso's concept about relationships today, in that she says you own 50% of a relationship, and you can influence 100% of it. We forget this some times. We forget we can only do so much in any interaction between 2 people.
Others can't control what their words do, all the time. Yes, some words have more power than others. We know that some words have incredible power, and there are ways to be kind and ways to be unkind. We can chose our words to be kind and gentle, or not. But sometimes, even with what we think are gentle words, what we think is kindness, we run into problems.
A co-worker had a small hissy fit yesterday. She came into where I sit, to ask about how to write a cheque for the Social Committee. And 3 of us understood her question to be "How do I write a cheque?" And we were a bit surprised, because who doesn't know how to write a cheque by the age of 25? There was a bit of gentle teasing. And she got quite upset, and stomped off.
I went over later to apologize for the teasing, and indicated that it was ok to not know how to write a cheque, and especially dumb and thoughtless to assume that someone who came from another country would obviously know how to write a cheque in Canada. I explained that I was sorry I made that assumption.
But, the very bottom line is that my co-worker thought this assumption of mine, because she was from another part of the world and so wouldn't necessarily know how to write a cheque, was racist. She thought I was implying that all Asian people were stupid and couldn't write cheques.
And as I was talking it over with my manager today, I thought hard about what I was willing to own. I was willing to own that I assuming everyone over the age of 25 knows how to write a cheque was dumb - especially when they don't come from North America, and I was willing to cop to teasing someone, but equally so, my words of apology were not meant to hurt, and indeed, were meant to help.
When I made the comment about me being wrong to assume that someone knew how to do something when they came from another part of the world, that wasn't meant to be racist. It was meant to say that it was wrong to make assumptions based on my cultural experience. In fact, it strikes me as its own brand of racism, to assume that everything does things the way we do in North America.
And while I can be sorry that someone thought my comment was racist, I'm struggling with intent. It's not that I don't think people can be blind to their racist tendencies, I think we all know that its entirely possible to be a profound bigot and think that you aren't, or to think that your bigotry is based on truth.
What causes me so much distress is that I was trying very hard to not be racist. I was trying very hard to be inclusive, and allow for the different experiences of people from different cultures. And I'm worried that I really am a racist, and I don't realize it. (Mr. Spit telling me he could see how I could be perceived as a racist in this position probably doesn't help my unease.)
And I was left saying that I was sorry indeed this person thought I was being a racist. Deeply sorry, and deeply troubled. But, I was quite sure, upon self examination, that this wasn't my intent, and I can only own so much of what my words do. I can only speak to what I intended to do, and think about the way my words are likely to be perceived. I can chose words with care, and I did, when I apologized, but it does seem to me, there is another 50%.
There is a 50% that can take words the way I didn't mean them, and there's not much I can do about that, other than be sorry my words were taken the wrong way.
It's a really sick feeling.