What to do When You Did or Said Something Wrong or Offensive Unintentionally
Because being empathetic doesn’t mean that you don’t mess up.
Once, while working with LGBTQ identified youth, a young person, whom I didn’t know or work with directly at the time pulled me aside and very quietly told me they were, “so, so sorry” but they needed to ask if I had any tampons they could use. My feminist self hates the thought that a period could ever be the source of shame or embarrassment, so I relatively loudly responded, “Oh my goodness, yes! It’s no worries. Nothing to be ashamed about. It happens to all of us!” And got the even more embarrassed-looking young person a tampon.
I found out moments after the exchange, that the young person I’d been speaking to had recently come out as a trans man.
I had not only misgendered this young person by assuming they identified as a woman with my foolish IT HAPPENS TO ALL OF US (ladies) shpeal, but I’d trivialized this really sensitive and difficult experience for this young person and despite my greatest of intentions, I’d invalidated — and to some degree almost mocked his very real discomfort surrounding his body and his need for a tampon. I had completely ignored that some men and boys get periods. I had completely ignored an opportunity to check in with this young person — and find out how they identify before just blindly assuming his discomfort stemmed from his age and fear that periods were “gross.” My attempt to comfort was completely misguided, and terribly inappropriate.
…And upon finding out? I. Was. Mortified.
Every single basic white cis girl thought streamed through my overstimulated brain. I didn’t mean it! It was an accident! I’m soooooo sorry! Shit! What do I do? Fuck, now everyone will think I’m transphobic and I’m really not! How am I ever gonna fix this!?
…So, what to do? In my experience I needed to slow down and remember that this wasn’t about me or my hurt feelings about hurting someone else’s feelings. In time, I’ve considered the importance of mistake making, and the greater importance of learning how to use those mistakes to be the better person that I say and believe that I am. The better person that I want to be.
So what do you do?
1. Own your mistake.
When it comes down to it: you fucked up. You’re human, humans do that. Maybe you didn’t mean to phrase that thing you said like you did. Maybe you didn’t know it wasn’t okay to say the thing you said. Maybe you were unwittingly contributing to all those things you say you are against, but feel helpless in confronting.
To all of that, I say, “Okay.”
It still happened. It can’t unhappen. So first and foremost, listen to others when they are telling you that you’ve made a mistake, and own and acknowledge the fact that you did. Put your ego aside and appreciate that it’s a huge gift for someone (who absolutely does not have to) to take the time to educate you on how or why something you said/did is problematic.
It’s incredibly dismissive to simply “whatever forever” and shrug your missteps off as though because you didn’t mean it, that somehow means it doesn’t matter. It does matter.
Your good-heartedness and best of intentions doesn’t mean you won’t mess up. It means that you should care that your words and/or actions were problematic and hurtful. You should care that you messed up. Sure, it’s relevant that you didn’t mean it, one would hope it came out wrong, or you didn’t know, but no excuse for your mistake changes the fact that you made it. You have to acknowledge it. Our failures and missteps are relevant to our growth. It’s uncomfortable as hell to mess up, but it’s crucial to acknowledge and sit with that discomfort to even begin to move forward.
2. Read the room.
I use the term “room” loosely here, as we all know that we LOVE to fudge up on the world wide web. But, nonetheless, think about it. Is an immediate apology in order? not always. Had I loudly made a scene about how sorry I was about my terrible ignorance in responding to that young person in the manner that I did — that could have (and definitely, would have) made the situation that much worse. It wasn’t about how sorry I was at that point, it was about finding a way to acknowledge my mistake with this young person without causing more harm and more unwanted attention .
Apologizing in some grandiose and semi-public way, would have further emphasized the invalidation and hurt that I had caused, and been little more than a desperate pat on my own fucking shoulder. Seeking out an appropriate space, and time, to acknowledge that you’ve made a mistake is incredibly important. Otherwise you’re just jumping down the rabbit hole of being self-defensive and furthering the inappropriateness of the mistake in the first place (cough*white people on Facebook* cough).
3. Consider the different ways you could address what happened appropriately.
Sometimes a plain old, “I’m sorry” is counterproductive. This is especially true if you are a repeat offender of the behavior you’re being called out on. If you’re not sorry, don’t apologize. It’s, for lack of a better phrase, fucking shitty. If you are sorry, please remember that you’re sorry for what you said, not for how others felt about it.
And always remember that a quick apology doesn’t somehow make up for your being shitty. Furthermore, remember that a quick apology doesn’t somehow mean that your apology has to be accepted. It doesn’t. Sometimes your apology won’t be accepted, and you need to be able to deal with that discomfort and…
4. Do better.
More important than any apology or any “but, I meant well…” is the old adage that actions speak louder than words. While it’s crucial to own your mistake and find ways to acknowledge and/or apologize, it’s even more crucial to learn from it and do better in the future.
If I’d made some big apology but then continued to misgender my youth clients, imply that only women have periods, and take absolutely none of this uncomfortable learning experience in, I’d be further dismissing and invalidating not only the person I’d hurt in the first place, but every other man and boy on earth with a period.
If, as a cis white female, I say or do something that a woman of color calls me out on, and I truly want to do better, I’m going to shut up. Listen. Be thankful that this woman has taken time out that she DID NOT HAVE TO to educate my dumb ass. Especially, when I could and should be reading and educating myself.
Which leads me to…
5. Use what you’ve learned to educate others.
People of color don’t owe white people an expansive history lesson on systemic racism and all the ways in which white culture steals or insults the culture of others. Trans and gender non-conforming people don’t owe cis gender (folks who’s biological sex and gender identity are the same) people explanations on all things trans. Disabled people don’t owe able-bodied people expansive explanations as to how they are often invalidated by able-bodied society. It is not the job of women to cradle men’s egos whilst explaining themselves and their needs.
And so on, and so on.
When you are aware of problematic shit going on toward marginalized communities of which you do not belong, you should be the person helping to educate others. You should be actively engaged with your communities in discussing intersectionality, social and political issues, etc. You should be working toward not only correcting your behavior, but helping others to not make the mistakes that you have made.
After my unfortunate encounter with this youth, I took a bit of time out to really think about how to approach this issue. I talked to trans co-workers who were willing to speak with me about it, and eventually scheduled a short time to speak in private with the young person to discuss the incident and error that I’d made. I told him that I was sorry for invalidating his identity, and that I had never until now realized how sensitive of an issue that this could be and that I wanted to acknowledge that my behavior may have been well-intended but was hurtful. I was sure to ask his pronouns, to learn his name, and to be sincere in the fact that I was so sorry that I had created discomfort for him. I then told him where he could access tampons privately without having to ask, and told him that I would also always have them on hand if he needed to come to me privately.
He thanked me for bringing it up, noting that he’d felt uncomfortable in the space with me because he didn’t know if I’d accept him (which absolutely broke my heart). I apologized for ever making him feel that way, and told him I very much accepted him, and should he feel comfortable with me in the future, I’d love to have him in any future groups. He thanked me. I thanked him.
I didn’t pat myself on the back that day. I had done nothing worth doing so. I’d worked to set my wrong as right as it could be, and that isn’t noble or brave, it’s compassionate. It’s necessary.
If we truly want to be compassionate and empathetic people, we have to be willing to own our privilege, our behavior, and our capacity to make mistakes. We have to be able to accept criticism, and think critically about what that criticism means, and how it can make us better.
I am never going to be a perfect person. I am never going to be incapable of making mistakes. At the end of the day, I can only work to be present, to be receptive, and to be responsive (not reactive) when I am not at my best.
I urge and encourage you to consider working toward doing the same.