Learn by Making Mistakes

by Kathy Khang

How did you learn to tie your shoes? To drive? To style your hair? To write your name in cursive? To read? To swim? To ride a bike?

Unless you are some freak of nature who succeeded in learning those life skills in one single attempt, it took time. It took failure. In some cases, it involved a combination of courage and humiliation.

So many have responded to my most recent post about a racist encounter in a public space with questions:

What should a bystander have done?

What would have been the right response?

What  were you hoping someone would do?

What should I do when I see something like this happen?

But before I answer these questions, I’ll do what I did before and throw it back to you:

Why are you asking these questions? Why do you want to know the “right” way to respond when witnessing a racist situation? What is the worst thing that could happen if you had actually been there and done something, anything?

I really wish there was one “right” answer so that we could teach it in schools, churches, synagogues, mosques, coffee shops, and craft beer stores.

I really wish there was one “right” answer so that we could teach it in schools, churches, synagogues, mosques, coffee shops, and craft beer stores. I wish there was a line or a phrase that would’ve been perfect. I wish I could tell all of you that if someone had only done this or said that I wouldn’t have walked away shaken, wouldn’t have cried this morning at the sound of my friend Deirdra’s voice checking in with me, or this afternoon when Deb’s kind note arrived.

But there isn’t.

Dear friends, I can hear the fear of failure behind your question. Not all of you, but maybe a lot of you. You are afraid of saying something wrong, afraid that you will come off as the arrogant white person, the white savior.

And you might come off that way, because until you practice saying and acting out what you are learning in your heart and mind, it may sound scripted, savior-ish, stilted. It may come out wrong or awkward. You may be misunderstood. You may make a mistake.

Hiker man choose between to directions at the mountain

photo by Aitormmfoto / iStockphoto.com

But you should do something, say something anyway. It may not be met with overflowing gratitude. You may not even be thanked. (Brad walked away, and I was trying to hold it together so I didn’t seek him out afterwards. I just wanted to leave. But just in case, Brad, if you are reading this, if you are the youngish white man in the polo shirt, I think it was blue, who stepped in, thank you. Thank you.) You may actually exacerbate and escalate the situation. You may fail.

But do something, because your conscience, your soul, your heart and mind have told you that in the presence of injustice and hatred and confusion people need to act, not just think, the part of justice and love and peace. You should speak up and speak out because you know something is wrong, not because you want to be right or perfectly understood.

This is not my first rodeo with racism. I learned I was a chink and a gook growing up in Roselle, IL. I was bullied and harassed. I have been told over and over in so many different ways that I do not belong, and while everyone can sympathize with that, not everyone knows the personal pain of being told in so many ways over a lifetime that they do not belong in this country because of their race, ethnicity, or religion (actual or perceived). This incident and all the others I’m referring to are not the same as not being picked for the dodge ball team or not being in the cool crowd or feeling left out.

I was told to leave this country because Asian Americans are perpetual foreigners. My sons, who witnessed this and have told the story to their friends, will say, “We were told to go back to where we came from.” They took the white man’s comments personally.

You are afraid of saying something wrong, afraid that you will come off as the arrogant white person, the white savior.

There is some irony in all of this. Unless you are Native American/First Nations this here United States of America is actually not “our country” in the possessive ownership sense. We citizens of the US who lack Native blood are all immigrants, every one of us, residing on stolen land. This really isn’t “our country,” is it? Let’s sit on that for awhile, shall we?

But that’s not what that man meant. He didn’t challenge the white male cashier. He saw my sons and me and assumed his white privilege and did not hesitate to tell me, “Go back to your country.”

Not one of us can learn a new skill in one attempt. We all fail. We will make mistakes along the way. Silence is a mistake my family and I cannot afford.

Be willing to make a mistake. To fail. Practice in your head what you might say or do and maybe whisper it out loud right now as you finish reading. And then wait for it. Don’t throw away your shot.

Kathy Khang is a writer, speaker, and coffee drinker based in the north suburbs of Chicago. You can connect with Kathy at her blog, on Facebook, or on Twitter and Instagram @mskathykhang. This article originally appeared on the author’s blog and is republished here by kind permission of the author.

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