Making Mistakes

As a black queer woman, I’ve experienced my share of racism, sexism and homophobia. Between having some class privilege, and what I’ve chosen to do, and where I’ve chosen to live, these have had a relatively small impact on my life compared to many others. Perhaps this has led to my current thoughts and approaches to racism, or perhaps it’s my spiritual perspectives, I’m not sure.

I think there are three kinds of racists: Deliberate, clueless, and striving. Deliberate racists are (generally, but not always, white) people who feel that other races (a concept which, by the way, does not exist) are inferior in some way or another, and society should be set up to reflect that. Clueless racists are “race-blind”, and they “have a black friend.” Striving (really anti-striving) racists know they are racist, and are working hard to understand it, and how it operates in them.

Now I happen to think that every single one of us is, in a sense, racist. For most people of color, the racism is inwardly-focused. (Like really, why is it that the cultural norm for black women is to straighten our hair?) No one can grow up in this society without being formed by the culture of white supremacy.

One of the things that I think has made it so hard deal with racism is the fact that often, people make it really hard for anyone to make mistakes. This example actually inspired this long blog post. First, I don’t mean to pick on this person – I’ve read a lot of her stuff, and really appreciate it. She’s a fellow traveler, as it were, another black, crunchy Buddhist. And I also don’t mean to diminish her feelings about what happened – they are important to talk about. But I have to call this out.

She wrote a post about her earrings (as well as an experience she had). She has a pair of earrings of Nina Simone. The title of the post is “Nina Simone, SF Zen Center, and how all black people still look alike”. The post describes how people who saw her earrings, which depict Nina Simone (with an afro) thought they were Angela Davis earrings. And this is what she said:

Since purchasing these a year or so ago, I have gotten about 50 people asking me, “Hey, is that Angela Davis?” or “Cool, Angela Davis earrings!”  I am not exaggerating that EVERY single person who has said one of these two lines to me is white. Last night, 8 different white people at the party celebration added to the same narrative by asking the very same question.

Okay, I’m not angry, not surprised, but a little disappointed that one cannot tell the difference between Angela Davis and Nina Simone. These women do not look a like AT ALL. And never have I had any brown or black person mistaken Nina Simon for Angela Davis.

Now, I’m a real Nina Simone fan. I have every album she released, and several compilations made after her death. If you look at my profile, you will see that she is the most often played artist. And when I looked at the picture on the blog, the first person that came to my mind was, honestly, Angela Davis. After a little bit, I realized it wasn’t Angela, but if I had not seen the title of the post, I would not have known who it was.

Mostly, that’s because a lot of the pictures I’ve ever seen of Nina Simone do not picture her with an afro, and Angela Davis’ afro is so darned iconic. Also, the image is somewhat stylized. This is, basically, a set up. To my mind, it’s very easy to mistake that particular image of Nina Simone with Angela Davis. And, to the blog author, when someone makes this mistake, it means that they really think all black people look alike.

This is just one example of this dynamic, but I think everyone reading this blog knows of others, and perhaps has experienced it. It’s simply just not possible to live in this society and not make mistakes. And if you are working hard on your own racism, it extracts something from you when someone labels your mistake as problematic as “you think all black people look alike.” And that price, extracted time and time again, makes people less willing to take risks. But taking risks is the only way that we’ll change our society. The only way we can come together is if we risk being vulnerable with each other. If we can’t be vulnerable with each other, nothing will change.

Of course, we have to call people on stuff – I’m not suggesting that we don’t – that is the only way people learn. But we can’t set them up, and if people are really working hard, (rather than clueless or deliberate), we can’t keep making it harder and harder for them to take risks. And that’s also the only way we can move people from being clueless onward (I think those that are deliberate racists are likely to stay that way, no matter what we do.)

A friend of mine taught me a great forgiveness practice. This is part of it:

May I forgive you
May I allow you to be a beginner, still learning life’s lessons
May I forgive you
And if I can’t forgive you now, may I be able to forgive you sometime in the future.



3 thoughts on “Making Mistakes”

  1. Hello Michelle. I was wondering how you interpret my experience with having not heard a confusion of identity of who is on my earring from black folk (except one time). I wear Pam Grier, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, and Angela Davis and there seems to be no confusion to who these women are from the black folk I have encountered.

    I always wanted to offer that I never said that human beings can’t make mistakes. Of course we do. I was more or less contextualizing the experience within a broader perspective of my own experiences participating in mostly white Buddhist spaces and the over-arching theme of there being a lack of critical awareness around race and whiteness for a Post-Civil Rights USA. For me, I am not just focusing on the earrings, but many factors that inspired me to write about my experience from that night. That blog post is a 5 part series of me compassionately interrogating what race and whiteness mean, and in the context of a supposed ‘post-racial’ white Buddhist space or spaces that I have participated in. I would like to know how or why you interpret my blog post as me implying that [white] people aren’t allowed to make mistakes as they try to talk about or understand race, racism, whiteness, anti-racism. This is important information for me because I appreciate knowing how I hurt and offend people even when I think I’m being loving, forgiving and open minded whilte doing this emotionally taxing work (I’m doing my PhD in it and it’s my part time job to lecture and teach about these things, so I always want to know how to improve)

    I appreciate that all black folk are not a monolith and that we of course aren’t going to agree with each other or see eye to eye.


  2. Hi Breeze,

    It wasn’t that I thought you said that people couldn’t make mistakes – it was that I felt that this particular thing, that is, mistaking a stylized image of someone who is far less famous for most people (and very often seen w/o an afro) for Angela Davis indicates something more than mistaken identity. It suggested to you something much bigger – those white people can’t tell us apart.

    This is not to say that a few of the people who made that mistake do in fact think we all look alike (although I sort of doubt many, if you run in a lot of the same circles as I do.) But it felt like it was too much of a set up – it’s just too easy to make that mistake. (I almost made it, and I’m a black fan of both women!)

    And believe you me, I think that many of the supposed “post-racial” white Buddhist spaces are examples of “clueless” racism (I mean, the word ‘post-racial’ itself is clueless), and I appreciate your writing and thoughts about them.

    I guess what I’m trying to get at is how do we react to mistakes? What do we say, and what do we make of them? Are we too quick to call something racism when it might not be? How can we strike the right balance between calling people on their shit, and not hurting them so that they aren’t willing to take more risks?

    It’s a tough one, and I don’t have all the answers, but it’s a question I’ve been investigating for a very long time.

  3. Interesting discussion. Makes me think of the time I walked into a convenience store with some letters in my hand – letters I was about to mail and had already put stamps on – and the young clerk glanced at them and said, “Wow, they made a stamp with Madonna now?” Of course, the stamp featured Marilyn Monroe. I chalked it up to his youth. So I guess that like Michelle, the question I’d raise is just what meaning we make of peoples’ mistakes, or peoples’ lack of info, wherever it may come from. Often I think it’s just lack of familiarity – people in their 20s are a lot less familiar with Marilyn Monroe than with Madonna. And I’m sure that I as a white woman am less familiar with the faces of some well-known Black women than many other Black women would be. (In general I’m pretty clueless about well-known peoples’ faces, though, of all races, since I don’t watch TV or go to movies!) Yet none of this actually means that I think all Black people look alike… it’s only that I can’t correctly identify the faces of people whose faces I’m not familiar with.

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