"I feel like I should have the space to react the way that I felt," said Cami. "But I also felt that if I had shown that in the moment of that conversation, it would’ve shut the conversation down. It would’ve made the person so defensive that he couldn’t hear anything that I had to say."
So what can you do if you step on such a land mine, or if you catch the shrapnel unexpectedly? Here are some tips from Nicole Sanchez, VP of social impact for GitHub and the founder of the tech diversity consulting firm Vaya Consulting:
- Say you're sorry ... FULL STOP. You may have an explanation or excuse for what you said, but that can wait. The first thing to do is make it clear that you are sorry and let that sink in. "It's very much about getting comfortable owning a mistake," says Sanchez. "Intent doesn't really matter in that moment."
- Ask for more information. Cami's co-worker said what he said out of ignorance, a lack of knowledge about the cultural baggage the word uppity has. The cure for ignorance is curiosity, and it's a great way to start rebuilding trust. She suggests saying something like, 'I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you. Can you explain to me why uppity is so loaded?'
- Do not expect the offended person to teach or explain anything to you in that moment. If the other person doesn't feel like explaining, it's OK -- accept that. Sanchez gives Cami a lot of credit for having the presence of mind, and the patience, to be the peacemaker in this situation. "We're expected to both have a reaction and then educate everybody on why that reaction is justified, how everybody should proceed. And that's a lot to ask one person to take on," Sanchez says.
- If you witnessed the incident and want to intervene, hold off. It's easy to react so strongly that you eclipse the person who was actually hurt, making it harder for them to discharge their pain and be part of the solution. "It makes me invisible in the equation and doesn't allow me to explain my feelings in this," Sanchez says. "And quite often, they get it wrong."
Fortunately, Cami's encounter had a happy ending. She says that she and her co-worker found common ground through this experience, and it actually gave them a platform to discuss race in meaningful ways.
"We've traded a lot of books on the subject, we talk about how we're going to talk about race with our students, since we serve a community of color," says Cami. "Our relationship has become one in which race can be discussed frequently, and it doesn't always have to be tense. And I think we've both learned a lot."