Race and racism: What to do when you say the wrong thing

March 16, 2022

When people sign up for a Building Beloved Community cohort, they are asked to complete a pre-workshop questionnaire. One question asks people to complete the sentence, “The hard part of talking about race/racism is…” A common response is the fear of making mistakes. People wonder, “What if I say the wrong thing? What if I mess up?”

Allow me to be blunt: You are going to mess up and say the wrong thing. We all do. Learning to counter the racialized messages into which we are socialized takes work and intention. We aren’t going to get it right all the time, and we can’t allow fear of messing to up stop us from trying. The stakes are too high. The good news is, we are called to be perfected in love, i.e. to grow in love of God and neighbor. We are not called to be perfect. 

As a recovering perfectionist, sometimes my brain likes to run a slideshow of the clueless and thoughtless things I’ve said and done over the years. This highlight reel of microaggressions often keeps me up at night. Some of those memories only make me cringe a little, while some of them are enough to elicit a visceral response that takes me right back to the moment. 

When I feel guilty, I get a fluttery feeling in my chest and slight buzzing in my ears. It is uncomfortable. The fluttering and buzzing tells me my nervous system is activated, so I often try to settle myself first. I’ve learned some techniques, such as box breathing, somatic centering practice, or breath prayer that can help me settle and get re-grounded.  

It may be tempting to let my defenses stay up and try to disengage from the discomfort by actively ignoring the sensations. Instead, I try to approach that discomfort as an invitation. It may be the more difficult choice, but it is the one that holds the possibility for growth and transformation. 

The process for metabolizing guilt starts with confession—recognizing and acknowledging the harm. Sometimes I can immediately identify what I’ve done to cause harm. Sometimes I might need some help from people around me to call my attention to what I’ve done. It is important to acknowledge the harm and apologize to the person who was harmed.

Once I’ve recognized my action, acknowledged the harm I’ve caused, and apologized to the person who was harmed, I need to attend to the ongoing work of repentance. That is my work to reduce harm in the future through changed behavior. And there is the work of the Holy Spirit that brings about a changed heart. 

While this is inward work, it is not work any of us do in isolation. We need a community of practice to support and hold us accountable. In community, we can “provoke one another to love and good deeds” as we practice loving our neighbors as ourselves. Holding one another accountable while continuing to witness the image of God in one another is necessary for both the inward and outward transformation to which we are called.

To be honest, sometimes it feels less like being provoked “to love” and a lot more like just being provoked. Having my actions called out by someone else is a potential trigger for my defenses. This is the point at which I can get stuck on the hamster wheel of shame rather than feeling the invitation of guilt. Instead of metabolizing the energy for good, I can get stuck in self-flagellation. Being stuck isn’t helpful for me (hello, insomnia). Nor is it helping repair the harm or getting back into right relationship with the person on the receiving end of the microaggression. And so I return to box breathing, somatic centering, and prayer. Re-grounding and remembering that I am also made in the image of God. I am not called to be perfect but I am called to be perfected in love. 
Rev. Dana Neuhauser is the racial justice organizer for the Minnesota Conference and the minister of public witness at New City Church in Minneapolis.

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