Writing about skin color reminded me of an experience I had many years ago. Not surprisingly, it involves making a mistake. As a result, I learned two great lessons. One, words can cause harm even without intending to do so. Two, it is important to have teachers and mentors on your personal journey. (Trigger warning: racial slur)
During my junior year at Cornell, I was walking back to my dorm with a group of friends. I was the only white person in the group and we were all leaving an African American history class. During the conversation, I used the word mulatto to describe a fellow classmate. It was a word I had heard to describe someone who was a mix of white and black skin colors. As soon as that word left my mouth, everyone stopped walking, all eyes were on me, and it got real quiet.
Someone finally said, “I can’t believe you used that word. Do you know what it means?” I shook my head no. “The word mulatto is based on the word mule. And you know what a mule is, right?” Again I was quiet. Another friend stated, “A mule is born when a horse and a donkey reproduce. But mules cannot reproduce. They are sterile. So calling someone mulatto is like calling them a mule. It’s really offensive and you should never use that word. I’m surprised you didn’t know that.”
I sincerely apologized and explained that I didn’t know the word was derogatory. It wasn’t a very good excuse but I was being honest. My friends knew me well enough to know I didn’t mean any harm and no one stayed angry, although I can imagine they were disappointed in me. We eventually resumed our walk and the incident was forgotten by everyone except me. I will never forget what I learned that day and I never again used that word.
When I look back, I am extremely grateful for moments like this, and especially grateful for all the people who have guided me on my journey. Sometimes it takes just one voice (The First Ripple) and sometimes it takes a group of voices. Over the years, I have learned from friends, strangers, teachers, and students. I never know when the next lesson will happen or who my teacher will be. But I always try to be a willing student.
To be clear, becoming culturally competent is your own responsibility. However, your chance of success will increase if you surround yourself with a nurturing support system. Luckily, there are amazing people out there willing to help if they know your heart is in the right place. I am certainly willing to help you, but that’s not enough. So now is a good time to think and reflect: Who has already helped you on your journey? Who else can guide you? Who can help you find your way, tell you when you are lost, and teach you when you make mistakes?