A Lesson in Action
High school. I know many people wax prosaic about their high school and wish they could go back. Not me. Full of awkwardness and embarrassment. High school is a reflection of society in a lot of ways and in the early 80’s mine was no exception. Racially derogatory language was not uncommon. And it filtered into school. Along with jokes and what are now called micro-aggressions which were not as micro. And awkward teens trying to figure out how to be an adult would say things.
Before I go any further, I want to say we all do stupid. Trust me I have done my share. Teenagers are at an age where they are trying to find their way. And that involves making mistakes. No one made any mistake that can’t be forgiven.
One set of jokes making the rounds at one point was centered on the Holocaust. Awful I know but there it was. I heard them but kept going. I am not Jewish so I didn’t think it really was my place. Hence I ignored them. And really honestly didn’t think much about them.
One day we were all waiting outside various rooms for classes to begin. Everyone was joking around and lots of that loud high school laughter. I was getting ready for class and largely ignoring things when I saw a close friend in the room already. He was sitting alone. I thought it was odd so I went in. I said hi and sat next to him. He seemed bothered and upset so I asked what was up. He mentioned the group outside had been telling some of the more popular Holocaust themed jokes. He was upset. He was Jewish and it hurt him. I asked him if he had said anything. He said sure he had but that had not helped. Bummed didn’t exactly describe it.
I got mad. I felt bad. He was my friend.
Now what happened next was quite out of the ordinary. I desperately tried to get through school as anonymously as possible as a general rule. But for some reason I couldn’t let this go.
I got up and went out of the room and walked over to the group in question. I told them the jokes were not right. That they really bothered my friend. And they bothered me.
And of course they listened and immediately changed their ways…. Not hardly. They were dismissive and changed their focus to me. Feeling even worse I turned to leave. I felt bad. I had probably made things worse. For me and probably my friend.
Then a moment happened.
As I turned one of the kids in question said he was Jewish so that made it ok.
I stopped. I somehow realized I had a moment. I suddenly had an image of my friend standing there. Looking at me. I realized I need to do something. I gathered myself and turned back around. I looked at the speaker and said “That makes it even worse ‘cause you know how much they hurt.” Then I turned on a dime and left. Half expecting a fist.
I went back to the room where my friend still sat. I felt bad as I had not really helped but I told him I asked them to stop. He mumbled a thanks. I mumbled sorry. Then the door opened. And in came the one I had mouthed off to. I got scared but he ignored me and went to my friend.
He apologized. He was sorry. He had gotten caught up in the moment. He had not really meant to hurt anyone. Then the bell rang and he left went to class.
The teacher had come in and saw this. He asked what that was. We of course said nothing. It was high school after all. But the jokes afterwards seemed to die down. Whether because of what I said or the natural lifespan of such themes I don’t know.
I tell this story to highlight to two things.
First, nothing changed until I took action. I had thought I was an ally. I would listen to problems. Empathize. Sympathize. And while that is important it did not change anything. Nothing changed until I DID SOMETHING.
Action is a necessary part of Allyship.
While empathy is important… and necessary… action is what changes things. If you want to make things better you have to do something: boost people’s profile in the office, interview minority candidates for roles, promote voices on social media like LinkedIn, highlight diverse candidates to senior leaders, coach, mentor, give someone space and support to talk at a meeting … there are lots of things you can do. You don’t need to lead a rally down main street. But you need to do something.
But HOW do you do something? Doing something requires mustering up the courage. Overcoming peer pressure. Overcoming your own instincts to kinda hide. How did I get out of the room and even more importantly say what I said?
When I left the room I was thinking of my friend. The conversation turned on me and I became more concerned with me. But as I started to walk away I pictured my friend again. And when the comment happened I thought about him. About what I would do if he WERE there. I imagined him standing right there. Looking at me.
It is that imagination trick that helped propel me to those final comments. And it is a trick that I have used repeatedly over the years. When a derogatory comment is made, I picture my wife or one of my close friends standing there. It immediately changes the mental dynamic in my mind. If someone says something sexist and you have daughters your reaction is different if they are standing right there. Your brain reacts differently. At least mine does. I immediately know that it is not right and I need to do something. I feel the need to defend them. It puts me in the frame of mind to act.
Have I used it consistently? I wish but no. Does it work all the time? No, sometimes situations don’t lend themselves to act without fear of over the top escalation. But it is a trick that helps me. Hence I thought I would share.
As always I hope this helps. I look forward to continuing the conversation. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments.
All the best, Dave Terné