You’re Gonna Screw Up

Yesterday, I guest-hosted a session of #radlibchat on my article about whiteness in the library profession. It was a fabulous discussion.

One of the more common threads that came out of the chat were the fears many white people have about screwing up when getting involved in race work. Several people expressed apprehension about doing the work and making a mess of things. So, I thought I’d take a moment to address some of those fears.

Fair warning: I’m going to say some encouraging things here. But I’m also going to share some hard truths. And it is vitally important that you absorb both if you’re serious about doing this work.

Another note: I’m going to focus on race work and the ways white allies get involved. But the fact is that all of this applies intersectionally, as well. I—as an ally to LGBTQ folks, to poor folks, to disabled folks, etc.—am learning and practicing these lessons.

Truth #1: You are gonna screw up. I guarantee it. No matter who you are, no matter how good your intentions, no matter how careful you are, YOU WILL MAKE A MISTAKE. YOU WILL MAKE MANY MISTAKES. It’s simply a given. You’re going to say the wrong thing and do the wrong thing and make some or many people of color very angry and disappointed and frustrated with you.

Truth #2: This is okay. Just breathe. It’s okay if you when you mess up. It’s okay if you when you anger the people to whom you are trying to be a good ally. This will happen and you will survive.

Truth #3: You will be hurt. No one likes having someone angry at them. Especially if they’re trying to do something good and right. When you screw up with the people of color around you, you will be very hurt when they get frustrated with you. You will feel defensive and sad and very, very hurt. This is also okay. Because you will be smart and go away to a safe place and share your #whitefeelings and shed your #whitetears with fellow white people who are also doing this work and who can mentor you in your process. You will not unburden your feelings on the people of color to whom you are allied. You will process your feelings in a separate space.

Truth #4: You will deserve this anger/hurt/frustration/wrath of the people of color you’ve offended. You messed up. You did something wrong. Even if you didn’t intend to. Even if you have no idea what you did. You did it, and they felt it. Just as your hurt feelings will be perfectly valid because they are yours and they are real, their frustration will be just as valid, just as much theirs, just as real. So even in the midst of your hurt and bewilderment, you will be careful not to dismiss the reality of the people you’ve offended. You will resist the urge to defend yourself, shut your mouth, and listen.

Truth #5: You will learn from your mistakes…if you are serious about this work. Many white people pretend to be serious about antiracism yet ghost the minute things get tough. (And they do get tough. See Truth #7.) But if you’re really serious about doing this work, you will take the initiative and learn from your mistakes. It is YOUR responsibility to learn what you did wrong and what you need to change. Maybe the people of color you offended will be willing to tell you. But don’t assume that is the case. This will be another great opportunity for you to connect with those fellow white folks who are mentoring you through your antiracist process. They can help guide you.

Truth #6: You will experience extraordinary joy and fulfillment. Race work is not easy. The history of racial oppression is ugly and the present is not much better. But the work we all do is vital to the future of our society, and despite whatever mistakes you may make, your contribution as an ally is absolutely crucial. Plus, you will learn and grow in ways you never dreamed possible. You will interact and bond with people whom you, in your lily white life to this point, never imagined. You will help to build a more just society, and you will never be the same because of it.

Truth #7: But as you can see, this work is not for the faint of heart. To borrow a scene from the Christian Bible: When Jesus gathered together the disciples, Jesus said (April paraphrase), “Hey, if you wanna be down, you have to take up your cross and follow me. This is NOT gonna be easy.” It’s the same for race work. In order to experience that growth and fulfillment, you’re going to have to get down and dirty. You are going to be challenged beyond what you think you can bear. You are going to have the comfy warmth of your white privilege and ignorance stripped away and laid bare in all its ugly truth. You’re going to be made really uncomfortable, and yes, you’re going to get your feelings hurt. (Remember Truth #3?)

So, knowing all this, are you still up for the challenge? I sincerely hope so. Because the Struggle is real out there and we need you.



  1. cbecker53 · April 13, 2016

    GREAT post. Thank you!


  2. nissetje · April 13, 2016

    Reblogged this on Barking Back and commented:
    Everything April Hathcock writes in this blog is amazing. But this post? Wow. A great reminder: I will screw up, and that will suck, then I’ll learn from it and keep going.


  3. sonofabeach96 · April 13, 2016

    What a terrific read. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  4. melissaicd · April 14, 2016

    Reblogged this on MiscEtcetera v2.


  5. debbiereese · April 14, 2016

    This is a timely item. Two days ago, Native people used social media to talk about how that day’s Jeopardy game show had “Native Americans” as a category that contestants avoided till they had no choice. I wrote about it on my site. The replies from some librarians are disappointing. Leaving the category till last tells us a lot. The comments do, too. Here’s the info:


    • April Hathcock · April 14, 2016

      Thank you for sharing this, Debbie. You’re right, some of the responses are disappointing. And very illuminating.


  6. Nora · April 14, 2016

    Thank you for your follow-up post to the #radlibchat, April. A few weeks ago, I read something very disturbing on our school/location’s Yik Yak feed. It read (paraphrasing), There are now black human pinatas available. This is awesome in so many ways, but probably won’t last that long knowing how those people are nowadays. This still makes my stomach turn, and I’ve shared the story with several co-workers as a reminder that racism is thriving right in front of our faces. I just can’t get these words out of my mind, and I’m considering proposing The Human Library at our university. I can bet the same people who post these statements on an anonymous social media site wouldn’t repeat them in person.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Alec McFarlane · April 14, 2016

    It is what you make it. I should preface this with the understanding that incomprehensible shit happened and is happening to people. Some more than others. What this makes me think of is a Native American saying in “Oriah Mountain Dreamer” where the essence is not what has happened to you or what you have done, but what you are doing or will do.

    The hard part of this whole thing is called inclusion, and inclusion is an illusion when exclusive terms are used. A person of color is a social construct that means “all non white people” (Advancement Project). What is a person of light? A person of light is a social construct that means “all non black people” (Me). The term as defined by the Advancement project is used everywhere, including here, the term I invented is not, and should not. But the hard part is that a POC –or any some such– is not an inclusive term. It is, by definition, discriminatory when you single out another.

    The hard part is that I am not here to deny racism, or any isms, I am here to quote anthropologists and genetic anthropologists who essentially say we all came from the same place and that race does not exist. Implying that all –or only– black people came from Africa is factually dubious, and seeking the power of masses as in the POC moniker will prove only that power is colorblind. I say this as a Scot whose ancestry once controlled 70% of the slave trade coming out of Jamaica. I say this as someone who watched Bob Marley go to Zimbabwe. I say this as someone with friends from Rwanda, where the first people killed in tribal warfare are those considered smart.

    In true inclusion and diversity, white is a color as is any. Reinforcing the divide by taking the minority stance and then repurposing as a majority in order to get rights FOR a certain class is the folly. And it is what we make it. And seriously, American Anti-Discrimination law denies the citizenry Constitutional Rights*. The hard answer is found in George Carlin’s monologue, “You’re All Diseased” (1999) and in good old honest-to-god American language. I do not know about you, but I have a hard time understanding why we have to fight for something we should already have. My read of the 14th Amendment is unambiguous, there are no comma-separated-classes in the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The illusion of inclusion is as much a problem as any, it is what we make it.

    (*) Quote

    “When considering the US and Canada, it would seem that the latter theorists would have the stronger case. There are a number of reasons for this. Despite propinquity, as well as the supposedly homogenizing effects of modernization and globalization, Canadian social structure and culture are not the same as those of the US. This is true in general and also in relation to disability. For one thing, the legal conceptions of both “equality” and “disability” used by the two countries are quite different (Oakes, 2005). Specifically, disability in Canadian federal law is dealt with under “human rights” whereas the American system deals with it under “minority rights” (Blomley and Pratt, 2001). In Canada, equality for people with disabilities is explicitly included at the constitutional level in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Bickenbach, 2001: 570). Discourse around disability in Canada is often based upon notions of citizenship or citizenship rights (Rioux and Prince, 2002), but this is not the case in the US (Tyjewski, 2006). Oakes (2005: 234) notes that “the Supreme Court of Canada has stated that one can be disabled within the meaning of human rights law without having any functional limitation.

    In the US, people with disabilities are treated as a minority group, and the laws relating to their rights fall under the category of “anti-discrimination laws.” As such, they lack the force of constitutional guarantees, they depend upon individual efforts for their enforcement, and their remedies are at the level of individual changes or changes which affect only a group of similar individuals (a “class”) (Bickenbach, 2001: 569). For this and other reasons, Oakes (2005) suggests that there is a greater likelihood that Canadians with disabilities will win discrimination cases than will Americans with disabilities.”
    End Quote

    If you are with me this far you will have taken note of the second paragraph of the quote above. Why, I ask those of you with legal minds, or just mere activists minds, why do we or must we seek rights FOR a certain class? Do we not have a dog chasing his tail? For me, the easiest thing would be for President Obama to get out on the Rose Garden tomorrow and tell the world that we are all from Africa and that race is an environmental factor. We are all different, yet the same. And privilege, I have none here when I ask only for what I give. I know the folly as a deaf man of the fight FOR Deaf Rights. Rights are not deaf, or Deaf, or even Hard of Hearing, Equal rights are equal, and either we apply them or we do not. And deafness, I warn you, knows no bounds, no borders, no class, no race, no religion; anybody anywhere, anytime, can become deaf. And then what? You were right, you’re gonna screw up and you are gonna grow up. Make things simple, borrow from the French, call a cat a cat.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Cathy Davidson · April 15, 2016

    This is brilliant, April. And so clear. And witty. As usual.

    I would like to add a component for white advisors and mentors who have Black students or other students of color out there. There are a lot of us because of the appalling disproportions in our apprenticeship model that means the profession and its racism replicate itself (i.e. 87% of full-time full professors are white). Yes, we have to change that too.

    In the meantime, we have to learn to be better advisors and mentors. When I was still at Duke I co-taught with behavioral economist Dan Ariely (Predictably Irrational and other bestsellers), who is that rare scholar who always wants there to be real public good to come directly from his work. One experiment he designed involved black and white students (really actors) telling white advisors and black advisors narratives that contained actual, testable, knowable mis-information. In significant numbers, black graduate and professional mentor/advisors corrected black and white students equally. White graduate and professional mentor/advisors corrected the white students significantly more than they corrected the black students, apparently fearing to be called “racists” if they intervened, thus leaving their very own students vulnerable–lacking in mentoring, correction, or feedback– in the future. Yet another tragedy of racism! Black students are penalized coming and going (other studies show they aren’t praised enough and rewarded enough and their work is belittled by reviewers, in citations, and elsewhere: Read Presumed Incompetent for lots of studies in that direction. This was a study in a different direction but with yet another negative finding.)

    Your wonderful column, coupled with this information from this experiment, reminds me, yet and ever again, that, although race work is difficult, although we screw up, it is essential, important work in the world. Honesty, candor, and a willingness to screw it up and be misunderstood are part of it. And listen. Yes. Listen.
    Thanks so much, April, for this and for all you do.


  9. Stephanie · April 20, 2016

    Thank you for your insights on the topic- it is a subject that deserves more open discussions like this. I’m white, but does that make me a person-of-non-color? I’m guilty of being afraid to enter conversations or ask questions because I don’t want to inadvertently offend anyone. As a librarian and an educator that fear hinders my ability to increase awareness and help others. Personally, I want to know more about what people of other races, cultures, and orientations think. How do they, as individuals, perceive certain policies or historical events? I want to know that not as someone who has a different background, but because of the shared humanness. We can, and should, be learning from one another.


    • April Hathcock · April 20, 2016

      Hi, Stephanie,

      Person of color is really meant as shorthand to distinguish from white people when talking about issues of racial privilege and oppression. This isn’t about terms so much as systems of oppression. So the real question isn’t how can you be included as a white person, it’s how can and should you as a white person be helping to dismantle racial oppression? Keep in mind that this work is also not about getting marginalized people to patiently answer all your questions. You should turn to other white allies for that kind of learning, as I suggest. That’s the kind of behind-the-scenes stuff that you do to prepare for race work. But race work itself isn’t about you or your learning; it’s about advocating for the dismantling of our systems of oppression. Decentering oneself in this work is not easy, but it is an essential requirement for doing this work effectively.

      Liked by 1 person

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  12. Mitchell · May 10, 2016

    Thing is… I’m not up for the challenge. Not because I don’t believe the struggle is real. I do believe it’s very real.
    I’m too emotional. My ‘white feelings’ will always get in the way. If I step into the ring, I’ll do nothing but make mistakes and disappoint people. I’ll do more harm than good.
    I love my feelings too much. It’s just who I am.
    So I’ll stay at the periphery and try and do as little harm as possible. Hopefully my existence still matters and my life can generate some good. Hopefully I can draw a good picture or write a good screenplay, make someone’s day better. For all I know, maybe I can make a trans woc’s day better with my art.
    Or maybe only white cis people will like what I have to offer. I hope that’s not the case.


    • April Hathcock · May 10, 2016

      Nah. Stepping beyond privilege never happens by accident. If you’re not up for intentional action, then you’re part of the oppressive system. Everything you create will be for and about cis white people. You can’t have it both ways.


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