A million mistakes

When I was twelve years old, my dad’s job transferred our family to Mexico City, Mexico.  While my dad had served a mission in Argentina and regularly spoke Spanish as part of his job, the rest of us knew absolutely no Spanish.  I admit that I was terrified to move there and try to navigate in a world where I didn’t speak the language, and for the first six months (maybe more), things were completely disorienting.  I didn’t know where to find basic items at a grocery store.  I couldn’t buy a movie ticket without help.  I didn’t realize how much I used to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations until I realized that I couldn’t understand anything that anybody around me was saying!

I was able to start Spanish classes immediately, and had plenty of resources around me to learn the language.  I started at the most basic level (hello = hola, thank you = gracias, book = libro) and gradually started integrating words and concepts into my new vocabulary.  The scariest part of all, though, was speaking.  I was terrified of sounding like an idiot, of having a terrible American accent, or of completely butchering the language I was attempting to learn.  Thankfully, I had an excellent Spanish teacher who repeatedly told our class, “In order to become fluent in a language, you have to make one million mistakes.  So you’d better start now.”

Now, he wasn’t advocating that we go out and butcher the language purposefully.  But he did want us to practice using our voice and saying the words.  He wanted us to keep learning while we tried – I had classes at school.  I had friends who were patient and generous in explaining concepts that I didn’t fully grasp.  I watched movies with Spanish subtitles, I read books, and I immersed myself in learning the Spanish language.  And I made a lot of mistakes.  Some of them were even harmful mistakes – more than once, I unwittingly said something horribly offensive and made sure to apologize, learn from it, and do better the next time.  I don’t know that I ever got up to one million mistakes (since I’m not completely fluent), but as I gradually learned and spoke, I became increasingly adept at speaking Spanish.

I’ve been thinking about this learning experience a lot lately.  I’m a cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, financially stable, white woman.  I have a lot of privilege in my life.  And as I have to come to see and understand the various intersections of power and oppression in our society, I have wanted to use my privilege to speak up and fight racism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, and other -isms in our society.

But I am terrified.  I admit that I have said a whole lot of dumb stuff.  I sometimes think back on times that I have said something that reinforces those -isms, or times that I’ve taken up the oxygen in the room, or when I’ve made the problems about me instead of those who are actually directly affected.  I’m sure there are thousands of other things that I’ve said and mistakes that I’ve made that I don’t even remember.  But I also think that, as somebody who is trying to learn the language of allyship, I need to recognize that I’m going to need to make a million mistakes, so I’d better get started.

Just like in learning Spanish, I’m not going to make those mistakes purposefully.  I’m not going to go out and ignorantly spout off with the expectation that those around me will correct me and educate me.  I’m going to take classes, I’m going to read books, I’m going to watch movies, and I’m going to listen to people as they speak.  There are going to be many, many times when I will need to fight the urge to speak, and instead sit back and listen.  But when I see or hear people around me saying or doing things that are harmful, or that perpetuate damaging tropes or stereotypes, that will be my chance to speak up.  I may make a mistake.  In fact, I probably will.  But as I’ve tried to speak up, I’ve become a little bit more comfortable every time.  I’ve learned to say “I don’t think that joke is funny” and “Please don’t make comments like that around me and my kids” and, maybe most importantly, “I’m sorry that I did/said that.”

One resource that I have found to be incredibly helpful is the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Speak Up: Responding to Everyday Bigotry” pamphlet.  It gives sample scenarios that people often find themselves in, responses that could be useful, and helpful role-playing examples that I’ve used with my friends and family.  The links found on our Facebook group guidelines offer several great introductions to intersectionality and having productive conversations.  Nancy’s post, “A Brief Syllabus on Whiteness” has links to several helpful articles, and many commenters added ideas as well.  It’s often daunting to put one’s own comfort, privilege, and knowledge on the line and to try to speak up as an ally.  But it’s so important.  We might make a million mistakes as we do it, but as we learn and do our best, we can become fluent allies and help to dismantle systems of oppression in our societies.



Liz is a reader, writer, wife, mother, gardener, social worker, story collector, cookie-maker, and hug-giver.

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5 Responses

  1. Heather says:

    Such a helpful analogy. Fear often paralyzes me, keeping me a bystander instead of an upstander. I need to be more willing to fail. Thank you.

  2. Wendy says:

    Beautifully written and motivating. Thank you for this reminder, Liz. It’s so important.

  3. margaretoh says:

    I loved what Fatimah said at the retreat this year: You’re going to fall. Just try to fall forward.

  4. Ziff says:

    I really like this framing and comparison, Liz. I am often paralyzed by fear of saying something that will come out wrong, so I say nothing. Thinking about it this way might help me have more courage to try.

  5. SEP says:

    Thank you for your efforts. The world needs more people who are willing to try. This post is a good reminder for all of us.

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