Do the best you can until you know better.

Several experiences lay behind this blog. The first was a coming across a Maya Angelou quote, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” All of us have memories of doing things that we wish we could change; this seems particularly true of learned behavior from our family of origin. When we are young (and for this blog, I am stating anyone under 25 years old), we have usually not had the opportunity to “know better.”

All life is about learning; even a single cell animal will learn and then shy away from something that, in the past, it has found to be toxic. For humans, most of our learning is first from our families, and then peers, schools, churches, and then finally our workplace. Further, there are two types of education, formal and observed. Formal can be our parents teaching us to not pick our noses due to societal norms or from an instructor in a class or a sport.

When children are trying to walk, they typically do so not because someone is actively teaching them to balance and put one foot in front of the other, the child is just imitating what she observes. Do not underestimate the power of observed behaviors, such as unspoken family rules, that are more implicitly learn as opposed to explicitly learned.

The most straightforward example is race; humans are not born racist. Place a white two-year old child into a room of two-year old Asian, Latino, and/or Black children, and they will all just start playing. The same is true for a child of another race placed into a room full of white children. Bigotry is learned, either formally or observed; this leads to the second experience.

The second recent experience was when I was asked to write an endorsement for a book, and in it, my friend talks about staying with his grandfather one summer; his grandfather was a sharecropper in Tennessee starting back in the 1930s. Along with all the familial bonding and great activities like camping and fishing, his grandfather schooled him on his racial prejudices. As he states, “He was my grandfather, and I trusted him, and I didn’t know any better.”

Luckily, my friend lived near San Franscico, and when he returned, he realized there were other opinions about race. He realized he could choose to love his grandfather, relishing being taught how to fish, etc. and also to choose to reject other ideas his grandfather held that he did not like. Wow, what a concept; we can love and respect someone for some parts and reject others.

This ability does not happen before about the age of seven; all younger children are black-white thinkers. That is why a child will tell his mon that he hates her when she does not give him the candy he wants. There is no, “I can love my mom for all the wonderful things she does for me and not like that she refused me candy!” What does this say about those adults that now tell us we must take all or nothing of people?

Why condemn those that did not have the blessing of a counter view when they were young and continued their learned behavior into adulthood before changing? Rejecting family norms is extremely hard, and those that do should be honored for improving, not shunned for repeating the mistakes of their elders before learning new behavior. That is genuinely becoming “Woke,” not this judgemental condemnation we hear today.

The third experience is my growing up in the south, albeit not the deep south, but still very racially prejudiced. I grew up where everyone I knew was biased, my grandparents, parents, neighborhood friends, and peers. Was I sometimes cruel with people who were different? Yes; this included not only those of other races, but homosexuals (not that I knew any back then, but I learned they were “bad”), those with mental and physical issues, even the socially inferior, the “white trash.”

I am not sure why, but at some point, I no longer bought into this pervasive groupthink. Partially, this might have been going to a Catholic elementary and high schools with blacks, Hispanics, rich, poor, and (oh my God) Jews (I still did not know any gays!). I found I did not think in those terms any longer. Interestingly, I would not call it acceptance, but more like irrelevance and that later became an issue in my psychology training, but more on that later.

So in 1971, I had a black roommate as a freshman at a Texas state university. Back then, this was unheard of, and I remember seeing another incoming student’s application where, under roommate preference, he had written “White.” When I had read my application, I thought that question meant if you had a friend going to school and wanted to room with them! While I do not remember my parents saying anything about my roommate, my grandmothers were appalled!

After his 50th birthday party, I mentioned to him that another attendee had remarked how extraordinary our rooming was and had asked me what his family thought a “mixed” roommate situation? The good news is that, back then, I had not had any thought about him being black; the bad news is, in my racial irrelevance thinking, it never occurred to me his family would be concerned about him having a white roommate at a predominately white university. Jon told me that when he first called home, and they asked, he replied (and I am paraphrasing), “I am not sure he even has realized I am black!”

That is all fine and dandy, but according to today’s “Woke” culture, my black roommate should have condemned me for things I said before I met him, before I knew better. My best friend should have been outraged that I had told my share of derogatory Mexican jokes! And because I stupidly repeated gay jokes back when I was young, my gay cousins should shun me now.

If either my roommate, best friend, or cousins had asked me if I had ever been homophobic or racially insensitive, even cruel, in the past, I would have admitted it and apologized to them. They did not, because they accepted me as I was when I knew them, not who I was when I was an adolescent. However, I will never apologize to anyone else that wishes to judge and condemn me for my past actions; as a teenager and young adult, I did the best I could, and when I knew better, I did better.

I mentioned earlier about my irrelevant thinking about race, sexual orientation, etc. While this did serve me to be accepting of people for whom they are, it did not help me when I began practicing being a therapist. I remember being in a dyad with a fellow student, somewhat “swarthy” and having a “foreign” last name. While my therapy was excellent, and he remarked that I had helped, he also mentioned he was Armenian, and that I had not taken his ethenic background into consideration. So while my not seeing people with a racial, ethnic, sexual orientation lens leads to public acceptance of all, in a therapeutic relationship, it could be harmful! I now do better!

Humans are always learning; if we choose not to continue learning, we stagnate. And, for me, part of learning new behavior is to reject hurtful behavior in others. But only if they have not learned and choose to be hurtful now, not what they did back in their early years.

To those “Woke” revisionists, I will close with another Maya Angelou quote…
“Just do right. Right may not be expedient, it may not be profitable, but it will satisfy your soul. It brings you the kind of protection that bodyguards can’t give you. So try to live your life in a way that you will not regret years of useless virtue and inertia and timidity.
Take up the battle. Take it up.
It’s yours. This is your life.
This is your world.”

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