Friday, July 31, 2009

When to say you're sorry and moving onward and forward

[Yep, another long and rambling post--but if you are a regular reader, you expect this by now, right?]

One of the things I've noticed about us Americans is that we like to be apologized to. We like to have people say "I'm sorry" in a genuine way, so that we, in turn, can forgive and move forward.

Of course, perhaps this isn't an American trait--I haven't lived in any other country for a length of time that gives me a baseline comparison, but I *feel* it to be a very American trait--that we are a nation imbued with the values of fair play, and when that is called into question, we want an apology, we want to forgive, and then we want to move on.

Problem is, it's hard to figure out when you should say you are sorry. There's also the whole issue of the empty apology or the apology that doesn't address the underlying problems.

Little aside: A friend once told me this story about his grandfather and father. When his father was a young boy, he and his siblings and cousins were having a pillow fight in one of the bedrooms, and since this was a time in which they were real feather pillows, the feathers literally started flying. So when the grandfather came to scold his kids and his nieces and nephews, they all apologized but he said, "Sorry doesn't pick up the feathers." Which I find to be a useful phrase to show that while it's all very well and good to feel bad, you have to be able to actually do the work of repairing the situation.

Recently on What Tami Said, Tami cross-posted my "Race: Always more complicated than you think" post. And since my internet access has been down for the last 36 hours (just got it back up and running this morning--thank you Cable repair person!) I didn't notice the cross-posting and most especially did not see the dozen comments, a number of them from "anonymous" commenters who were chiding Tami (forgetting that she was not the author of the blog) for her post (which was really my post) and faulting her/me for criticizing Lucia Whalen, for describing the situation as racially motivated, when clearly it wasn't since Lucia Whalen's 911 tape was released and she has spoken out about how hurtful the "racist" label has been for her, and especially since the great "beer summit" happened yesterday at the White House between Dr. Gate and Sergeant Crowley. Apparently Tami was trying to address some people who believed that she should apologize for calling Lucia Whalen a racist or apologize for being quick to believe that Lucia Whalen could be a racist, and Tami's response was to cross-post my blog entry about race being a complicated issue, I suspect because I specifically wrote in that post that while I now see that Whalen didn't intend to racially profile Gates or his driver, none-the-less I do not absolve her for her part in the "Gates-gate" if you will.

So why am I not apologizing for calling Lucia Whalen a racist, (that was in the "rant" where I admitted to everyone that I was taking off the educator's hat and speaking from the gut). I guess my first thought is, do I need to? Does Tami need to apologize for assuming that Lucia Whalen was acting out of racist beliefs and racially profiling Professor Gates when this is what every seemingly reliable news source was telling us? And moreover, isn't it possible that Lucia Whalen holds subconscious biases and prejudices that she has picked up from society--ones that equate black men with crime?

It's not nice to call someone a racist, but the truth is, people bandy that word about so much and it has taken on a life of its own--it has this power that, for all you Harry Potter fans out there, is similar to "he that shall not be named"--it's like calling someone a racist is the WORST thing you could ever do to another person--like worse than, I dunno, mistakenly arresting someone in his own house after he showed proper identification and proved that he was the owner of the house and you arrest this person, an older gentleman with a cane, because he's showing his frustration and anger and you don't think he's exhibiting enough respect for the law and how hard your job is and by the way, you always considered yourself to be one of the good guys--the non-bigoted guys who has a black friend or two and trains other law officials on race profiling. But you do not need to apologize because you did nothing wrong and how dare anyone accuse you of being racist, because now you are the victim in all of this and you have suffered and if there's going to be an apology shouldn't it come from the highest quarters, like say an apology from the President of the United States with an invitation to share a beer?

Where was I?

Oh yes. Lucia Whalen. I have to say, I feel for her. She has gotten a lot of negative attention, a ton of hate mail, and a lot of public scrutiny. And she wasn't invited to join the big boys at the White House for their little tete-a-tete, which I think was a mistake and a blind spot in terms of the dynamics of sex in all of this as well (because lets face it, there are sexual and racial dynamics intertwined in all of this). I don't know Ms. Whalen but she seems to be a conscientious person who tries to do the right thing, even though the best laid plans often blow up in your face (and boy did that happen to her with this one).

But I do believe that her internal biases played a part in her decision to call 911 on behalf of her neighbor rather than calming her neighbor down or asking the two men on the porch, from the safety of the very public and visible sidewalk of this very wealthy and well trod and trafficked Cambridge Street, if they needed any help.

The person I think who says it best is Tenured Radical, who has an EXCELLENT post on this subject (click here) and who addresses Ms. Whalen and her elderly neighbor directly:
So Mrs. Cambridge White Neighbor, what should you have done? You should have stopped and asked the gentleman who was trying to get into the house if he needed help -- and did he want to use your cell phone to call a locksmith (hint: burglars don't jimmy the front door in full sight of everyone.) If he had no business getting into the house, he would have left. If he did have business in the house, he might have said, "No thanks -- I think I've got it!" Or, "We've had so much rain, are your doors stuck too? " Or, "Yes, thank you, I need to call my wife -- hi, I'm Skip."

Do I owe Lucia Whalen an apology? Does Tami? Does the nation? Does Dr. Gates or Sergeant Crowley? Does President Obama (for not inviting her to the WH for a cold one)? I think the answer is no. But what I will say is that I do take back calling her a racist. Because I should know better. Because I believe what Jay Smooth has all too eloquently said himself: it's not productive. It really just flames the fires of people's emotions to use that word, even if, in the case of certain instances, like The Valley Club or Sonia Sotomayor's hearings, you really feel that racism is underpinning the questions. Or even in the obvious discrepancy between what Sergeant Crowley CLAIMS Lucia Whalen said to him--that she saw two "black men with backpacks" on the porch when Ms. Whalen denies ever describing the men in this manner and, in fact, went out of her way not to talk about their racial background, until she was asked (and then she said that one seemed to be "Hispanic" but always her language was qualified).

I think the more telling thing among all these blog comments is why some commenters, esp. the anonymous ones on Tami's blog, are so up in arms over this and why they need to demand an apology from an African American female blogger who is speaking her own truth the way she sees it. Perhaps its my friendship with Tami or the common cause I share with her, but I bristled at the comments on her blog (in no small part because I did realize that they were aimed at me). And so what I want to say to everyone is that I will apologize to Lucia Whalen for mistakenly calling her a racist the minute that Sergeant Crowley apologizes to Professor Gates and admits that his own internal prejudices and bigotries may have been a factor in his overreaction and arrest of Dr. Gates in his own home.

But in an effort to move onward and forward, let me just end with saying that I'm not sorry that this has all happened. I mean, I'm sure that everyone in Cambridge, most especially Ms. Whalen, Dr. Gates, and Sergeant Crowley are all WISHING that this had never played out this way. But I think that the dialogue and conversations about this topic have been illuminating and helpful, if for not other reason than to put to rest this silly notion that we are living in a post-racial era or that the election of Barack Obama spelled the end of black disenfranchisement and racism.

The road is long people. We need to keep up our strength, and we need as many allies as we can to fight the good fight.


Genepool said...

I agree that the word "racist" has certainly taken on a life of it own. It gets thrown around so often for so many different reasons that it has lost a lot of impact for me. And its a word that SHOULD have impact.

Now it seems a lot of times to be used in an accusing way, to hurt people for hurting sake. In my work it has taken the place of "ass hole" and rarely even gets the bat of an eye from me. Whatever dark feelings I may or may not be harboring about those of a different race/culture from my own, I know I am a pretty fair guy.

Do I approach other races differently? Heck yeah, occasionally I do. Most of the folks I deal with speak English, but we don't all speak the same language. It took me years to learn to communicate effectively with inmates. Of ANY color.

The best lesson one of my older partners ever taught was the amazing POWER of apology. I all cap the word power because I cannot stress enough what such a simple thing can accomplish in the environment I work in.

I'll cliff's note the story... Basically, my partner took yard and day room privileges from an inmate for something that we later learned he hadn't done at all. This happens sometimes. Separating people quickly is often times more important than an investigation that can be done safely later on.

Anyway, we figured out what had actually happened the next day and my partner, a 50 something Mexican-American fellow with an awesome sense of humor turned to me and said, "well, damn, I guess we gotta take a walk now". With just 18 months in at the time I had no clue what the hell he was talking about.

We left the office we shared in our cell block, went out onto a full yard of inmates, went directly over to the large group of Southern Mexican inmates and called the fellow over. I was a little nervous. My partner matter-of-factly admitted he was wrong in front of the entire group and apologized at the same time.

There are guys with a lot more years on the job than me who would laugh at the suggestion of apologizing to an inmate. They are not the people I care to work with.

I have never forgotten both the appreciation and respect those guys had for my partner for not only coming to their homeboy out on the field where the advantage was theirs , but for apologizing in front of them as well. "Respect publicly, earn public respect". I'm not sure if he quoted anyone or made it up himself. Either way I thought it was clever enough to remember.

I don't really know much about this story about Professor Gates and Ms. Whalen. Based on what I have read here I feel badly for them both really. He got hassled unnecessarily by police for doing nothing wrong. She is still getting hassled for doing what she though was right. We will never know if what she did was actually motivated by race or not. Does it really even matter at this point? She has her scarlet letter. If the professor had been white, this story would have never gotten any air time. Maybe a blonde joke would have circulated locally for a time (if she were blonde). And we can never know if she would have bothered to call the police on a white guy shaking a door, maybe in frustration. (I would if I were her from here on out)

And Mr. Gates. Even if her motives were not racially biased, his belief that they probably were will still likely hurt him in some way.

Yup. I feel bad for them both.

And now we've both rambled. =)

Julia said...

Thanks for this, Jennifer. Well said.

c said...

You'll apologize when Crowley apologizes to Gates? That's not the attitude of a mature person taking responsibility for their own actions. It sounds like a child, trying to shirk that responsibility.

You either think you were wrong and apologize, or you don't. That's it. Your actions should depend on no other person than yourself; least of all Crowley.

I don't disagree with other things you say in your post and I'm not saying you should apologize - just the concept that you express in this sentence is saddening. It's a disappointment to hear something like this from someone whose writings I otherwise respect.

Jennifer said...

Thanks so much for this very long and very thoughtful post/response. I always appreciate your perspective--I esp. appreciate that you provide a good reality check for me about a world outside of my books and the university environment. And I can't agree more about the importance of a heartfelt apology when an apology is necessary. I esp. like the phrase that your co-worker coined: "Respect publicly, earn public respect"

(of course the academic geek in me can't help but feeling gleeful because it is a chiasmus--don't sigh Genepool!)

Julia, thanks so much for your appreciation, and Ralph, I have some thoughts about responding to your comment but I need to run out the door so it will have to wait.

As always, I welcome your comments and dialogue and even disagreements.

Jennifer said...

I don't think I was wrong to say that Lucia Whalen acting on racial biases and racist tendencies that she internalized. I think she has. And I'm not singling her out--I think we all, myself included, have racial biases and racist tendencies that we internalize. The sooner we acknowledge them the sooner we can work on them.

So no, I don't think I need to apologize, and if you read through that post carefully and all the supporting links as well as the comment thread from Tami's re-posting on WHAT TAMI SAID you will understand why I even spoke about an "apology"--which is more an issue at Tami's blog than my own because to the best of my knowledge, no one here is asking me to apologize to Lucia Whalen.

As to my rhetorical flourish of saying I'll apologize to her when Crowley apologizes to Gates, I owe an apology to you that you seem tone deaf to irony.

And I am equally disappointed that you felt the need to chide me as if I were some "immature" schoolgirl. You may not have intended your comment to come across as condescending, but it did. However, I take your point--you didn't like what I wrote and you expressed that. We'll just have to agree to disagree on this point, although I wish you had made it in such a way that didn't rely on ad hominem language that was meant to potentially shame me. It didn't shame me, it made me a bit frustrated with your inability to understand the main point of my post and affronted that you were speaking to me with a patronizing "tone." Which I suspect may have something to do with a fair amount of unacknowledged privilege you hold? But I'm just speculating and could be totally off base, and if I am, I apologize, because I do not want you to think that I hold onto childish grudges.

Thanks for reading and commenting!

c said...

Hey Jennifer - I appreciate your response and your commentary. Re wether you owe an apology - it's irrelevant, but I appreciate your owning your position.

Re the condasention: It was very much intentional, though I realise in retrospect that the tone detracted from my point. (Which is very much what I'm going to write about below! :) I've got no problem acknowledging it was an inappropriate tact to take; and accordingly; am sorry for the condesention inherent.

If you're frustrated with my inability to understand you, that I didn't come to the "correct interpretation" of your comment; do you extend the same to others? Do you accept the irony call if people make claims you feel are racially biased; when they say you didn't interpret them correctly; that you missed the "irony" of their comment? (I must admit that contextually, I'm struggling to see the frame for it myself your post, though I'm willing to accept it if you claim that was the intent) Do you think it's a legitimate response to someone you call out for racial, gender or other bias in their comments?

"Irony" and "You didn't get it" are hardly the battle-calls of the righteous.

Agh! I don't wish to be picking a fight with you on your blog; a fail al la grande for me. If your comment was "irony" than fair enough; it wasn't a disclaimer of responsibility. But please - use irony with caution. It's far too easily misinterpreted - such as in this case. I look forward to your future commentary on racial issues.

best wishes; r

Jennifer said...


I was being sarcastic, which is a form of irony. I guess on the rest we'll just agree to disagree, but I do appreciate the apology about tone because it does tend to obscure having a real dialogue about important issues.

Thanks, as always, for reading and commenting.