Friday, January 22, 2010

The art of the apology--giving and receiving

Since I wrote about a racial gaffe I made yesterday, I've been thinking about apologies. In the news, lately, there has been the high profile apology of Harry Reid for making racially insensitive remarks. And the apology-that-isn't-really-an-apology from Michael Steele, who used the racial slur "honest injun" on the Fox network, right before denouncing Reid for his "Negro" remark.

So it got me thinking about apologies--why we make them and what we want to accomplish through the apology, both in the giving and the receiving of the apology.

I suppose much of this is content specific. But I think when it comes to the racially insensitive remark or even the blatantly racist slur, what we want is something heartfelt and genuine--we want an acknowledgement that there has been an injury and that the person apologizing understands this and isn't just paying lip service.

In other words, the apology should be not a matter of interpretation (the "I'm sorry you think I said that thing that you think is insensitive so I'm going to apologize for it and imply that you are being over-sensitive") or a consequence of getting caught (the "I'm sorry you had to overhear me say that comment but I'm not really sorry for the comment in and of itself"). Instead, the apology should be authentic and real--it should come as the result of some self-reflection and deep thought, or at the very least a recognition that your words or actions really harmed someone and you really don't want to make comments or do anything that is harmful anymore.

A few years ago, a camp leader led a group of kids in a racist children's rhyme that mocked Chinese accents. I wrote a letter to the camp leader, explaining why the rhyme was offensive and how disturbing it was to hear it repeated in the campus gym. The next day I got a phone call from the camp leader, expressing his genuine dismay and sincere apology for reciting that rhyme. He really had no idea that it was racist--and we had a productive conversation about why it was. While part of me thought it was incredible that he wouldn't understand that repeating the word "chinky-chinky" wasn't offensive, I decided that I needed to take him at his word and grab the educational opportunity in front of me--and most importantly, to acknowledge his apology as genuine.

And I think when we are faced with a genuine apology we need to accept it gracefully and find a way to move on. I know it's hard--I mean, we may question how much the person making the apology really "gets" it. But I think if we are going to be anti-racist educators, we have to give people the benefit of the doubt and try to move onward and forward, not to forgive and forget, but to forgive and educate.


macon d said...

Thank you for this post and the previous one. They're both helpful and inspiring.

And btw, a guest poster, Willow, just did an extensive piece on my blog on common, and ineffective, modes of white apology, or as she calls that, "white apologetics." You might find it an interesting comparison to your conclusions and advice about how to handle racialized screwups.

Jennifer said...

Hi macon d,

I LOVE the piece by Willow--it's really on target. Thanks for this and for stopping by and leaving a comment (and for just you being you . . . can anyone help jog my memory, where is that expression from . . . is it Mr. Rogers Neighborhood? Boy I LOVED Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, although those dolls creeped me out some, esp. the baby doll to the King and Queen--does anyone else know what I'm talking about?)