How Not to Apologize

This week I’ve been thinking about how not to apologize. Caprice Hollins, a fabulous racial equity trainer in Seattle, says in her trainings “If you’re doing this work you’re going to screw up in 20-minutes.” She’s right when wade into conversations around race someone else will say something that raises an eyebrow. The question isn’t if you offend, you will, it is how you apologize and move forward that counts.

Note: I’m using the Skeptical OB’s posts as an example because it was shared publicly on Facebook. Had it been a private conversation or on a personal Facebook page I would respect the author’s privacy. I’m also sharing screenshots versus linking to the post because I don’t want to drive traffic to her site or page since she’s bragged about this as related to the post, and since she’s already taken down one post I wouldn’t be surprised if she removes this post as well.

Lesson 1 – Don’t Blame the Victim

I15578081_626297997566660_2803089298718672083_o’ve been following a Facebook thread by The Skeptical OB. A friend posted a picture from the Skeptical OB’s Facebook page of a mother breastfeeding side-by-side with the Confederate flag making a comparison. Huh?

original-postAfter posting the picture she wrote a “I’m sorry I got caught, but I’m not really apologizing post.” The apology noted she took down the original post because of the pain it caused others. Lesson 1 – when you apologize don’t blame the victim. In her apology post she didn’t name that she perpetuated racism. Instead she underhandedly said “I’m sorry you feel bad for seeing my post,” classic blame the victim versus accepting responsibility for a racist act.

In another example my brother used to work for a video game store. A customer came in to buy some game with a lot of shooting that takes place in the Pacific. Customer dude says: “Oh, this is the one where you get to shoot Japs. Oh, no it’s okay for me to say it because I’m part Japanese too.” Um, still not ok to say “Japs,” highly offensive to say it to anyone. He didn’t apologize but his reaction was another version of ‘blame the victim’ for being offended rather than realizing opp, you said something racist and offensive.

Lesson 2 – Don’t Copy and Paste an Apology or gaslight your way out

1-1The drama on the Skeptical OB’s Facebook apology continued as the day went on. Several people called her out on her non-apology apology. Where it got interesting was when someone wrote an apology and the Skeptical OB copy and pasted it into her post. Smack forehead. Lesson 2 – don’t have someone else write your apology for you, do your own damn work and think about what you did. Copy and pasting someone else’s apology is insincere.

Lilliann shared she once had someone apologize for not standing up for her in a meeting by saying “I’d take a bullet for you,” but moments before in a heated meeting didn’t defend her when the conversation got tough. This is no different than a copy-and-paste apology. Both say, well I want you to think I’m a good person, but I don’t want to do the work of being a good ally. Being a good ally means you stick your neck out and take some of the heat or think about why something you did was wrong and write your own damn apology.

Lesson 3 – Know When to Quit

9The Skeptical OB author didn’t know when to quit. It was an epic episode of white fragility and white superiority playing out online. She kept posting and posting, and her posts 11were demonstrating more and more of her white superiority attitude. Her followers, many of them white, begged her to stop but she wouldn’t (and as of this writing she still hasn’t). She even boasted about how that thread has sent Facebook traffic through the roof; nothing to be proud about: “Hey Ma, I’m famous for making an asinine comparison about breastfeeding to a hate group, and now I’m more famous ‘cause I keep saying racist things!”12

Engaging in a debate when you’re trying to apologize isn’t the best timing. Be contrite and reflective, your apology should say you are here to learn, not prove you were right. Marquita, a friend who’s a teacher, shared a story about a dad apologizing by saying: “I’m sorry it took us so long to find you. I thought you were white.” While not perfect, probably better he stopped rather than trying to explain race theory, get defensive about the situation, or ask Marquita to explain why she has a ‘white sounding name.’

How to apologize better

We all mess up when it comes to race. Learning about race, privilege, and power are personal and it is a journey. Like most journeys there are times where we look and feel like crap. Unfortunately, when it comes to learning about race we must ‘walk-the-walk’ and part of that walk means doing some deep processing and personal reconciliation. Realizing we’ve said or done hurtful things is part of the ‘walk’ and learning how to apologize with grace and equanimity is part of the journey.

Since people like shortcuts, and really there aren’t any shortcuts, but since it’s the holidays I’ll give you a few bullet points:

  • Stop and shut up: Shut up and listen to what others are saying. Don’t get defensive, it isn’t about you in that moment, it is about you learning from others.
  • Don’t fake an apology: If you’re not ready to apologize then don’t. When my kid messes up I sometimes ask him “Are you sorry because you did it, or are you sorry you got caught?” If you’re sorry you got caught saying something racist, then only apologize when you realize what you did was wrong.
  • Don’t cut and paste an apology or get someone else to write it for you: You may want to get help apologizing. I just learned about the White Nonsense Roundup. If you tag them on Facebook a white volunteer will step forward and offer help in explaining the inherent racism involved in the post or situation. This is appropriate help. What isn’t appropriate is posting a fake apology if you don’t mean it or just going through the motions, save us your tears.
  • Cry with your close friends: It is ok to get frustrate and feel the need to vent, but do it with your trusted circle of friends. Let your friends help you understand what happened, hopefully they’ve walked the journey and can help you they know you best and can help you better than a stranger.

Keep engaging and keep apologizing – it means we’re learning and working through things together. Finally, a white friend told me her African American grandmother-in-law called her on a Sunday morning to ask her “You woke?” What a gift it is to say “Yes Gramma, I’m woke.” That means we’ve learned, probably apologized quite a bit, learned from our elders, and we’re still learning how to be ‘woke.’

Posted by Erin Okuno

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