How to make a real apology
Not a week goes by that someone or some entity makes a race-related faux pas. We live in a time when we want to believe racism doesn’t exist, in many ways giving us more opportunity to prove to ourselves how insidious it can be. “It’s harmless. It’s funny. Some of my best friends are Black.”
I often tell my students, “Let’s assume we will offend each other and commit to working through the conflict, rather than attempt to walk on egg shells trying not to offend.” I’m a fan of speaking your mind but being willing to be challenged and corrected without getting defensive.
Along those lines, I must give credit to the Chronicle of Higher Education for offering a real apology. It wasn’t a disappearing act like Mary J. Blige’s Burger King commercial. Nor was it the lame non-apology “I’m sorry if I offended you/It was mean to be funny” a la PopChips’ Ashton Kutcher dating advertisement. The Chronicle's apology was a sincere we-heard-you-and-agree-we-can-do-better admission.
About a week ago, a now former blogger with the Chronicle, Naomi Schaefer Riley wrote a piece criticizing the relevance of Black studies as an academic field. Riley wrote off an entire discipline on the basis of title of dissertations she did not read.
Her response to criticism reeked of condescension and blame yet lacked accountability for her possible mis-steps. I am not suggesting that she come to agree with her critiques, but I do think she missed an opportunity to grow from the conflict by being defensive.
On the contrary, editor Liz McMillen, was impressive in her apology for two reasons. The first is that it acknowledged the outrage rather than merely reacted. Second, it came after an initial mis-step.
Reading her statement, I honestly felt that she “got it.” I’m not certain she agrees with the criticism, and I don’t believe it matters. In fact, my praise for the apology might be sweeter if she did not.
My husband could care a less about the laundry being folded right out of the dryer. In his world, balled up and clean is sufficient. Such actions make my skin itch and, on the wrong day, can trigger steam. The clothes might as well be dirty!!
So, when he apologizes sincerely for literally throwing the clothes in the bin making it clear he “gets” where I am coming from, it means a great deal. Because he could say something such as “sorry I made you mad.” or worse yet “I’m sorry the way I do laundry makes you angry. Perhaps it will make you happier if I just refrain from doing laundry.” That’s no way to make amends.
McMillen was able to recognize that her initial stance was akin to my husband’s sorry-I-made-you-mad statement. In her attempt to defend the freedom of Riley and the variety of viewpoints expressed at the Chronicle, she elevated the controversial post in a way that is problematic. She encouraged readers to “join the debate.” Yet it ceases to be a debate when the essence of someone’s argument invalidates the core of another. While informed debate is essential for intellectual growth, it is not rigorous when it is based on assumptions and thin on substance.
We are all bound to make a mistake. If only we were also courageous and honest enough to make sincere apologies just as common.