Thursday, March 22, 2018

What an Apology Is Not.

Advice for when you say or do something racist (or commit any other -ism) at work and want to know how NOT to apologize.

A little context: First, I work in language services recruiting, and out of the entire worldwide recruiting team, I am the only black person. Second, even though I'm in the States, I work on the Asia team, which means that with the exception of my supervisor, all of my immediate co-workers are in China. The co-worker I'm writing about today is a young Chinese woman who's my age. Third, this co-worker may or may not have known that I am black, not that it should matter but I figured it was worth mentioning. Now, to the matter at hand.

On Tuesday I was copied in an email in which my co-worker wrote something racist. I won't repeat exactly what she said. But basically a lot of students in certain Asian countries say they want "native English speakers" as tutors, when they really mean to say "white people", and this co-worker of mine was trying to confirm that the candidate that we were proposing for a certain group of students was not black, because students sometimes complain when the tutor we give them doesn't look a certain way.

A racist question disguised as good customer service. Fun.

Long story short, I asked my supervisor to set her straight, my supervisor talked to someone else, who talked to someone else, who spoke to said co-worker.

Cut to this morning, Thursday, and I find the below apology email in my inbox (verbatim):
Dear Danielle,

This email is very difficult for me to write, because I realize how insensitive the other day with my comments on my previous email. It was not my intention to upset you and I feel terrible that I may have hurt your feelings. I wish to offer my sincerest apology and want to assure you that I meant no harm. I have always valued our working relationship, I truly hope that we can put this unpleasantness behind us. 

Sincerely,
This, while a gesture that I wasn't expecting and do appreciate to a certain degree, is a non-apology. I don't know this person well, have never communicated with her outside of email, and I'm not in her brain, so I can't definitively say if she IS genuinely sorry or not. What makes it a non-apology in my book is that it doesn't READ as genuine because it focuses on her feelings more than mine, and it doesn't fully acknowledge what she did wrong. I suppose it depends on what you think the purpose of an apology is, but generally if you want to tell someone you've wronged that you're sorry, you need give them precedence over yourself. In other words, don't make it about you!

Let's break this down, shall we?

1) This email is very difficult for me to write, because I realize how insensitive the other day with my comments on my previous email.

  • Critique: Coming right out the gate talking about how hard it is for YOU, is manipulative. You're trying to avoid feeling bad by making me feel sorry for you. Don't do that.
  • Critique: Call a thing for what it is. It wasn't merely insensitive; it was racist. Use your words.
  • Alternative: So-and-so told me that I upset you, and I wanted to come to you directly to apologize. I realize how racist my comments were.

2)  It was not my intention to upset you and I feel terrible that I may have hurt your feelings. 

  • Critique: "Not my intention" always sets off a tiny warning bell in my head, because too often this sort of deceptively polite statement conveys, "I didn't mean it that way, so shut up about it" rather than genuine remorse. But overall, this line wasn't bad at all. UNTIL...
  • Critique: "May have" implies that there is room for doubt that you did anything that requires apologizing. Don't play games. Be accountable for what you did.
  • Alternative: It was not my intention to upset you and I feel terrible that I hurt your feelings.

3)  I wish to offer my sincerest apology and want to assure you that I meant no harm.

  • Personal note: This reveals something about your mindset, because it really never occurred to you that expressing a preference for white tutors over black tutors would have a negative impact on anyone included in the conversation. Lack of awareness (or concern?) about both your audience and the implication of your message. Very telling. 
  • Critique: Again, it's better to emphasize that you acknowledge the impact of your words rather than to rely solely on "I didn't mean it" as a justification, but overall this line is fine.
  • Alternative: None.

4)  I have always valued our working relationship, I truly hope that we can put this unpleasantness behind us. 

  • Personal note: I doubt this is true, since we've never had a real conversation in the whole time that we've worked together. Other than very brief email exchanges, there's really no work relationship to speak of. If you don't really know or interact with me, then there's no need to overexert yourself saying how much you value a relationship that barely exists.
  • Critique: "I truly hope that we can put this unpleasantness behind us" is incredibly dismissive if the other party never got to have their say. You're basically moving to unilaterally end the conversation before it's even started. And I never had my say, so who is "we"? Someone told you that I didn't appreciate your comments, but you didn't actually hear from me about how I felt or thought about it. You haven't asked. "We" neither discussed the issue nor came to a conclusion about it. It's unpleasant for you to have been reprimanded by your supervisor for what you wrote, it's unpleasant to be told to apologize to someone you hardly know, and it's unpleasant for you to have to consider that your words "may have" been were "insensitive" racist. That's why you want to put it behind you so quickly. And that's just way too easy.
  • Critique:  In addition to not acknowledging the racism expressed through your initial email, you made no commitment to actively not saying racist things in the future. I am not led to believe that you've learned anything from this, other than not to say certain things around certain people, or at least not to put it in writing. Again, this makes the entire apology read as insincere.
  • Alternative: I really enjoy working with you, and if you feel comfortable talking about it then I would like to hear what you have to say. I want to be better at communicating with people from different cultures, and I will do more to educate myself on how to do this. I will also try harder to convince students to consider English teachers who are not white.

With all that said, I hope that this has been helpful to anyone who's reading this. No matter what it is you have to apologize for, whether it's work-related or not, and whether you're apologizing of your own initiative or not. Let's all try to be more mindful of others and use our words well.

To anyone who's curious, I am still offended but no longer upset, if that makes sense. I'm more amused than anything, because this week I've basically had the opportunity to watch supposedly well-meaning non-black people flail around when something anti-black has been said in the open, and that is never not funny to me. Plus I've got screenshots just in case, so I'm good. Hey, you either laugh or you cry, right? And I feel like laughing this week.

To anyone who wants to dispute whether this woman was racist or not, note that I said her words were racist; I never said that she herself was so. For more examples of unintentional(?) but still racist things that people have said to me in the past, and an explanation of how you can believe yourself to be non-racist but still manage to say racist things, read here.

And lastly! I actually have yet to respond to this person, not because I want to be passive aggressive but because I can't decide what to say. I don't want to let her off too easy, but I also know that lecturing her will be a waste of my time. What say you?

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