I once signed up for a course by Harriet Learner and Brene Brown about how to apologize. I realized I’m bad at them. I’m bad at them mostly because I think I’m right; also because I define being “right” as logical reasoning rather than giving equal weight to emotional content; and finally because I recognized that I was raised by two parents who are also terrible at apologies.
Between my modeling and my adult personality, I know I have a ton of work to do on apologizing effectively and when necessary. I hope I’m getting better.
There is one thing I think I get right about apologies though. When I apologize, I’m completely sincere. It might take me a long time to calm down, think about the action or conflict, and then find the words to articulate my understanding of it. It might be an irritatingly long time that actually piles on hurt. I’m working on that.
But I don’t apologize ever out of a compulsion for politeness or simply to avoid conflict. When I apologize, I try to not only say the words “I’m sorry” but also state exactly what behavior I’m apologizing for. If I’m really at my best self, I also try to identify when I will do differently in the future to avoid the same hurtful behavior.
I start this post with my own confessions, struggles, and victories with apologies because I also want to talk about how I see them so often go wrong. Especially white people who are apologizing for “insensitivity.” Especially white women who are socialized to maintain social connections, prioritize niceness, and not ever be held accountable past their good intentions.
There are literally hundreds of examples to draw from, but I’m going to point to just one that is within my lived experience. While watching some Instagram stories recently, I listened to a white woman say: “I didn’t really know that this Sunday was the Superbowl, and I don’t really care about it. But then my friend joked that the Superbowl is so American that you could be deported for not watching it, so I guess I’m throwing a Superbowl party!”
Wut. Seriously. I watched it again to make sure I heard that right. I did.
I privately messaged her, definitively stating that joke wasn’t funny, that people are actually being deported at increasing numbers in our country, and asking why her friend would even say that.
Her response, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend anyone.”
When I pushed a bit more, she wrote “I didn’t mean to come across as insensitive.”
First, she did apologize. That’s better than defending the comment. Additionally, it appears that she deleted the original post. I give her a nod for both of those actions. But the phrases “I didn’t mean to offend” and the word “insensitive” are used so often to deflect responsibility and to center intentions.
Listen, most of our apologies are for stupid or thoughtless things we do that we never actively intended to cause hurt or harm. Think about the last three things you apologized for–did you consciously intend to hurt someone before doing or saying the wrong thing? Or did that action come from a place of frustration, feeling misunderstood, ignorance, or plain thoughtlessness? Our intentions should rarely be the focus–and especially not as the first response to being called out on our actions.
This individual is not alone. I use it as the example because it is so common that I felt like I could have scripted this interaction before it happened. When white people are called out for doing or saying things that are hurtful racially or otherwise, we like to start with our intentions. That is a subtle way to avoid grappling with the really apology we should be forming. It’s a defense mechanism. It’s human.
But it’s not good enough and we can do better. I can do better too. If someone tells me that something I’ve said or done hurts them, I need to ask questions to better understand why. I need to listen to them. Then I need to sincerely apologize without feeling the need to offer a defense of my intentions.
“I’m sorry I [said/wrote/did] that. Thank you for sharing how it affected you. I’m going to think about why I felt that was ok to say, and I’m going to reflect on how I will handle that situation differently next time.”
“I’m sorry I [said/wrote/did] that. Can you tell me more about how that was hurtful to you? I understand if you can’t, but I want to know more about how my words/actions are coming across so that I can change them.”
And if we find out that we said or did something that was racist, sexist, homophobic, or widely hurtful to a group of people, we need to name that and not use flowery language to distance ourselves from the pain of our own realization. It’s painful to recognize that we too are part of a system and soup of these horrible -isms and -phobias against our fellow humans.
I fully expect to be called out by someone who reads this and has felt hurt by me without a sufficient apology. And that’s right and good and uncomfortable and necessary. Like I said, I’m trying to do better and I hope a bunch of you are trying along with me.