There are the apologies-in-action when I’m on a phone call or in the car or at a meeting and I am exhausted, and I need to acknowledge that I did something without checking in, or I let something slide that I said I would do, or I made a mess that someone else had to clean up. Then there are the egregious errors that throw me on the couch crying for days: useless, grieving, pausing, praying. Feeling the harm and the loss.
First, I reach out for help. I get loved and believed in and reconnected to community. I build my team again and find support in facing and fixing what has happened, if I can. Sometimes I can’t. Sometimes there’s too much of a block within myself. Or sometimes the person whom I’ve wronged has cut off contact. Sometimes I don’t get to apologize. I’ve learned that the hard way for sure.
So, when I do get the opportunity to apologize, I want to do it deeply.
1. Say, “I’m sorry about what I did.”
I’m sorry I totally miscommunicated what was going on. I’m sorry I took up too much space during that meeting. I’m sorry I failed to step in to support you during that conference call. I’m sorry I didn’t understand that aspect of local culture. I’m sorry I didn’t use strong enough language. I’m sorry I interrupted you. I’m sorry I said I would do that thing and then didn’t. I’m sorry I’m late. I’m sorry I’m late again. I’m sorry I’m late every time we make plans. I’m sorry I didn’t call you earlier. I’m sorry I didn’t bring this up with you earlier.
Note: No “I’m sorry you feel bad” or “I’m sorry that happened.” I’m sorry for my behavior or lack thereof. I take responsibility.
2. Acknowledge impact.
I know I added stress to your life in an already terrible week. I hear you that you want to be involved in that kind of decision and I should have given you the opportunity. I understand my actions were disrespectful. I care about you and I care about my impact on you, and I know that I messed up and hurt you.
Note: If I actually feel unsure about what the impact was, or if I suspect that more space to hear about it may help the healing process, I might offer: “If there’s more you want to tell me about how my actions impacted you, I care and I’m here to listen.”
3. Make amends.
It’s not like I can always fix it and make it right. Repair does not undo the harm, but that doesn’t mean I can skip it. Sometimes it’s not obvious what I need to do. Depending on my relationship and the situation, I might ask generally, “What do you want me to do next?” but that also puts the burden of emotional labor back on the other person. So, I put some effort into thinking about it myself, too. Did my mistake create an external situation that needs management? Does the person I hurt have needs or desires that I could address? Can I put in extra effort on a collective project that will make things better for everyone? Also, importantly, if there is something specific the person I harmed asks me to do, I try to do that.
4. Change behavior moving forward.
We all know there’s a gap between saying we will change our behavior and then actually changing that behavior. Our actions are situated within the multi-layered contexts of our lives. For me, in order to change my behavior, I need to think about why I did what I did. I look at three interrelated influences on my behavior: my cultural conditioning within whiteness and social location of power and privilege; my personal triggers and trauma history, and the priorities I’ve set to intentionally guide my behavior on a daily basis. If I am only identifying the impact of my own trauma history and not analyzing the role of pervasive white supremacy in shaping my actions, then I am missing something crucial. If I am only looking at cultural conditioning and triggers from my past and not analyzing how I make conscious decisions, then I am missing something crucial. And I don’t want to miss something, because I don’t want to keep perpetuating harm.
5. Explanation is optional.
In the reflection process above, I seek for myself an explanation for the behavior for which I am apologizing. Does the person I harmed need to hear that explanation? I think that’s up to that person. In late August 2017, I found myself writing in an email: “I don’t believe in excuses, but I do believe in explanations. Let me know if you ever want to hear more.” One of the people I was writing to asked, months later, and the other did not. They both heard the apology and continued to invest in their relationship with me.
Of all these five steps, this year I want to reiterate No. 3: Make amends. Invest in acts of repair.
What’s true on a personal level is true politically as well. If we ever hope to rectify the centuries of white supremacist violence catapulting our society toward a rising fascist threat, we must make reparations now.
Thank you to the fierce freedom fighters of Charlottesville who have believed in me and supported me through so many high-stakes mistakes throughout the past two years. Taking risks, making mistakes and investing in repair has been central to my own involvement in fighting against fascism and for racial justice.
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