There have been many instances recently in the news where white folks have been called out for saying or doing something racist. Many people have also issued apologies that have attracted additional criticism, most recently Ani DiFranco. I was upset by the tone of her apology, so I thought I would detail a few guidelines that have been helpful for me in thinking about getting called out for racist behavior. I hope this will be helpful for others too.
1. Listen to what people are saying and practice self-reflection
This seems self-explanatory, but it’s easy to get caught up in the online whirlwind and feel overwhelmed. That’s normal. Read other’s responses thoughtfully, make sure you grasp people’s views, and take breaks when you need to.
Try to understand the disappointment, frustration, anger, and outrage. Take a moment to sit with the criticism and use it to think deeply about yourself, your position, your power, and your words.
If you feel yourself getting defensive, that’s normal. It’s tough to think about yourself perpetuating something hurtful. We are all human and we make mistakes, but it is up to us as people in positions of power to use our power to change oppressive systems. When you find yourself getting defensive, think about why you are getting defensive. Does it have to do with yourself, your values, what other people believe in, and their perceptions of you? Does it have to do with you not wanting to admit that you were wrong? Does it have to do with feeling like people aren’t seeing you for who you really are? Identifying the root of your defensiveness will help to unpack what you’re feeling and respond genuinely.
Remember that it’s not your fault that you have grown up in a society that taught you that saying what you said was OK. It’s OK to feel embarrassed; you should feel embarrassed. Use that embarrassment to educate others, and to remind yourself that you will not make the same mistake twice.
2. Use your embarrassment to be a role model
Admitting that you’re embarrassed, you made a mistake, and that you were wrong sets a powerful example to others that you are a thoughtful person who respects others and is working to better our racist society. This is a much better message than something that comes from a defensive place where you are trying to justify your words. Self-reflection before apology is critical.
It’s hard to apologize, especially when your remarks were unintentional. But remember that it’s not the intent of your words that people are attacking. It’s the meaning and the effect.
3. Respect and elevate people of color’s voices.
As white people, we cannot say that what we said was not racist if others say that it is. That is called perpetuating racism, and it means we are using our power to erase and ignore the damaging effects of our words.
We are not experts on racism, no matter how much antiracist work we do. We live in a racist society, but we do not live with the daily effects. That is not our experience and we will never fully understand it. Our job is to use our power to give voice to others, not to shut them down.
Hopefully, after taking the time to listen and reflect, your apology will be honest. Do not apologize because you feel as if you are being forced to. That is not helpful. Apologize sincerely. Admit that you are wrong, and do not apologize unless you feel like you’re ready and that it’s from the heart.
Also, the words “I’m sorry” are generally appropriate.