Wednesday, April 29, 2015

I was wrong and I am sorry

I was wrong.
I made a mistake.
I messed up.

Why are these phrases so hard for us to say?

I used to think that admitting any of the above was the worst thing I could possibly do.  It triggered all sorts of shame, fear, and impostor feelings.  If I didn't do everything perfectly -- the first time -- there was something wrong with me.  If people knew there was something wrong with me, then they would know I was a fake and didn't deserve to be here.  So when someone pointed out to me that I had done something wrong, my first reaction was to be defensive, make justifications, deny the mistake or wrong-doing.  I acted this way because of some warped belief that it would make me look better and feel better about the situation.  

It did neither.

I am an admin for a group on Facebook which discusses issues of equity and inclusion in physics and astronomy. Through my work in this group I regularly engage in complex conversations about race, [dis]ability, LGBTQIA+ status, size, nationality, class, age, and gender.  My primary purpose for having these conversations is to try to learn how to be a better ally and supporter of those who are members of underrepresented and marginalized groups.  I also hope to improve the climates in astronomy and physics so that we are more inclusive and have better representation of people from these groups.

As part of this work (and my work as a contributor to this blog), I make mistakes.  These mistakes are public (like an ignorant blog post, or an offensive action as an admin). These mistakes are hurtful. These mistakes propagate misinformation.  These mistakes uphold the oppression of marginalized groups of people.  These mistakes are a result of my [white, straight, cis, thin, young, american, able-bodied] privilege.

Often my mistakes are pointed out to me. Sometimes this occurs in private, sometimes it is a public call-out.  Sometimes the person is calm and gentle, sometimes the person is angry and harsh.  Sometimes I instantly understand the error in my ways, sometimes I do not understand what I did wrong.  

Let me give a concrete example.  Last week I was curating for a science communication handle on twitter (@realscientists) and I was tweeting about the underrepresentation of white women and people of color in STEM, and someone responded:
My throat tightened. Blood rushed to my face. My heart raced. I felt embarrassed.  I felt ashamed.  I felt misunderstood.  I felt defensive. 

My first thought was: "Hey I only have 140 characters here, give me a break."

That's ok.  It's ok for my first thought to be defensive.  But vocalizing that defensiveness isn't helpful. It doesn't make the people with disabilities who are reading my words feel better about being forgotten in my original tweet.  It doesn't make the mother reading -- whose son with a disability wants nothing more than to become a scientist -- feel more hopeful about her son being supported and accepted by the scientific community. 

Ultimately, what is my goal?  To prove to the world that I am perfect or to make the world better for people with disabilities? So I instead I say:

Admitting fault and apologizing isn't that complicated, yet again and again I see people struggle to do it without being defensive or critical of those who identified the mistake.  And I get it, because I also have a tendency to feel defensive and misunderstood in these moments.

Slate's "Bad Astronomer" Phil Plait recently published an apology for a video he posted on YouTube which included a transphobic joke.  I applaud Plait for publicly responding to the criticism, for removing the offensive joke from the video, and for promising to try and do better in the future.  However, his apology was problematic and he falls into some common apologizing-the-wrong-way traps that I will highlight below.

As someone who has made quite a few public mistakes (and has also apologized incorrectly) I'd like to share my experience of what to do and not to do when you make a mistake and you want to correct it.

Don't get defensive 
"You are too sensitive."
"It was just a joke."
"But I'm not racist/sexist/homophobic/ableist."

I don't enjoy being told that I did something wrong, especially when my intent is to be an ally and my effect is oppressing those I am trying to support.  It sucks.

But you know what sucks more?  Being the person who is not only hurt by what I just did, but now has the uncomfortable task of telling me that I messed up.  If I get defensive, I add insult to injury by denying wrong-doing or telling the person that they are too sensitive.  This is not how allies behave.

Instead, I pause, and breath, and listen.  I think about what an incredible learning opportunity this is for me. Here is someone who is willing to do something uncomfortable in order to try and help me understand. Here is someone who is helping me get outside my limited perspective so that I can be more compassionate of others.  Here is an opportunity to learn, change, and (hopefully) never make this mistake again.  It's actually an incredible gift to be called-out, even if it doesn't always feel that way in the moment.  

So instead of being defensive, I listen and I try to understand why what I did was wrong, and I thank the person for being willing to point out my mistake and take the time to help me learn how to be a better ally.

Don't focus on intentions
“Oh, I didn’t mean it like that”
“You’re interpreting this wrong.”
"I had nothing but good intentions."

By focusing on my intentions, I am attempting to deflect criticism and change the conversation.  This is a derailment tactic and it is another form of defensiveness.  Do my intentions really matter if my words or actions have the impact of furthering the marginalization or oppression of those around me?  It is the impact of my actions, not my intention that matters.

So instead of making the conversation about me -- which is a pretty self-centered thing to do in these moments -- I listen with the intention of understanding the impact of my behavior and the ways I can change in order to prevent repeating the mistake in the future.

In his apology Phil Plait repeatedly focused on the intentions of his video production team ("that wasn't at all our intent", "it didn't occur to us", "the joke wasn’t intended that way").  It would have been better if he had​ used the mistake as an opportunity to raise awareness of how transphobia presents itself, and why the impact of his actions was hurtful.  It would have been better if he had focused on the unconscious biases (we all have) which resulted in this mistake, and what he will do to prevent this from happening in the future.

Don't non-apologize or blame the other person
"I'm sorry that you were offended"
"I'm sorry that you feel that way"
"I'm sorry if anyone was hurt by what I did."


non-apology is when I don't actually admit any wrong-doing or say that I am sorry for my behavior itself, but instead say that I am sorry you are so sensitive.  Instead of taking responsibility for my actions, I am putting the blame on the other person by saying that it is their fault for being offended. Don't do this. I personally think it's better to not apologize at all than to issue a victim-blaming apology.

​Instead say:
"I'm sorry for my offensive behavior."
"I was wrong and I understand why it is upsetting​."
"I understand ​why what I did was hurtful​."​

In his apology Phil Plait never actually acknowledged his wrong-doing, instead he non-apologized ("I apologize ... to anyone offended", "I can easily see where transgender folks would be put off by it"). It would have been better if he had instead explained why this joke is offensive, period.  It would have been better if he had taken responsibility for the mistake and actually apologized.

Don't tone police 
"Calm down."
"You are hurting your cause by getting angry."
"I'm not going to talk to when you are like this."
"Why are you being so aggressive?"

Tone policing is another form of derailment.  It turns out, the tone of a statement actually has nothing to do with the content of a statement. By calling attention to the tone I am distracting from what the person is staying, avoiding engagement with the content, and undermining the other person by attempting to shut down the conversation.  Usually tone policing is an act done by a person in a position of power /privilege towards a person who has relatively less power / privilege.


I avoid commenting on a person's tone at all in these situations because it actually is irrelevant.  

It's not all about me
When I make a mistake and get called out, that moment isn't about me.  It is about the systematic oppression and marginalization that is happening everyday.  I am contributing to a much larger problem.  It is helpful for me to understand that a person's response to my mistake is also a reaction to a lifetime of mistakes and hurt. It is important for me to be compassionate and understanding and see my behavior in a larger societal context. 

Mistakes come with the territory
Everyone makes mistakes.  Part of the challenge of being an ally is to try and overcome my biases and understand the lived experiences of others.  I will make mistakes in this process.  I will uphold oppression. I will say and do things that are prejudice. I will be ignorant of how my privilege impacts my world-view.  When I think about that blog post I wrote, I cringe.  That embarrassment means I have changed.  I am different because of that mistake.  It's progress, not perfection.

Ultimately the best apology contains the below elements:
1) Listen to the offended person and try to understand their perspective.
2) Demonstrate that you understand why what you did was offensive/wrong.
3) Acknowledge the hurt you caused and the damage done.
4) Take responsibility for the situation.
5) Express genuine remorse.
6) Make amends and ask how you can make the situation right.
7) Promise that it won't happen again.
8) Actively try and change your behavior.
9) Say thank you to the other person for bringing the situation to your attention.

The astronomy community is conflicted right now over the construction of the Thirty-Meter-Telescope on Mauna Kea. Many of us are engaging in challenging conversations about colonialism, race, and indigenous rights. If you make a mistake in these conversations, and are called-out, I hope the above will give you a roadmap for how to respond and learn from the experience.  


Additional Reading
How to Apologize by Franchesca Ramsey
Getting Called Out by Erin Tatum
Intent vs Impact by Jamie Utt
Derailing for Dummies
Definition of Non-Apology on Wikipedia
I'm sorry if you were offended on Geek Feminism
Sorry, not sorry: How to Non-Apologize by Laura Beck
Tone Argument on Geek Feminism
Tone Policing on Tumbler
On Tone Policing by NinjaCate
How to Say I'm Sorry on Perfect Apology
How to Apologize on Mind Tools