Apology Makes Things Worse

Here’s an example of an offender’s well-meaning apology just making matters worse.

Professor Bright Sheng, a long-time professor of music and composition at the University of Michigan, is teaching an undergrad composition seminar on Shakespeare this semester, and on September 10 he showed the 1965 film “Othello,” in which Laurence Olivier appears in blackface. As reported in the Michigan Daily, Prof. Sheng sent an apology that day, noting that the casting and portrayal “was racially insensitive and outdated.” Five days later, the dean of the School of Music sent a department-wide email acknowledging the incident and apologizing for what the students experienced. He also reported the incident to the Title IX office.

On September 16, Prof. Sheng sent a formal apology to the department, and this is the one that caused more harm. In the letter, Prof. Sheng – who was raised in China during the Cultural Revolution and came to the US as a graduate student in 1982 – acknowledges that showing that movie was “offensive and has made you angry,” and that he should have thought about it more carefully. Had he stopped there, it might have been fine.

But his apology letter goes on to defend himself. He says he has “never thought (of himself as) being discriminating against any race,” citing examples of how he has worked with people of color in the past. One of the students who was offended by the movie was also offended by this apology. She viewed it as “shallow” and making excuses. “Instead of just apologizing for it, he tried to downplay the fact that the entire situation happened in the first place.” Graduate music students weighed in, calling the apology “inflammatory.”

Professor Sheng now realizes his mistake. In an interview with the Michigan Daily, he noted, “In my formal apology letter to the whole composition department … I simply try to say that I do not discriminate. In retrospect, perhaps I should have apologized for my mistake only.”

When it comes to apologies – especially ones that are written – less is often more. What the offender views as explanation is viewed by the audience as excuse. The offender is trying to put this in context and reassure his audience that he’s not really a bad person – but this should come later, after the “victim” accepts the apology. If you’re apologizing and hear yourself getting to a “but” – I’m sorry for this BUT I am not really racist / I made a mistake this time BUT I’m overall a good person – stop! As Ken Sande notes in his book, The Peacemaker, the “but” acts as an eraser, wiping out the apology that preceded it. All the recipient hears is what sounds like an excuse. Professor Sheng’s letter may not have included an actual “but,” yet there was a component that turned the corner from apology into what sounded to some like self-serving statements.

Better to stick to the four R’s: Take Responsibility. Express Remorse. Offer Restitution. Make Reforms so it won’t happen again.