A Therapist On The Right Way To Apologize When You Say Something Racist
We've all been there: You said or did something—unintentionally or not—that hurt someone. And now, you know it's time to apologize.
Particularly now, as many are waking up to the injustices faced by Black people, there may be a new inclination to own up to past mistakes and the ways you've harmed the Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) people in your life, unintentional or not. These apologies are some of the hardest because most people are deeply uncomfortable acknowledging their own racism.
"Many people are realizing biases and gaslighting happen to BIPOC folks much more frequently than previously thought," Jor-El Caraballo, LMHC, a licensed therapist and co-founder of Viva Wellness, tells mbg. "Oftentimes, we can get defensive, rushing to assure the person, 'But I'm not racist!'"
But a true apology is about taking responsibility, not defensiveness.
Here's the right way to apologize when you've hurt a BIPOC in your life, according to Caraballo:
Acknowledge the hurt.
Any time someone is hurt, usually they want to feel validated, seen, and understood. As such, Caraballo notes that first acknowledging the hurt is the biggest part of a successful apology.
"If you see someone who is angry, frustrated, crying, or sad because of something you did, it's important to honor those emotions by saying something like, 'I can tell that you're upset right now, and I'm sorry you're hurting,'" he says. "Taking a moment to acknowledge someone else's pain, without qualification, can be incredibly healing for them and serve as a helpful foundation as you move forward with your apology."
Once you've honored their emotions, it's time to take responsibility for whatever was done that hurt them.
"Taking responsibility for your specific behavior is key," Caraballo says. "To take responsibility for your behavior, you can leave out the background reasons of the 'why' unless you are asked."
In other words, don't try to explain why you did whatever you did. Usually, he says, people do understand why you did it—but that doesn't change how it made them feel, which is why Caraballo says it's important to "focus on the impact of your behavior rather than your intent," which can wind up minimizing the other person's pain.
"Apologizing isn't about explaining," he says. "It's about communicating compassion."
Particularly if you've hurt a BIPOC with racist words or actions, he says it's important to avoid trying to clarify or prove to them that you're not racist. "Try to resist that urge, as in the moment it effectively shuts down an opportunity to explain how someone was hurt by your experience. It's not up to [white people] to decide what's racist or biased and what isn't—that's the time to listen and absorb rather than direct or change the conversation to what you think is most appropriate."
To that end, remembering to bring it back to acknowledgment and validation is important.
Focus on "I" statements.
Lastly, remember to focus on those "I" statements.
That looks like this, according to Caraballo: "I'm sorry I said X and hurt you. I should not have said that."
Not this: "I'm sorry you're upset."
"One of the ways we inadvertently botch our apologies is that we project our focus back to the person who we are apologizing to," he explains. "This can lead them to feeling more defensive and can eradicate any good faith effort you've put into your apology."
As difficult as it may be to our egos, apologizing for wrongdoing is an important step in healing any relationship. They aren't always easy, but they are necessary. And the more we become accustomed to getting vulnerable and taking responsibility when we hurt someone, the easier it becomes to apologize in the moment, whenever that moment should arise.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Writer, as well as a registered yoga instructor. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.