Apologies 101: Don’ts — The Racism Edition


With the recent news about minority kids being denied pool access, I can not think of a better time to post this.

In April, I wrote an article about why apologies fail, how to make a proper apology, and what the emotional benefits are of a properly delivered apology — for the receiver and the giver.

For the don’ts, Time writer Nancy Gibbs, wrote this:

Public apologies now play like vaudeville: …  the snarled ‘I’m sorry’ of celebrities who exude regret at being caught rather than being wrong

These two following examples of don’ts prove that it’s not just celebrities who exude regret at being caught rather than being wrong.

In June, Sherri Goforth, a legislative aide for Republican state senator Diane Black in Tennessee, sent out an email depicting President Obama as a spook. The aide sent the email to work colleagues with the subject, “Historical Keepsake Photo.” [link] The photo featured a collection of pictures of all the U.S. presidents; however, the last picture — the picture that should have featured the current president, Barack Obama, featured instead a pair of bright white eyes against a black background.

That image, is what you call a spook. President Obama was depicted as a spook.

For those not in the know about this slur, spook is a “quaint” Southern terminology to describe blacks. It comes from the thought that a black person’s skin is so dark they blend in with the night and that the white of their eyes are the only thing you’ll be able to see at night; like a ghost or “spook” in the night.

When news of Goforth’s email became public, the aide said:

I went on the wrong email and I inadvertently hit the wrong button.

Golforth was not apologizing for her racist email nor for sending the racist email out through state computers, but merely apologizing for sending her email out to “the wrong list of people.”

The Republican state senator Goforth works for, Diane Black, also went on the defensive; saying she has always been a friend to dark-skinned people everywhere and that she had no knowledge of the email being sent out.

Apology don’t? I think so.

The second don’t comes from Republican activist Rusty DePass, who made a comment about Michelle Obama on his Facebook page. In a status message, DePass compared First Lady Michelle Obama to a gorilla. DePass said, when called on his comment, “I am as sorry as I can be if I offended anyone. The comment was clearly in jest.”

You can view his story in this CNN video clip. Continue reading

Chimps, Presidents, and Racism

chimpanzee2In February of 2009, the New York Post published a political cartoon by Sean Delonas. Delonas’ cartoon showed two police officers; one with a smoking gun in his hand, standing over a chimp. The chimp laid in his own cartoon-inked pool of blood,with bullet wounds. The other officer, without a gun, says in a caption above his head, “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.” (See Huffington Post) Some believe that the chimp represents President Obama. Others believe the chimp is simply a sad event used for poor satire.

Two days prior to the cartoon being published, a pet chimpanzee named Travis mauled a woman. Police used their guns to kill Travis as he was attacking the woman. Travis’ victim, Charla Nash, “lost her nose, upper and lower lips, eyelids and both her hands in the attack.” Nash also lost the “bony structures in her mid-face,” according to a statement released by Cleveland Clinic, the medical center Nash is staying at. (Read the latest from United Press International)

Al Sharpton, one of the believers of the chimp being used as a symbol for the president, released a statement the morning the cartoon was published. He called the cartoon “troubling,” and he questioned Delonas’ motives for the cartoon.

Sharpton reasoned that the stimulus bill had “become synonymous” President Barack Obama because is was the “first legislative victory” of the new president. Sharpton ended his statement with, “it is not a reach to wonder are they inferring that a monkey wrote the last bill?” (Nevermind that a monkey is not a chimp)

To those raised in the harsh and often violent culture of racism, Sharpton’s view is not a reach. As I was writing about the cartoon I could mentally see and feel all the spiteful hate — you’re just a boy, a thing, an item not worth having the same rights as me, that victims of racial abuse talk about. Seeing that dead cartoon ape on the ground and the casual aside by the gunless cartoon cop is like seeing the pictures of smiling white folks positioned around a “strung-up nigger.”

I can see why some would really be offended by the cartoon and end-up reliving the hurt as well as the hatred that comes from racial abuse.

In spite of all this, to this writer, the Obama symbolism is a reach. One reason why is because the Travis mauling incident was plastered all over the news when it occurred, another reason why is because during the Bush era there was an entire website devoted to comparing George Bush to a chimp. And finally because, I was operating under the idea that presidents didn’t write bills. In fact, I thought that the president is just the person who signs the bill into law, or at least that’s what I’m reading on this eHow.com how-to. This also pokes a hole in Delonas’ satire — one chimp to represent plural bill authors just doesn’t make sense. But does that mean he was being racist with his cartoon?

The cartoon was “sloppy symbolism” at best. And when taken into account with Delonas’ history, this is just another unfunny and offensive cartoon he can add to his portfolio. In the world of the Internet, Delonas would be a troll and Sharpton his latest victim. Delonas has been called to task for equating gay marriage with beastiality and for even reusing one of his questionable cartoons in the Post — in the same year.

Maybe the problem is not Delonas but the disconnected editorial staff at the Post.

Daniel Radosh, an American journalist and blogger, says it best in this quote, “I have to say that I’ve been reading Sean Delonas for many, many years, and his offensive cartoons are not usually nearly this subtle. The fact that people even have to ask, ‘Did he mean to convey…?’ suggests to me that he probably didn’t.” Read the rest here.

As for Sharpton, one wishes he would devote his attention getting abilities to situations like the workers of the Turner Industries pipe fabrication plant, where they were terrorized by co-workers who hung hangman’s nooses and Confederate flags throughout the plant in order to influence the black workers there. Or the fact that two white men, accused of running over and dragging a black man to his death, may get off because “key evidence against the pair appears to be evaporating.” ( See Los Angeles Times)

Or even maybe something like, why does the United States still have segregated dances?  (See NPR story)

I guess my main concern is that these extreme reactions to things like the chimp cartoon can take away the effect of shining the spotlight on real deal, black-and-white issues of racism. A chimp cartoon vs. a physical in-my-face, I can touch it, hangman’s noose in my place of work, is a lot more worthy of my attention then a hack cartoonist.