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Anatomy of an Apology

2013 was filled with apologies. Home Depot apologized to every Twitter user talking about this pictureJustine Sacco issued an apology after posting an offensive tweet about South Africans and AIDS. Questlove issued an apology on Christmas day for making fun of Japanese people on his instagram account. Padma Lakshmi followed suit for her participation in the mocking.  No one was sure Paula Deen would ever stop apologizing as she released video after video for her use of the N-word and her desire to have a plantation style wedding party (with an all black wait staff).  Ani DiFranco issued this apology for agreeing to host an retreat on a plantation site. Now we are in a new year, but the apologies for 2014 have already begun.  Melissa Harris Perry recently apologized for a segment on her show which utilized a picture of a transracial adoption in the Romney family.  And when Ani's apology didn't go over well, an apology for the apology appeared on her Facebook page.  

Truthfully, the number of apologies that get made in a year seem endless. Stars, politicians, companies all hover over the delete button should an offensive post discover too much negative attention. While it would be nice to think that only high profile people/companies need to learn the art of apologizing, the truth is we all need a little practice.  Learning to apologize is a key tool for racial reconcilers. If we can't offer a sincere apology, we will not last long in cross-cultural relationships. So I would like to offer you an anatomy of an apology. 

Let's start with the mind. When called out for making an insensitive remark, our first inclination may be to prove that we know our stuff about race relations. Instead of focusing on what we "know," let's spend more time seeking to understand the particular offense we caused. Owning the mistake is the first step in making sure we don't repeat it.    


Now, onto the throat. I know it seems elementary, but we have to learn to say, "I'm sorry." Especially in written apologies, you might be surprised to find how often this little phrase is missing. It can also be helpful to add why we are sorry- "I would never want to hurt you." or "I hate that I have risked the trust we share." 

A weight on our shoulders is how reconciliation starts to feel, when we have landed in hot water with someone- a weight that would be all too easy to cast off. Yes, we could walk away, remain in a homogenous community and never risk offending anyone ever again. But remember who called us to this work. Don't cast off what feels like a burden in this moment. When we offer one another apologies and forgiveness, we shoulder the load together.  

Apologies are best when they come from the heart. It goes a long way to actually be sorry. Have you ever heard a kid give a grudging apology? Not cute in adults. Don't lose your vulnerability by putting up a wall of defensiveness. Let your heart break over what occurred.  

Write down the list of all the good things you've done in your personal journal. An apology is not the time to recite all the things you did right in recent memory. When you begin reciting all the good things you've done, it sounds like your asking for a pass rather than forgiveness.  

Sit on your derrière! Calm down. Listen. This is where a lot of apologies fall apart. It is so easily to get offended when someone calls you out. Try not to lash out, explain "what you were trying to say", or walk away. Try not to talk over, interrupt, or shut down. Grab a coffee. Sit down. Talk it through. We must make sure we really understand why our words or actions were offensive. 

Walk it out. Commit to doing better. We are all on a journey, learning more about our own histories, translating our own experiences while also learning about others. We can't let our pride stop us from continuing to walk forward. If there is a way to make the offense right, do that. But if nothing else, learn more on your own. If you used an offensive word, research it. If you misunderstood some historical implications, pick up a book. If there is a movie available to help you dig deeper, watch it. When we own our growth, we keep moving forward.

I'm sure there are more components of a good apology when it comes to race relations. What would you add to the list? 

4 Rules to Develop a Great (Diversity) Training

Occasionally, before leading a training about race, I welcome everyone by declaring, "This is not your father's diversity training." Most people are not sure what I mean by that so early in the training. I have received many comments after trainings that go something like this, "That was a really great experience; it didn't feel like a training at all." For some that is a compliment. For others there is a hint of disappointment.  

So, fellow reconcilers, here are my personal rules for developing a great diversity training: 

1. Teach how, not what. Often diversity trainings focus on being politically correct. Trainers want participants to know what to say and what not to say. The method is to give participants the right language to avoid starting inflaming arguments or offensive conversations. Rather than telling participants what to say, we teach them how. How to dialogue, how to listen, how to value story, how to handle disagreement, how to be vulnerable. When we teach how, we believe the "what" will follow as participants engage in effective race conversations long after our training is done. 

2. Guide to the next step, not the "aha moment". It can very tempting to solicit "aha moments" in a training. Once you have experienced a great awakening, it is natural to want others to experience the same. But you have to remember that just as your learning was slow, incremental, the result of a journey- this training is one step on someone else's journey, too. Rather than trying to force an "aha moment" by giving too much information, jumping ahead in the learning process, or trying to impress with the newest thing you've learned, guide people to the next step of their learning process. One day the aha moment will come because of the building blocks you created. 

3.  Illustrate through movement, not lecture.  I'm over exaggerating a little bit here. It is quite normal and necessary to include a lecture, powerpoint, dialogue, etc in a training. After all people do come to learn. But as often as we can, we make people get out of their seats. They stand to do activities, walk around the room, move their chairs- anything that gets them moving, which often leads to simple but genuine interaction as well. We are mindful of planning activities that introverts would be comfortable doing (not just extroverts). We have found that getting participants on their feet fosters the learning process and renews the energy in the room. (example: The Privilege Walk)

4. Reward vulnerability, not right answers. When leading a training, it is quite natural to reward people with whom you most agree- a shared insight, the mention of a liked author or movie, a correctly defined word or concept, etc. In an effort to move the room into shared knowledge, we revert to the models of our teachers and reward "right" answers. Our training team tries instead to reward vulnerability. Its great when someone shares the same viewpoint as we do, but we try to acknowledge that after the training is over. During the training we try instead to reward honest, vulnerable sharing: like when a black man admits that he struggles with racism because it makes him so angry and anger doesn't seem very Christian-like, or when a white woman shares that she tries hard to prove to black people that she isn't racist, and knows she therefore looks crazy, not welcoming. When people reach deep down to share something real, honest, and vulnerable, we do our best to praise those moments, to thank immediately, to acknowledge anyone else who shares the same experience. It is amazing what happens in a room when vulnerability is treasured over "right" answers. 

Clearly, I love these rules; after all, I follow them. But if you choose to employ them, know that some participants will be disappointed. Some people really want a list of right and wrong answers- What do black people want to be called? Why is it bad to call people illegal? What's the deal with referring to Asians as oriental?- and so on. People who come to trainings have real questions that they want answered, and some can be disappointed to discover there won't be 3-steps-for-not-sounding-racist in the training. To acknowledge this reality, we are considering adding a Q&A time to our trainings, but all in all- we would still rather teach "how" by giving participants the tools to find answers to their own questions (without deeply angering someone in the process!)


Purposefully Uneasy

Our Multicultural Training Team, uses a lot of interactive experiences to start honest, open dialogues. The interactive experiences are typically very simple, but certainly cannot be confused for being easy. In fact, our interactive experiences intentionally make people uneasy!   

Recently we led an interactive experience that involved participants revealing their first reaction to racially loaded identities (terrorist, poor, nerd, millionaire, supermodel, gang member, etc). As we spoke each identity out loud, participants had to write down the first racial or ethnic group that came to mind. All participants then posted their responses on the walls. For the most part, participants jump into this (and similar exercises) quite willingly, despite the uneasiness exercises like this cause. But occasionally, we have someone who just can't handle it. The last time we did this particular exercise, someone walked out. Afterwards, a woman who witnessed the walkout, suggested that next time "we should leave out anything that would create volatility in favor of doing things we can all agree on so that we focus more on creating community". 


Our response was a kind but firm, "no." I would like to offer three reasons why our team has chosen to use simple but uneasy experiences, and why we will continue to, even at the risk of losing participants.  

1. Building True Community.  Most people probably wouldn't associate the word "chaos" with the word "community", but I have found that groups who don't enter into chaos with one another are only operating on a superficial level of association, not the deeper level of community. Superficiality does not serve as a solid foundation for honest, open dialogue on race, and the only way to move beyond superficiality is to introduce a little controlled chaos- something that rubs us the wrong way, that digs into our psyche, that make us uncomfortable, that forces us to be ourselves. We must be willing to go to that deeper place where race lives if we are serious about creating reconciliation. Sing-alongs are not the same as reconciliation. And so, we use interactive experiences that will create some tension, some uneasiness and also some community. (Read M Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled or A Different Drum for more on building true community)

2. Creating a Shared Experience. The second reason our team is committed to using interactive experiences is because they lay a good foundation for beginning dialogue. One reason (of many) why its so hard to have conversations about race is because our experiences are so varied. Our racial identities were not formed in vacuums. They were informed by our families, socioeconomics, education, geography, generation and more. How do you bring all these variations into a room and attempt to have a meaningful dialogue? Our solution is to create a shared experience. This allows everyone to talk about the same experience, but to offer an individual perspective. A shared experience gives us all the same starting point, the same context, the same people involved... what differs are our reactions, our feelings, our thoughts. The shared experience creates a framework for the dialogue that helps people hear and understand one another. 

 3. Acknowledging What's Wrong. The basic premise of all of our trainings/classes is that race still matters. I am down for celebrating diversity, sharing one anthers food, learning about ethnic holidays, etc. Those are all good and beautiful actions. But to do that without acknowledging racial disparities, racial discrimination, racial stereotypes, racial bias, racial histories, and racial inequalities is to do a disservice to the very people I am attempting to celebrate. Our inter-activities give everyone permission to acknowledge and share the hard things about dealing with race in America. We don't pretend everything is golden, and we don't expect our participants to do so. Its healthy and honest to acknowledge what is still broken; how else can we galvanize to fix it? 



So far from trying to appease our participants and make it easy to stay in the room, we would much rather challenge everyone and ourselves by building community from (a little) chaos, creating shared experiences, and giving everyone space to acknowledge what's wrong. Thats how we move forward together, truly together. 

Plant, Water, Tend

When I was a teenager my father told me that ministry work falls into three categories: 1. Planting the seed-  being the first to tell someone about Christ. 2. Watering the embryo- having the opportunity to minister to Christians still learning about the depth of God's love. 3. Tending the plant- helping someone mature in their faith. This was a really simple but useful tool for me as a teenager- trying to be a good friend, set good boundaries, and have healthy expectations of myself.  


I recently realized that my father's tool can also describe the relationship between a reconciler and the organization where s/he works.

1. Some of us work in institutions that need a seed. The organization isn't quite  persuaded that reconciliation is a relationship worth pursuing. It is an organization that has been just fine maintaining its homogenous culture, and you are likely interrupting this comfortability. If you find yourself demanding new songs, new speakers, new teaching materials, new outreach ministries, and no one understands why, you are planting a seed. This stage for a reconciler can be extremely frustrating if you don't realize that this is your role in the life of the organization. It is not wise to expect a plant to sprout up, if you are the first voice giving credence to this thing called reconciliation. Planting requires a great deal of patience- answering questions, casting vision, breaking and tilling ground for the work of the Holy Spirit. It also requires a great deal of fortitude. You may have to plant a lot of seeds before even one takes root. 

2. Others of us work where the little embryo needs to be watered. These are institutions that believe in the vision but aren't quite sure how to make that vision a reality! Watering the embryo often requires placing structure around the values of the organization's declared commitment to reconciliation. Reconcilers are often coalition builders- finding advocates within the organization, bringing them together into one cohesive group, making an abstract vision practicable. Watering the seed first requires a certain amount of trust in your leadership and the vision they have embraced (and yes, some evidence of growth on their part). Consider, if you are convinced that you are planting seeds, but your organization is wanting action steps, you might miss the opportunity to move the vision forward. Harping on what the organization "needs to do, believe, or become" instead of helping them do it, could be an exercise in frustration for all involved.  

3. Then there is the work of tending to the plant. In my experience this is the life span that most reconcilers long for, at least in theory. We all want to work for the organization that "gets it", that has a structure, that has figured out the lingo, that stands as a model for others. But even tending the plant can be difficult. Organizations that need tending run the risk of thinking their growth is complete. I once owned a plant that had to shed its lower leaves in order to keep the plant healthy and growing. Growth meant death for that plant. The same can be said of tending an organization- perhaps the leadership structure needs to be changed, or money needs to be reallocated, or privilege needs to be challenged. Tending the organization is a process that often involves sacrificing the systems, structures, policies and powers that the organization is most reluctant to challenge.  

I wonder if you might consider which stage describes your organization. Is your organization a seed, an embryo or a plant? Are you treating it that way? Have you been trying to water a seed before its in the ground? Are you frustrated that the embryo isn't turning into a plant fast enough? Are you tending the plant or just content to enjoy its beauty?  

What about your gifting? Which role are you best to suited to embody as a reconciler? Are you best at planting seeds within an organization? Should you be watering the efforts of an organization? Or were you made to tend an organization into maturity?

Wherever you are, whoever you are Plant, Water, Tend, for this is the work of a reconciler.