Julia Bond wants an apology. The apparel designer at Adidas had resigned herself to enduring racism at work until she saw the George Floyd video. Now she’s in her third month of standing outside her Portland building every day, joined by others to not only protest, but demand an apology from company leadership.
Many are demanding change. What strikes me is her specific demand for an apology, which has not, at this writing, been given. What is an apology, anyway? Why is it so important to us when we have been wronged?
To me, an apology comprises many things – an admission of wrongdoing, an acknowledgment of harm, and remorse for hurting someone. Those wrongs can range from ignoring a friend because you were “too busy,” to canceling them because you just got tired of making an effort; from flying a Confederate flag, to failing to promote a qualified person of color; from cutting ahead of someone in line, to driving into a group of protesters.
In every case, the perpetrator should right the wrong. Let that person in front of you. Promote the overlooked employee. Make time for a real conversation with that old friend. Put the hateful flag in a museum. Serve your time for killing the protester. Read a book or take a course in getting along with people who aren’t like you. Campaign for responsible legislators. Donate to a good cause. Call for reparations, for meaningful redress.
For some, that is enough. Actions speak louder than words, they say. But Ms. Bond is standing firm until she gets an actual apology. An “I’m sorry; we were wrong, and we want to be better.” Why is that so hard for a company making billions, much of it from Black athletes and musicians?
Some victims go straight to forgiveness. I was bewildered when relatives of the nine people killed at a Charleston church by white supremacist Dylan Roof said to him, one by one at his bond hearing, “I forgive you,” and asked for mercy on his soul. How could they genuinely feel that? I was amazed. I could never say that to a scumbag who killed one of my family or friends.
In 1958, a woman stabbed 29-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr., deep in the chest with a steel letter opener as he sat at his first book signing. He later viewed his convalescence from the attack as a turning point in his life toward nonviolence, and publicly forgave his attacker. Amazing.
Jesus himself had an interesting idea of forgiveness. In Luke 17:3-4, he says, “ If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” In other words, the victim gets to express anger and hurt (that’s the rebuke), and then if – and only if – the perpetrator repents (apologizes), then you forgive them. You have to forgive them, but only if the rebuke and repentance come first. Dylan Roof did not repent.
Bill Clinton did a terrible thing to Monica Lewinsky, and his family, and the nation. After initially splitting hairs about what, exactly, sex is, he apologized. It was clear and strong and remorseful. He took responsibility, unlike too many corrupt politicians I could name. I know Demi Lovato’s “Sorry (Not Sorry)” is meant in jest, but too many so-called apologies ring hollow. “I’m sorry if anyone was offended.” Give me a break.
Translating “I’m sorry” into French gets you “Je suis désolé,” something I’ve always found fascinating. Saying you are desolate about what you did speaks louder, I think, than saying you’re sorry. It means you feel so badly, you wish you could turn back time and undo what you said or did. It’s like “My bad,” right? It takes responsibility.
My violently abusive husband never apologized; instead he wrote countless notes and letters blaming me for not being nicer. My predatory boss never apologized, instead insisting his forced hugs were misconstrued. My friend from college never apologized; she simply stopped returning my emails. And the friend I thought I was making, the one who threw me under the bus in a public forum, never said she was sorry, not even when I asked her point blank, “Do you regret what’s happened to our friendship?” Who knows? Maybe she only wanted a minion for her cause. At least I know that now, but there will always be a hitch in our polite relationship.
As for me, I’m no saint. I definitely feel I have the right to rebuke someone if they do me wrong. (But then, that’s what Jesus said, and last time I checked, he was even more than a saint.) I do want an apology, a genuine one that says the other person recognizes what they did, feels remorse, and wishes it could be undone. I try to accept apologies with grace, and I try, I really do, to issue my own heartfelt apologies. Of course what’s done is done, but you know what? That moment after a true apology is rich with possibility. That’s where emotions are shared, understanding is reached, and reparations are made. I still dream, sometimes, that my husband was able to look me in the eye and apologize before he died. So do our children. It would have meant the world.