Last week, the AMS announced the “Fellowship for a Black Mathematician”. If you were on Twitter this past weekend, you are probably aware of the outcry that ensued. In return, there were many mea culpas, some half apologies, a few great apologies, a lot of explanations for what happened and how, and a lot of hurt all around. This all got me thinking about apologies.
Many of you, if you’re parents, have heard about the four-part apology. Or maybe you’re like me, and you just have friends with kids and you talk to the kids. I recently learned about this, in fact, from a 9-year old. She was taught this strategy to apologize to her classmates and friends. Say, for example, you get frustrated with a friend because they won’t share something with you, and you reacted by throwing your book at them. Your teacher tells you to apologize. The steps are the following:
- Say you’re sorry, and name the thing you are apologizing for. In this example, it would go like “sorry I hit you with my book”.
- Say why it was wrong. “It was wrong to choose to throw the book, and it was wrong to hurt you.”
- Say what you will do differently next time. “Next time, when I’m frustrated, I will talk to you about it instead of throwing something at you.”
- Ask for forgiveness. “Do you forgive me?”
Of course, I’ve heard this particular 9-year old apologize like this, and sometimes not all the steps are genuine and heartfelt, but she is getting into a practice that will serve her well when she’s older. What I particularly like about the four-part apology is that it centers the person who was wronged, and it requires the person who is apologizing to clearly name what they did wrong and why it was wrong. The question at the end is important too — because it doesn’t assume that apologizing immediately absolves you from your missteps. It also allows for the possibility of the answer being “no” or “not yet”. The context of the book-throwing was about peers (9-year old kids), but things get more complicated when we have power imbalances — what if the person who is apologizing is the boss of the person who was wronged? Their Ph.D. advisor? The chair of their department? In these cases, we should probably amend it to something like “I hope you forgive me”, removing the demand for an immediate answer so that the wronged party can reserve this for later (or, in some cases, never).
Notice what’s missing from the four parts too: there is no step that says you should explain yourself and what you really meant to do, or that it’s not who you really are but you were having a rough day and lashed out by throwing the book, or that “the book wasn’t that big anyway” or “I didn’t throw it THAT hard” or “well Billy threw a book last week” or “well, where I’m from throwing books is fine” or “you should toughen up” or, even worse, crying and saying, “what a horrible person I am – why would anyone ever be my friend.” Some of those are just straight up gaslighting, and others might be things that are important for YOU to think about, but that your friend doesn’t need to hear.
For the last few years, but especially recently, I’ve been involved with a few different efforts related to equity and inclusion (and lack thereof) in the mathematics community. In that context, I have been present for (and frequently guilty of) mistakes that required an apology. Very few times have these apologies been genuine and thorough, so I propose we try, as much as possible, to think of the four part apology structure. I am committing myself to doing this too.
Here is an example of a mistake I made.
I was on a committee at Bates College meant to advise the faculty on matters of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI), especially with respect to hiring practices. There were four faculty on this committee; the gender split was two men and two women — I am a white Latina and the other woman was a BIPOC, the two men were white. At a meeting, my BIPOC colleague suggested a book that would be good context for a workshop we were planning. I was skeptical because I thought the book would be too advanced and too discipline-specific, and expressed my reluctance to adopt that text. After a long-ish discussion, one of the men suggested the book again. I said “OK”. I later found out that my BIPOC colleague was pissed.
And see, this is where perspective, positionality, and context matter. From my perspective, I had changed my mind after a fruitful discussion. From hers, an idea was shot down when it came from her, a BIPOC woman, but was adopted when it came from a white man. I am not proud to say that, when I heard she was hurt by this exchange, my first instinct was to explain what had happened from my perspective, and how I didn’t mean anything by it, and that anyway I couldn’t have possibly been sexist/racist because I am a Latina (wrong!). It was hard, because I didn’t mean to do anything wrong.
But here’s the thing that took me way too long to understand: if someone is hurt by something you did, then the thing you did was by definition hurtful! And if you value your relationship with that person*, then you have to apologize. And if you have to apologize, I suggest the structure of the four-part apology as a start. I didn’t exactly do this with my colleague, but I eventually got close (and it took some time to mend that relationship, and the fact that I handled it so poorly at first made it really difficult to mend that relationship, and I’m not quite sure we’re there yet, but I know it’s not for me to decide). Here is what I would do now, with this structure.
- I’m sorry that I shot down your idea so quickly, and that I only agreed to it after (white dude) suggested it again.
- It was wrong because I repeated something that is done too often to women, especially women of color — because YOU have had this happen to you so much, and because you have been ignored by many others before. It was even more hurtful because it came from me (and you probably expected better from me) and that it happened in this particular committee that is supposed to be dealing with issues of EDI.
- Next time, I promise to listen to you, and to keep an open mind about your suggestions right from the beginning. I also promise to say more clearly why I am reluctant to take a suggestion, especially when it’s based on my own insecurity about being able to read the text. If I change my mind, I promise to give you credit for the suggestion (something I failed to do).
- I hope you forgive me.
As a reminder, intent doesn’t mitigate impact – the harm caused is independent of what I meant to do, whether it would have hurt me if roles had been reversed, my thoughts on whether they were overreacting, or my feelings of guilt afterwards.
In general, I think steps 1) and 2) are the hardest. Sometimes you really need to do some research and investigate what exactly you did that was wrong. What I mean by that is that it’s not hard to see people reacting negatively to something on social media, so you might know you hurt someone, but you need to figure out what people are reacting to, precisely, and more importantly why it was wrong. I think skipping step 2 is what leads to people saying things like “I’m sorry you were offended”, which always makes it sound like you’re putting the blame on the person who was wronged. You should really investigate why that was hurtful, and to understand that the perspective matters.
We in the mathematical community have made so many missteps, from micro- to macro-aggressions, passively or actively keeping BIPOC mathematicians out of our profession. And we have evidence that we are hurting people – people are crying out “you are hurting us”. If we truly value our relationships with BIPOC mathematicians, we need to start mending those relationships, and the first step is to apologize. I hope we start doing a better job of it.
*This matters. If a white mathematician tells me that I am hurting them by speaking up for BIPOC mathematicians, and calling out white supremacy, I really don’t care (do you?).