When is an apology good enough?

Hill Times September 23, 2019, Rose LeMay

As most Canadians, I watched the brownface incident and response on September 18 and felt a range of emotions, from anger to grief. Racism is like that—it elicits such a range of emotions. The question is when is an apology good enough? It’s complicated, but the first point: only the people most affected by the incident have the right to answer that question. And even then, let’s not expect a consensus in the group most affected.

It’s partly why racism is so detrimental to a community and society because it drives us apart. Racism even creates divisions even within the targeted group. Quite simply, humans respond differently to external pressures such as racism. There is no one way to respond.

We tend to describe racism as the intentional, conscious acts with malintent. But it’s more than that. Racism that hurts also includes the unintentional acts, the unconscious, even the well-intentioned. This requires some unpacking.

Racism definitely includes the mean acts against a person because of race or culture. On anecdotal sharing alone, I would guess that virtually every Indigenous person in Canada has experienced this. We call it carding, when police assume race somehow is aligned with criminal intent, or the slurs or aggressive jokes about “Indians.” It’s racism. In the courses my company gives on cultural competence and anti-racism, many Canadians of colour have also experienced blatant racism.

In Canada, racism against Indigenous peoples was legislated. This is the Indian Act, a law which created onerous controls and limitations for Indigenous peoples. The law was written at a time of blatant white supremacy, at the time that Canada was created. When the draft law was debated on the Hill, one memorable quote was along the lines that Indians will never achieve the intellect of adults, therefore the government must care for them in a fiduciary manner. Canada is steeped in legislated racism.

That said, unconscious and unintentional acts which judge a culture or race as less-than is also racism. I have no doubt that some kids will dress up as “Indians” this Halloween and their parents may not understand that this is racism and hurtful, even if it’s unintentional. The expectation of the police officer who pulled me over on the assumption that I stole my vehicle simply because of my colour, that too, is racism. The perception in the hospital emergency ward that my pain is not the same as other’s pain because First Nations don’t feel pain, that is racism. Sometimes racism is beyond hurtful, sometimes it is life threatening.

Good intent is necessary when planning to act but can never be used as the excuse for a poor outcome. So, back to the question I posed at the beginning: is an apology good enough? From my perspective, an apology is certainly the first step. But I look for evidence of honest commitment to learn more to do better. Culture and racism are so complicated that it takes time. Racism is not resolved with a quick couple sentences. But I also believe that people can and do choose to learn and change, because I see it happen in every course I teach in cultural competence.

But I’d prefer if we didn’t have to repeat the apologies. Can we please reduce the racism instead?

Please challenge racism when-ever you see it. Hold the line. Racism will be resolved when Canadians stop looking away, and start to demand change. Racism will be resolved when we catch ourselves on unconscious bias and instead we choose to learn more about each other, racism will be resolved when we act like we want our children to have hope and belonging—for all our children.