Monday 15 July 2013

Anatomy of an Apology: An open letter to Aaryn Gries

An apology can be forced or freely given. It can be genuine or insincere. It can disarm the receiver or fuel her anger. And on rare occasions, when it is done right, with a certain amount of finesse and introspection, it can be art.  It's a skill that far too few of us learn. Instead of receiving criticism and taking a moment to reflect on the validity of the accusation we immediately lash back. And sometimes there's a moment in that fight where we realize our own shortcomings but rather than back down and embrace the (sometimes hard) lessons being thrown our way we continue to fight. The competitive spirit takes over and we attempt to win. Or to save face. But even if we hold our ground, steadfast, until the other person surrenders or simply recedes in exasperation, there is no victory to be found in false-righteousness.

Aaryn, I imagine that you had hoped that your stint on Big Brother would afford you a brief 15 minutes of fame and perhaps provide a jump start to your modelling career. Instead, what has happened is that your racist and homophobic comments have been broadcasted around the world. Small clips of hate-filled words pieced together and shared on youtube, Facebook, and Twitter. You've become the runner-up poster girl for Southern racism. Succeeded only by Paula Dean. But if you continue on this path you may just succeed her by the end of the summer. If you manage to not get voted out that is. And that modelling career you've been working towards? Well, you will be very shocked to hear that your agency has responded to your comments by dropping you from their roster.

You entered the Big Brother house as a young, pretty, white girl. You were likely living a charmed life. But you will leave the house facing an intense wall of hate directed at you. My guess is that you will have no frame of reference for how to deal with this outcome. And that's what I'm going to try and help you with now.

On last night's episode you offered up a pretty insincere apology to Candice.

"Candice, I'm sorry. Anybody that knows me knows that just because I'm Southern, and I say things that are probably aren't appropriate all the time. I have nothing against any other race. And if I make a comment that seems like I do, I don't want it to be taken that way, and I don't want to offend you.

And then later, in the diary room, you added:

"I don't want her to be thinking that I'm that type of person and I also don't want her to be using that against me or spreading something about me that's not true." 

I think we all need to be clear that being Southern does not make one racist nor justify it. While you have been locked up in Big Brother isolation your Southern contemporary, Paula Dean, has attempted to use the same justification. It hasn't worked for her either. 

There are a few key ways that this apology fails. First, it's all about you. Your comments have hurt and offended another person but instead of focussing on her feelings you have turned all of the attention back to the consequences that you may be subjected to. Your reaction isn't entirely surprising. Human beings are narcissistic creatures. But if you could take a moment to step back from the situation, examine why Candice (and countless other people) have been offended by your remarks, and do some serious and genuine introspection, you would be much more likely to receive an accepted apology and respect from the rest of us watching you on screen. 

I'd like to take a moment now to give you an example of apology as art. This apology, from Jason Alexander (Seinfeld's George Costanza) is so good that it bears repeating in full. 

A message of amends.

Last week, I made an appearance on the Craig Ferguson show – a wonderfully unstructured, truly spontaneous conversation show. No matter what anecdotes I think will be discussed, I have yet to find that Craig and I ever touch those subjects. Rather we head off onto one unplanned, loony topic after another. It’s great fun trying to keep up with him and I enjoy Craig immensely.

During the last appearance, we somehow wandered onto the topic of offbeat sports and he suddenly mentioned something about soccer and cricket. Now, I am not a stand-up comic. Stand up comics have volumes of time-tested material for every and all occasions. I, unfortunately, do not. However, I’ve done a far amount of public speaking and emceeing over the years so I do have a scattered bit, here and there. 

Years ago, I was hosting comics in a touring show in Australia and one of the bits I did was talking about their sports versus American sports. I joked about how their rugby football made our football pale by comparison because it is a brutal, no holds barred sport played virtually without any pads, helmets or protection. And then I followed that with a bit about how, by comparison, their other big sport of cricket seemed so delicate and I used the phrase, “ a bit gay”. Well, it was all a laugh in Australia where it was seen as a joke about how little I understood cricket, which in fact is a very, very athletic sport. The routine was received well but, seeing as their isn’t much talk of cricket here in America, it hasn’t come up in years. 

Until last week. When Craig mentioned cricket I thought, “oh, goody – I have a comic bit about cricket I can do. Won’t that be entertaining?”. And so I did a chunk of this old routine and again referred to cricket as kind of “gay” – talking about the all white uniforms that never seem to get soiled; the break they take for tea time with a formal tea cart rolled onto the field, etc. I also did an exaggerated demonstration of the rather unusual way they pitch the cricket ball which is very dance-like with a rather unusual and exaggerated arm gesture. Again, the routine seemed to play very well and I thought it had been a good appearance.

Shortly after that however, a few of my Twitter followers made me aware that they were both gay and offended by the joke. And truthfully, I could not understand why. I do know that humor always points to the peccadillos or absurdities or glaring generalities of some kind of group or another – short, fat, bald, blonde, ethnic, smart, dumb, rich, poor, etc. It is hard to tell any kind of joke that couldn’t be seen as offensive to someone. But I truly did not understand why a gay person would be particularly offended by this routine.

However, troubled by the reaction of some, I asked a few of my gay friends about it. And at first, even they couldn’t quite find the offense in the bit. But as we explored it, we began to realize what was implied under the humor. I was basing my use of the word “gay” on the silly generalization that real men don’t do gentile, refined things and that my portrayal of the cricket pitch was pointedly effeminate , thereby suggesting that effeminate and gay were synonymous. 

But what we really got down to is quite serious. It is not that we can’t laugh at and with each other. It is not a question of oversensitivity. The problem is that today, as I write this, young men and women whose behaviors, choices or attitudes are not deemed “man enough” or “normal” are being subjected to all kinds of abuse from verbal to physical to societal. They are being demeaned and threatened because they don’t fit the group’s idea of what a “real man” or a “real woman” are supposed to look like, act like and feel like. 

For these people, my building a joke upon the premise I did added to the pejorative stereotype that they are forced to deal with everyday. It is at the very heart of this whole ugly world of bullying that has been getting rightful and overdue attention in the media. And with my well-intentioned comedy bit, I played right into those hurtful assumptions and diminishments.

And the worst part is – I should know better. My daily life is filled with gay men and women, both socially and professionally. I am profoundly aware of the challenges these friends of mine face and I have openly advocated on their behalf. Plus, in my own small way, I have lived some of their experience. Growing up in the ‘70’s in a town that revered it’s school sports and athletes, I was quite the outsider listening to my musical theater albums, studying voice and dance and spending all my free time on the stage. Many of the same taunts and jeers and attitudes leveled at young gay men and women were thrown at me and on occasion I too was met with violence or the threat of violence. 

So one might think that all these years later I might be able to intuit that my little cricket routine could make some person who has already been made to feel alien and outcast feel even worse or add to the conditions that create their alienation. But in this instance, I did not make the connection. I didn’t get it. 

So, I would like to say – I now get it. And to the extent that these jokes made anyone feel even more isolated or misunderstood or just plain hurt – please know that was not my intention, at all or ever. I hope we will someday live in a society where we are so accepting of each other that we can all laugh at jokes like these and know that there is no malice or diminishment intended.

But we are not there yet. 

So, I can only apologize and I do. In comedy, timing is everything. And when a group of people are still fighting so hard for understanding, acceptance, dignity and essential rights – the time for some kinds of laughs has not yet come. I hope my realization brings some comfort. 


Do you see what he did there? He did not focus on how his comment was misconstrued or taken out of context. He didn't focus on how the backlash affected him. He took the time to listen to the complaints people made. He investigated them. He investigated himself. And when he had that lightbulb moment, the one where he realized he was on the wrong side of the debate, he didn't continue to fight anyway. He admitted his wrong doings. And he asked for forgiveness. And you know what happened? The gay people he offended felt heard and respected. They thanked Jason Alexander. Instead of the villain in the fight for gay rights he was recast as a hero. He got it. 

Aaryn, I don't offer you this advice to excuse or condone what you have said and done while on camera in the Big Brother house. I'm writing this in hopes that you'll own it. I hope that you can take the hate that is about to come your way as you exit the bubble you've been living in and use it for good.  Take the time to watch yourself on video. Watch the reactions of your housemates. Talk to other people, of various races, ethnicities, and sexualities and truly try to understand their reactions to your comments. Grow. And when you are ready, when you truly do "get it" (and only then because an insincere apology is as bad as none) apologize. Be a role model for young white people growing up in a culture that has weaved systemic racism into the fabric of its existence. 

The first few days after your Big Brother exit are going to be very hard. Try to understand that you've earned that. But also understand that you are in a unique position to invoke change. Much needed change that could come on the heels of a nation divided after a summer that has shown the ugliness of white supremacy alive and well. You don't know it yet, but this week George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin. Trayvon was a seventeen year old, unarmed, Black man. And people are furious. The system that validates the idea that certain lives, especially young Black male lives, are worth less than their counterparts has been brutally exposed. And that skeleton will not be going back in the closet. But, if you choose to do so, you have the opportunity to offer some small comfort to the people who are grieving and incensed. While perhaps an unpleasant position to inhabit it is nonetheless a very powerful one. 

My guess is that you will issue a public apology full of denial, righteousness and external blame. But instead of saying "Ask any of my friends and family, they will tell you that there isn't a racist bone in my body. I may sometimes say inappropriate things because that's how I was raised and those are the kind of things I am used to. But I was only joking around and my words and their meaning were taken out of context. I apologize if I've hurt anyone." Perhaps you could say something like "I'm deeply sorry for the hurt and anger my words and actions have caused. I was raised in a racist culture and it took my hate-filled words being broadcast on television for me to truly understand my part in the continual reproduction of race-based stereotypes and persecution. In the time since I have left the house I have done a lot of conversing, soul searching and introspection. And I can honestly say that I did not like what I saw. The legacy of slavery and institutionalized racism in our country is more complex than I ever understood. I will never be able to fully understand what it means to live in this world as a gay man, or a black woman, but I am ready to listen to these experiences. And I am grateful that my eyes have been opened. I cannot unsay the things I said. But I can apologize for them. And I can learn from them."

Now is your opportunity. What are you going to do with it? 

Edited to add:
It meant so much to me that Jason Alexander took the time to reply to this post. 

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