sometimes, an apology is enough
A recent “outrage of the day” was a swimming pool safety poster published by the American Red Cross which depicted more dark-skinned people than light-skinned people engaged in “uncool” pool behavior. Spotted at a pool in Salida, CO, and tweeted to the universe, the poster is a dated piece from a pool safety promo. The base artwork goes back at least to the 1980s, and may be older than that. And yeah, it DID show more dark-skinned people being “uncool”, which is, itself, uncool. Today, when everyone thinks everyone else is a bigot, this poster showed a remarkable lack of attention to four of the top-five questions that should be on every content creator's checklist:
- Is it racist?
- Is it racist?
- Is it racist?
- Is it racist?
- Does it make its point?
For a long time in US history a poster like this would not have raised a stink, but that time passed a while ago. Our culture is more sensitive now, and rightly so. Showing a bunch of black kids being uncool and a bunch of white kids being OK appears to expose racial prejudice on the part of the artist and/or publisher. If you’re gonna be in media production, you gotta be aware of this.
But having said all that, what really intrigued me was one of the reactions I saw on facebook, “an apology isn’t enough”. It made me wonder, “what IS enough?”. Obviously, this swimming safety poster is unacceptable, so what shall we require of the American Red Cross to make us all friends again?
So far, the organization has been publicly embarrassed - that in itself is a penalty for a non-profit whose operation depends upon its reputation. And this public embarrassment has been carried out in the social media universe - a forum without any sort of due-process - where emotional reactions come first, facts come second, and even blowhards like me can weigh-in with opinions.
The organization has had to invest operational resources in damage control - that also is a penalty. Almost immediately, the Red Cross issued an apology, and asked that any remaining posters be removed - both the right things to do. So, what else should they have to do to satisfy our outrage? Are we all going to stand here with our hands on our hips and sour looks on our faces until the Red Cross CEO resigns? Do we want the entire organization to attend sensitivity training? Do we want reparations? Is it a hate crime? Should someone go to jail?
Obviously, the Red Cross poster was poorly executed. The organization should be embarrassed. People of color are getting pretty damn tired of being cast in an unsavory light - it’s not fair, and we expect better from noble institutions like the American Red Cross. Images like this one silently perpetuate a stereotype that is bigoted and untrue.
But let's not get so caught up in our outrage that we blame the Red Cross for a problem that's bigger than their organization. The Red Cross poster is a symptom of a larger racial divide in society as a whole, and I don't know how to fix that divide other than by doing exactly what we've done here ... calling out racism when we see it. But, let's be reasonable and not punish the offender beyond their crime. There was no violence involved, no fraud, no malicious intent. No actual laws were broken. They made a mess, they said they were sorry, and they cleaned it up as best they could. What more should they have to do? What more do they owe us?
I think it is OK for us to challenge each other over public displays that we find inappropriate or offensive. That’s how a society polices itself. And there’s also a time to let an issue die. The offended - whose causes are often righteous - need to know when to say when. If there was no evil intent, and if the damage has been mitigated, and an apology has been sincerely offered, we should consider accepting it, and moving on. To not do so ... to continue to rub the offender’s nose in their pile of poo, makes me wonder how much of the concept of forgiveness the outraged understand. This is important, because if we’re ever going to learn how to live together peacefully, forgiveness is something we’re all going to have to become better at.
When we accept the American Red Cross's apology, we're not saying that their poster is OK, but we are saying that we're not gonna carry a big ol' stinkin' grudge around - that there may be a way for us to exist together, work together and eventually trust each other again.
Without forgiveness, without grace, there’s a point at which outrage becomes outrageous, and overshadows the original insult. As good as we all think we are, we all have some prejudices we carry around - some stereotypes that we buy into - and someday, maybe unintentionally, we’ll let one out. We’ll expose ourselves for who we are, and we’ll be embarrassed. I hope that when it is my turn to be in that position, that there is some grace for me. I know I will have learned something from the embarrassment and the hassle. I hope my apology is enough, because I’m not sure what else I can do. There’s a point at which continued indignation becomes unproductive toward the goal of a more civil society. Sometimes, an apology is enough.