Apology should be sincere, not smarmy, to be accepted

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the local Catholic school getting in a bit of hot water because it benched a young seventh-grade girl from playing basketball for speaking a few words in her traditional Menominee tongue. Keep in mind this was not a full dialogue, and the words she spoke could not be construed as negative or bad. She said “Hello,” “Thank you,” and “I love you.”

The family was justifiably incensed and demanded a public apology. The school’s principal, Dan Minter, sent a letter about the incident home with students for parents to read. It fell short, in the eyes of the family, who felt that a “public” apology meant it should be for all to see.

It took about a month, but the public apology finally came to the family’s satisfaction. Two letters were drafted—one by Minter and the other from Dr. Joseph Bound, education director for the Diocese of Green Bay. Bound’s letter came off as very heartfelt and regretful, which is exactly what needed to happen in order to satisfy the family. Minter’s latest mea culpa, in my opinion, fell a little short of coming across as an actual apology.

Here’s an excerpt of what Bound said in his letter from the diocese:

“Over the course of time that has followed the events of Jan. 19, 2012, we have had the opportunity to discuss and, more importantly, listen to, how the incident has brought hard feelings and anger to the Menominee people. Because of these opportunities to dialogue with the family and tribal elders, our awareness at the diocesan level has increased many-fold to the need for cultural diversity training that is needed at Sacred Heart School for the students, staff, school leadership and school families. We believe that the need for this training exists not only in Sacred Heart in Shawano, but in every Catholic school in the Diocese of Green Bay.”

In Bound’s letter, he talks about how the incident caused anger, but through that anger, awareness came out of it, and steps are being taken to rectify the situation and significantly reduce the risk that a teacher will choose to punish someone for speaking a few words in a language besides English instead of using the moment to teach. I was impressed, especially since the diocese plans to bring its cultural awareness training to all of the schools it oversees, not just Sacred Heart, showing that while this action is reactive locally, the diocese plans to make it proactive elsewhere.

Now here is some of what Minter had to say in his letter:

“I regret that my lack of understanding with regards to the communal nature of the Menominee culture has caused my actions to offend the family and the Menominee Nation. In my cultural mindset, I believed that a personal apology such as the one I offered the night of Jan. 24 was sufficient. In your culture, I have now learned, it is not. And for not asking for swifter clarification and guidance on this, I am sorry if this has caused further hurt.”

Minter’s choice of words struck the wrong chord with me. His statement that he felt, through his “cultural mindset” that the previous apology would heal the hurt that was caused came off as smarmy, especially when he followed up with the statement that “it is not,” in the eyes of the Menominee culture. It would seem that if you are the principal of a school with the majority of students belonging to another culture, you should try to find out as much as you can about that culture either before you take the job or shortly after.

Obviously, you’re not going to know everything about a culture overnight. I can tell you from dealing with American Indian tribes in both Arizona and Wisconsin, I couldn’t glide perfectly through one of their ceremonies or know everything there is to know about greeting some of the people. Still, I would have kept “culture” out of the letter and said that I thought the first apology would suffice, and now I know it is not the case, followed by the request for forgiveness.

Fortunately, the Washinawatok family seems to be satisfied with both apologies, so I’m hoping this unpleasant tale has reached an end. Still, what we say can cause a variety of reactions. It is best to think carefully before we open our mouths in the hopes that the reaction doesn’t blow our faces off.

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