DEAR HARRIETTE: When I worked at a heavily visited tourist attraction, I had a visitor interaction that ultimately ended with me escorting said visitor to a colleague (whom we will call “Annie”). I am terrible with names, and I didn't regularly work with Annie at the time. As I approached Annie's desk, I realized her name was escaping me. I suddenly thought I recalled her name, so as I dropped off the visitor with Annie, I said "OK, thanks, ‘Jen’ will take care of you from here."
The second it came out of my mouth, I knew it was the wrong name, which is embarrassing on its own, but much worse because I called her the name of another co-worker, and both these women are East Asian. I am white.
Even though I knew the name was wrong, Annie's real name was escaping me so instead of correcting myself, I scurried off with my tail between my legs. Annie did not correct me, but I could see the disappointment in her eyes. It's been at least four years since that incident, and Annie has always been gracious and kind to me in every interaction we have had since then. So kind that I often wonder if she has forgotten this incident -- although that's probably wishful thinking!
I committed a heinous racist microaggression against my fellow human, and I feel guilt and shame for it constantly. I consider myself anti-racist, and this moment was a reality check for me. We no longer work at the same place, but we're still in touch. I have considered, and even drafted, many apologies to her for this incident, but I have never sent the apology because I do not think this type of action deserves forgiveness and do not want to put her in the place of having to tell me that it's OK -- which she is likely to do because she is so kind.
Regardless of whether I deserve forgiveness, I still think she deserves an apology and acknowledgement. Is apologizing the right thing to do here, or will I just be putting her in an uncomfortable position all over again? If a co-worker had ever done something like this to you, would you even want to hear a years-late apology? -- A Real Jerk, Trying To Be Better
DEAR A REAL JERK, TRYING TO BE BETTER: Thank you, first of all, for your thoughtfulness about this incident and your willingness to share it with us. This is exactly the kind of reflection that is needed for us to move forward with greater awareness of how to interact respectfully with one another.
There is no time limit on an apology. But you do need to be clear about what you hope the outcome will be. It should not be to ask for forgiveness. That would be you presenting yourself as a victim in a situation where the other person was actually the victim.
Since you are in touch with this woman, reach out to her and tell her that you want to discuss a sensitive topic with her. Remind her of the incident and how you misidentified her, how you felt about it and that you have never forgotten because you instantly knew it was an egregious error. Apologize for not handling the situation in the moment -- namely, immediately apologizing for calling her the other woman’s name. Tell her that in these times when everyone is evaluating their role in racist behavior, you realize that this was a clear microaggression on your part, and she deserved better from you.
(Harriette Cole is a lifestylist and founder of DREAMLEAPERS, an initiative to help people access and activate their dreams. You can send questions to email@example.com or c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.)