Forgiveness

"I'm Sorry If I Caused Offense": How Not to Apologize

Intention, impact, & racial slurs in professional sports (and everywhere else).

Posted Oct 29, 2017

Public domain
Mickey Rooney as "Mr. Yunioshi," Breakfast at Tiffany's (1963)
Source: Public domain

During Game 2 of the 2017 World Series, Houston Astros first baseman Yulieski Gurriel homered off struggling Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish. After rounding the bases, he went back to the Astros dugout where cameras caught him making a “slant eye gesture” and saying the work “Chinato” (meaning “little Chinese person” in Spanish) in an apparent taunt to Darvish who is half-Japanese and half-Iranian.

Gurriel has been taken to task in the media over the past few days and was suspended for five games next season, though he will be allowed to continue playing in the World Series.

Gurriel offered an apology, or something resembling one:

"I did not mean it to be offensive at any point…Quite the opposite. I have always had a lot of respect [for Japanese people] ... I've never had anything against Darvish. For me, he's always been one of the best pitchers. I never had any luck against him. If I offended him, I apologize. It was not my intention."

Later, he added:

“In Cuba and in other places, we call all Asian people Chinese, but I played in Japan and I know they find that offensive, so I apologize for that. I know they don’t like it.”

In response, Darvish, took the high road, speaking in Japanese through an interpreter:

“Acting like that … is disrespectful to people around the world. [Gurriel] played in Japan and I have a lot of respect for him, so I try not to think about it too much against him. Nobody’s perfect. And everybody’s different. And we’re going to learn from it … We’ll learn from it and we have to go forward.”

How do we learn from it and go forward? For one thing, we could all get better at apologizing when we cause offense.

Like Darvish, I’m half-Asian. I’m proud of that heritage and because of that pride, I found what Gurriel did offensive.

Making “slant eyes” isn’t just a microaggression,1 it’s an overt gesture that ridicules the appearance of Asian people. Psychologically, the gesture invokes hurtful memories for many Asian people growing up in the US who have been mocked with this gesture at one time or another in their lives.

I’m reminded of the story of Bruce Lee going on an early date with his wife-to-be to a screening of Breakfast at Tiffany’s that was depicted in the biopic, Dragon: A Bruce Lee Story. Lee, who had immigrated to the US and aspired to make a name for himself and for all Asian people, is said to have cried while the audience doubled over in laughter at Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of the bumbling, buck-toothed Mr. Yunioshi.

As a form of “yellowface,” making slant eyes is no more appropriate than wearing “blackface,” no matter what the intention.

Speaking of intention, the distinction between intention and impact is part of Diversity Training 101. If you have caused offense or hurt to someone through your words, your intentions aren’t nearly as important as the effects of your actions. If you’re truly remorseful about something you’ve said, acknowledge the effects of your words and apologize.

  • Don’t say, “I didn’t mean to cause offense.”
  • Don’t say, “I’m sorry if I caused offense.”
  • Say, “I’m sorry that I caused offense.”

When Gurriel’s apology focuses on intention instead of impact, it rings hollow. Of course, he’s hardly the first person to offer an apology that misses the beat, much less in professional sports.

Back in 2003, Los Angeles Lakers center Shaquille O’Neal mocked his Houston Rockets counterpart, saying, “Tell Yao Ming, Ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-so.”

By way of apology, he said:

“If I offended anybody, I apologize … To say I'm a racist against Asians is crazy … I said a joke. It was a 70-30 joke. Seventy percent of people thought it was funny, 30 didn't. At times I try to be a comedian. Sometimes I say good jokes, sometimes I say bad jokes. If I hurt anybody's feelings, I apologize."

In 2008, leading up to the Olympic Games in Beijing, the Spanish National Basketball Team posed for a team picture by making the slant-eye gesture. Pau Gasol, who was playing in the NBA for the Los Angeles Lakers at the time, offered the same pseudo-apology, saying:

"It was something like supposed to be funny or something but never offensive in any way … I'm sorry if anybody thought or took it the wrong way and thought that it was offensive."

Teammate Jose Calderon, who played for the Toronto Raptors, added:

"I want to say that we have a great respect for the Orient and their peoples. Some of my best friends in Toronto are of Chinese origin ... Whoever interprets something else from the photos has taken it completely the wrong way."

You can see that these examples are taking a page out of a standard apology playbook that completely misses the mark. Instead, the apologies are pseudo-apologies that fall back on claims of intention, sweep offense under the rug of making a joke, and even blame the victim by suggesting that it’s their fault that the comments were misinterpreted.

Here’s a better play and a simple example to follow:

“I’m sorry that I caused offense and hurtful feelings. At the time, I was not thinking about the potential effects of my actions and for that I apologize. I have learned from my mistake and I will strive to be better than that—for myself, my family, and my fans.”

No doubt, there are some that will think that the reaction to Gurriel’s comments (and this blog post) is blown out of proportion responses they are a part of a culture that has become too concerned with being "politically correct." Or that offensive comments can be excused as “locker room banter,” as President Trump suggested last October.

As far as professional athletes go, they may not choose to be role models and sports competition can, of course, bring out our aggressions, channeling them into impressive feats of athleticism and trash-talking alike. But here in the US, athletes have the chance to serve as an inspiring example of collaboration and competition with teammates and opponents from many different cultures on an international stage. That’s one of the great things about professional sports, but that greatness—like the greatness of Gurriel’s homer—is tainted when racial slurs become part of the game.

This isn’t about political correctness or “snowflakes” being overly sensitive. It’s simply about saying things that are hurtful. I'd bet that somewhere during Game 2, there was a young Asian boy—an Astros fan and maybe a fan of Yuri Gurriel—who saw what Gurriel did and felt betrayed. It’s that boy, or girl, and the adults that had experiences like that when we were young, who deserve a proper apology, regardless of intentions. And if comments weren’t intended to cause that hurt, then learning how to properly apologize should be a no-brainer.

As a minority, Gurriel should know better. And minority or not, we all should know better.

References

Lilienfeld SO. Microaggressions: Strong claims, inadequate evidence. Perspectives on Psychological Science 2016; 12: 138-169.