Brantmeier (2013) outlines a strategy for adopting a pedagogical approach of vulnerability that frames a co-constructed learning space between the educator and the student that both fosters trust and sustains effective diversity, inclusion, and equity efforts. The vulnerability should be mutual between the educator and student(s) in the traditional classroom space and/or co-curricular space, including the space generated through mentorship. I see the cultivation of mutual vulnerability as essential to equitable mentoring practices that amplify and maintain diversity, inclusion, and equity efforts across high-impact practices. Brantmeier asserts that the essence of this framework of engagement is to, “share, co-learn, and admit you don’t know.” I posit that there is one other factor or practice that must be included in building mutual vulnerability, a sense of belonging, and impactful designs for retention of historically underrepresented students. That is the ability to apologize for when you don’t know but you assumed that you did.

At the start of every academic year, my doctoral program faculty would gather all the returning and new students together for an introduction meeting. During this meeting, each student would go around the room and give an elevator statement that described their research and involvement in the program. It was a classic community-building and orientation event. The meet-and-greet my second year of the program was going as expected. New students excitedly shared their intentions, and tired returning students shared that they were doing everything from pivoting their research questions, starting to write proposals, and collecting data. In addition to sharing progress, this was also an opportunity to plant the seeds of possible collaboration and claim intellectual space.

Our Program Director initiated a direction around the table that placed me near the end of sharing. I remember thinking about my introduction, mentally rehearsing what I would say. First impressions are important, and I wanted to make a good one. I can’t remember what caused the Program Director, a prominent faculty member in the department, to insert herself, but she did. Right before I opened my mouth to speak, she jumped in and took over my introduction. This was not an act of bestowing accolades. Instead, she erroneously held me up as an example that anyone could make it in this program. She disclosed (I struggled finding the right word as “disclosed” suggested that what was said was true – that is not the case) that I was not perceived as a strong student at the time of my interview. She alluded to a falsehood that the faculty had given me a shot anyways and that I had surprised them by exceeding their expectations.

In one hijacked moment, this person of immense power and positionality crafted an inaccurate racist narrative that would haunt me through the rest of graduate school experience. She delivered the microaggressive blow with a smile and then expected me to affirm all that she had said and continue with my planned introduction. With my heart rapidly beating and as I was fighting tears, I somehow managed to give my introduction, feeling the need to add in my accomplishments during the previous year (including gaining honorable mention from an NFS grant pre-doctoral program and currently holding a prestigious fellowship from the school). When I looked around the room, I saw shock and pity, but no one corrected her. The meeting resumed. Immediately after, I felt a hand on my shoulder, an acknowledgement that they bared witness to this heinous act. With little power, I chose not to pursue clarification from her or anyone and decided my best course of action was to put my head down and to continue doing the work I needed to do to get through this program as quickly as possible.

My current advisor was not present at the time but was informed of what transpired. He went to the dean, and the offending faculty was reprimanded. It was agreed that she owed me an apology. And so, on a random day in the semester as I was walking by her office, I was summoned. I stood at the door, she sat behind her desk. She did not ask me to come in. I don’t remember the exact words of the apology, but I remember how ineffective, dismissive, and obligatory it felt. She expressed no regret; she did not intend for her actions to be interpreted the way they were (or perhaps the way I interpreted them). She informed me that she did value me as a student, but nothing in this moment or the one prior one suggested that this was in fact the case. I simply said thank you and continued my walk.

This was not the first microaggressive transgression I experienced as a first generational student that was a low-income Black woman in the academy, and it was not the last. The ghost of the needle prick from that moment of humiliation and invalidation still stays with me nearly 20 years later. All the needle pricks do regardless of how tough the emotional scar tissue has become after enduring the need to continuously heal and regenerate from gendered-racial inflicted wounds all these years.  I share this story not to relive the trauma but to give context for why I would count the flippant apology I received to be one of the most ineffective apologies I have ever experienced. I also share this story because as we talk about the potential harm our historically underrepresented (also excluded) minority students (HURMS) encounter in the academic space, we need to reflect on the purpose of the apology and whether we have been adequately trained to give the apology that is needed when a microaggressive harm is committed/occurs? Schumann (2018) writes, “even though apologies can be immensely beneficial, transgressors often do not apologize or do not apologize well” (p. 74). 

Schumann outlines three barriers to offering an effective or “high quality” apology:

  1. The first barrier is “low concern for the victim or relationship.” Schumann points to the fact that an effective apology is one that centers the victim of the transgression. This centering prioritizes the needs and wants of the victim, and I would posit their healing is the paramount objective. Simply, Schumann points out that if the transgressor does not actually value the person they committed a transgression against, then perhaps it will not matter how the apology comes about because it will fall flat. It is also not simply the value of the person but the value or importance of the relationship between the transgressor and the victim. Thus, an apology not rooted in a motivation to maintain or gain a relationship is unlikely to occur or to be delivered well. Schumann also points out that research does find a relationship between selfishness (or self-centeredness) and apologizing. People who are more self-oriented are less likely to apologize. I assume because they can’t see beyond themselves or even consider that their actions hurt someone else. It is for this very reason that all diversity, inclusion, and racial equity (DIRE) trainings I lead start with substantial self-work; without expected critical self-reflection and individual is likely to stay self-oriented.
  2. The second type of barrier identified is a “perceived threat to self-image.” I call this the pavement of good intentions. I have lost track of the number of apologies that contain a beginning, middle, and end of reinforcing my awareness that the transgressor did not intend to cause me harm. When the transgressor is someone I have a relationship with, I already know the intentions were not ill; what I need in the apology is an acknowledgement that the actions — your actions — hurt me (regardless of your intentions). This barrier is particularly relevant to understanding how to move forward and heal from microaggressive behaviors and acts. A microaggression is not just an intended act to commit harm; in fact, what makes it so powerful and incendiary is that it is often an act that is unintentional. What we must all understand is that trauma can occur regardless of intent. When a person centers their misinterpreted intent, they are giving into a “fragile self-view” that comes with lowered self-esteem and duress in maintaining a carefully constructed self-image (Schumann, 2018). A high-quality apology that begins with accepting and acknowledging that they did in fact commit harm is thus unconsciously seen as the catalyst for shattering the view of themselves as a decent, morally right, and/or anti-racist ally. Ironically, the relationship between the victim and transgressor is seen as vitally important.
  3. The third and final barrier is the “perception of the apology [being] ineffective”. The act of apologizing is a vulnerable one. Despite previously holding the power to inflict harm, asking for forgiveness sheds that power. Some individuals don’t want to let that power go. I reflect on my former professor and Director’s desire to stay at her desk and physically distance herself from me by not asking me into the room. There was absolutely no room giving for a dialogue that would momentarily shift the power dynamics between us. However, Schumann also informs us those individuals that fall in this category are also open to any signs or signals that suggest an apology will be well-received. When there is an opportunity for forgiveness or the continuance of the relationship, they will take it. However, I am left wondering if this position unfairly burdens the victim into consciously creating open doors while navigating their own hurt. Imagine the expansiveness of this burden when the victim is also of lesser power positionality in comparison to the transgressor.

Research by Overstreet, Pomerantz, Segrist, Ro (2020) who examined reactions to therapists’ apologies to a hypothetical patient after a racial microaggression found regardless of an apology or not, the therapist and potential trust built was fractured beyond repair. This finding suggests that perhaps the art of the apology is to not need one. I will leave one final thought: to me, a high-quality apology is equitable and necessary for any type of mutual vulnerability to be sustained. It acknowledges the microaggression and the historical and systemic context of that aggression or transgression in addition to its impact while concurrently providing a path of action forward that does not burden the victim. When designing equitable student-faculty/staff partnerships (i.e., relationships) and structures for high impact practices, establishing expectations and blueprints for the prevention of microaggressions is critical, but realistic vigilance means that these expectations and blueprints for equitable high-quality apologies and reconciliation must be promoted as well.

Brantmeier, Edward J. “Pedagogy of vulnerability: Definitions, assumptions, and applications.” Re-envisioning higher education: Embodied pathways to wisdom and transformation (2013): 95-106.

Overstreet, Abigail K., Andrew M. Pomerantz, Daniel J. Segrist, and Eunyoe Ro. “Should psychotherapists apologise after microaggressions? An empirical analogue study of perceptions of therapists.” Counselling and Psychotherapy Research 21, no. 2 (2021): 251-259.

Schumann, Karina. “The psychology of offering an apology: Understanding the barriers to apologizing and how to overcome them.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 27, no. 2 (2018): 74-78.

Buffie Longmire-Avital, associate professor of psychology and coordinator of African and African-American studies, is the 2018-2020 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Longmire-Avital’s CEL Scholar project focuses on diversity and inclusion in high-impact practices.

How to Cite this Post

Longmire-Avital, Buffie. 2021, December 14. The High Impact of an Equitable Apology [Blog Post]. Retrieved from