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Anatomy of an Apology in a Racially Charged World: What We Can Learn from Amy Porterfield (#9)

Aug 04, 2020

Most White people I know are horrified at the thought of being accused of any iterations of what I call the R-word: racist, racially insensitive, racially naive, exclusionary, oblivious.

What would you do if someone described you with one of those words?

Now up the ante and imagine you have an international reputation and one of your customers or associates told you that you had displayed one of those attitudes.

This happened to Amy Porterfield, an online course marketing guru and top ranked podcaster, designated one of the “top 50 social media power influencers” by Forbes.  According to her website, Amy has a following of 250,000+ people and seven-figure business. 

Amy built her business partially on her reputation for being open about the travails of entrepreneurship and consciously using herself to provide the best service she could to her aspiring customers.

And then one day some of her Black customers pointed out that she only had White people her age on her podcast. She subsequently sent a series of emails to her email list about what had happened and what she planned to do. 

I was so astonished by how she responded in those emails that I asked if I could excerpt them for this blog. She gave permission and also agreed to be interviewed.

How she handled the situation is the subject of this blog post.

 

The First Email: Amy reveals her discovery

Two weeks after George Floyd's horrific videotaped murder, Amy Porterfield sent an email to her email list declaring, “Business as usual is out the window.”

Subject: Business as usual is out the window

Last week the world changed. 

And while that change is far from being enough, it was a start. 

Millions opened their eyes to the pain that Black people have been experiencing for far too long, myself included. 

I’ve got a lot to learn and like the change happening in the world, this is just the beginning of my personal journey into what racism really is and how I can work to eliminate it from my company and community. 

I want to share some of my stumbling first steps in case you’re walking alongside me…

Stop right there.  My jaw dropped as I tried to fathom what I was reading. To say I was blown away would be an understatement.

She continued:

Last week it was shared with me how many Black women are incredibly frustrated and disappointed with me and my lack of diversity on my podcast. 

Wow. Clear statement of what was wrong.  No need to explain how her intentions were honorable. Just straight-up accountability.

Now I will also freely admit I had definitely noticed her lack of diversity on her podcasts. Every guest was about her age, White, and even somewhat similar in personality. I put aside the lack of diversity as an issue and focused on what she had to offer. Most of my Black friends do the same through habit. We are used to it. We don’t have time to confront every diversity issue we encounter.

But now, with regard to Amy’s podcasts, she is saying that I don’t have to experience an “emotional tax”[2] – that extra mind work of deliberately putting aside her lack of diversity – so I can get what she has to offer in the course. My sense of relief let me know the extent of my emotional tax.

First things first, I fully recognize that this needs to change. It’s not okay and the world is missing out on so many brilliant and unique voices because of my own short-sightedness.  

This was a highly skilled email. Part of me is thinking this is surreal. I work with some sophisticated people on D&I issues, yet this level of accountability and respect was beyond what I’m accustomed to.

After I counted all the guest episodes I’ve ever done, only 10% are with people of color...and most of them are men.

That number is straight-up shameful and disappointing. When I sat down and asked myself WHY, I realized that my inner circle of peers is almost entirely white. 

Before just a few days ago, my feed was full of people that looked exactly like me. I didn’t make any effort to seek out relationships with Black women and therefore did not actively seek their guidance and expertise on my podcast. My podcast guests were a reflection of my circle.

She is acknowledging a major reason why so many people of color are stymied in their organizations: similarity bias.[3] People gravitate towards people like themselves, favor people like themselves, and provide opportunities to those like themselves.

I made a really insensitive mistake for which there are no excuses. Starting now and continuing long after all the protests are over, I’ll be making some changes to “business as usual”.

She described what she would do. First, she planned to feature a podcast on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I). How she planned to position the podcast, however, showed the sophistication of the advice she was receiving and acting on. She declared the podcast would focus on this:

We’re talking about where white women of privilege get it wrong and how we need to show up better. As uncomfortable as this topic is, it’s so important. 

Not many people know what a volatile topic this is and how sensitive Black men and women are to White women.[4] 

Second, she committed to “INTENTIONALLY bring new names of Black women to the table” when they discussed podcast topics. She knew by now to look beyond her own community for new thinking.

Last, she made a critical disclaimer:

These changes don’t erase the past and they don’t fully represent everything that needs to shift in the future.

This acknowledgement is key. Too often, people in power make concessions and when more is expected, they complain, “you want too much.” Amy understands that the changes she will make are only a start.

If you think this description is only about how to get it right in the DE&I arena, think again. In this next set of emails she illustrates how to painfully get it wrong and yet gracefully recoup.

At this point I’m experiencing a resurgence of feelings that have arisen since George Floyd’s death: how permanent are these new commitments – not just with Amy, but with others I have witnessed? Will people maintain their commitment when the pandemic finally lifts? How far will the change go before the national mood shifts to retrenchment. I seesaw between optimism at the change and wariness after centuries of advancement followed by broken promises. I want to believe we are experiencing a fundamental shift.

 

The Second Email: Amy’s first steps turn into missteps

The next day Amy sent a second email. It had likely been preplanned because she was heralding her course on list-building through repeated emails.

Subject: I’m busting these list-building myths for good. Come join?

So many in my community have been asking me for my advice on how to create change right now — and to be completely honest I don’t have the answers. 

I’m learning and actively looking at how I can make my own company more inclusive. 

We’re all asking ourselves some BIG questions and while the answers won’t appear overnight, I’m committed to doing the work for the long haul and I trust that the more questions we collectively ask, the more solutions we’ll be able to drum up. 

So far, so good. She’s explaining that she is continuing to learn about inclusiveness and that she’s in it for the long haul. She doesn’t have all the answers.

You have unique gifts and talents that your next door neighbor might not have.

You have a unique way of creating social change — whether you’re a caregiver or a storyteller or working on the frontlines. 

Just as there are so many different ways to be an agent of change, there are equally as many methods to share your message.

One way of doing that is through email.

I’ve spent a decade teaching list building and today I see it’s about so much more than increasing your reach or your revenue — it’s about bolstering your ability to create a ripple effect of positive change.

You’ve probably heard a lot lately about the value of building your email list, right?

What just happened? It looks like a bait and switch. One minute she’s talking about being an effective change agent and the next she moves into marketing her list-building course. My heart sank.

Now there is nothing wrong with marketing a course. We in Leading Consciously plan to do it this fall when we tell you about our online course on leadership in a multicultural world. 

Amy’s mistake was making an inartful connection between the societal transformation toward antiracism and her course on list-building that had nothing to do with it.

This is exactly one of the frequent complaints many Black women have about White women. In the vernacular, too often White women usurp our pain, often beyond their awareness.[2]

 

The Third Email: A pause and a mystery

Amy had previously announced she would hold a special Facebook live event introducing her list building course. Unexpectedly, she sent a very short email saying she was canceling the event and would explain why later after she gathered her thoughts.

 

The Fourth Email: A second apology

Subject: why I cancelled my FB Live yesterday

Hi there, Jean. As promised, I wanted to let you know why I cancelled my Facebook Live yesterday.

The email I sent yesterday morning included a mistake that was brought to my attention. The mistake I made was to link the Black Lives Matter movement with list building, which is one of the ways I make money.

Although there is nothing wrong with teaching list building as I had planned to do in my live yesterday, what I have learned is that redirecting the conversation and importance of the Black Lives Matter Movement back to my work (where I will profit) is wrong.

It is wrong because it is capitalizing on the movement and inserting myself as the teacher, when I am not. I now understand my mistake.

I am so very sorry.

Thank you to those who were kind enough to point out my error. I appreciate your time, effort, and conversations.

I am committed to staying in this movement, learning, sharing my lessons and fighting for what is right, even when I get it wrong.

I invite you to join me on this forever journey.

The apology in her first email was powerful. In this, her fourth email, she hits a homerun. Here she declares that she understands where she went wrong and provides evidence to show that she really does get it.

So often people will declare “I understand,” and then get angry if you ask them for evidence. Amy didn’t fall into that trap. She knew the proof was on her to demonstrate understanding and she forthrightly provided it. 

Briefly, but clearly, she explains that she is not in a position to connect the Black Lives Matter movement to her work. She even added the extra touch of thanking those who pointed out her mistake.

She ended this email by declaring that even though she had made this error she was not giving up on her commitment and that she would share what she was learning “even when I get it wrong.” And last she acknowledged it is not a one and done, it’s a “forever journey” and she is in it for the long haul.

 

Lessons learned

What can we learn from Amy’s experience? 

First, she displayed remarkable courage in acknowledging her mistakes at the risk of public shaming. Her personal integrity and sense of obligation to her readers overrode the risk she faced in publicly acknowledging her insensitivity, however inadvertent.

Robin DeAngelis’s book on White Fragility[5] has made the bestseller list because its message has touched a nerve. “White women’s tears” has become a meme because when confronted with their racially insensitive behavior, too often some White women have burst into tears with the result that they garner sympathy and escape accountability. 

Since DeAngelis’s book came out, I have seen a change already – organizations updating their approaches to diversity and inclusion. White men and women more freely acknowledging their uncertainty and willingness to learn. Black people speaking up more frequently when we encounter insensitivities.  I wrote about revelations about personal friends of mine in a previous blog.

This is uncertain terrain. Guilt. Anger. Sadness. Hope. Protests. Pandemic. None of us have the answers.

Yet in the middle of this turmoil, Amy showed the antithesis of White fragility – courage in the face of news that contradicted her own self-image. When confronted with her own insensitivity, she instead went public, apologized, and set about making amends so that she would not fall into the same pitfall again. This is conscious use of self in action, deliberately using her mind, body, and emotions to facilitate positive interactions and influence with others. She is aware of and taking responsibility for how she shows up to others. 

Amy braved that difficult terrain by demonstrating the anatomy of a successful apology:[6]

  • A clear explanation of what happened
  • Empathy toward those harmed
  • An apology as quickly as possible
  • Remorse
  • Steps to atone
  • Changes in how she does business and her own personal learning

Now I don’t know what Amy went through to get to this point. We will find out because she has agreed to be interviewed. What we do know is that whatever emotional upset she went through, she pulled herself out of it and turned to face the reality.

I’ve never had to apologize to 250,000 people. Hopefully if and when my turn comes, I’ll be as up to the task. 


Leading Consciously concepts and skills covered in this blog post:

  • Conscious use of self
  • Bridging differences
  • Effective apologies

Questions for you:

  1. How do you imagine you would react if someone accused you of being racially or otherwise insensitive? How would you want to react?
  2. Think of the last time you apologized to someone. Which of the elements of a successful apology did you use?

I encourage you to share your journey in the comments. We’re all learners here. 

#conscioususeofself #bridgingdifferences #amyporterfield #georgefloyd #organizationalchange #blackwomenwhitewomen #howtoapologize


[1] https://www.amyporterfield.com/about/

[2] Travis, D. J., & Thorpe-Moscon, J. (2018). Day-to-Day Experiences of Emotional Tax Among Women and Men of Color in the Workplace: A Research Report. New York, NY: Catalyst. 

[3] Roberson, Q. M. (2019). Diversity in the Workplace: A Review, Synthesis, and Future Research Agenda. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 6(1), 69-88; Goldberg, C. B. (2005). Relational Demography and Similarity-Attraction in Interview Assessments and Subsequent Offer Decisions: Are we Missing Something? Group & Organization Management, 30(6), 597-624. 

[4] Duster, M. (2019). From the suffrage movement to the women's march: black women's fight for inclusion. Black History Bulletin, 82(2), 10; Bell, E. L., & Nkomo, S. M. (2001). Our separate ways:  Black and white women and the struggle for professional identity. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

[5] DiAngelo, R. J. (2018). White fragility: why it's so hard for White people to talk about racism. Boston: Beacon Press.

[6] Hill, K. M., & Boyd, D. P. (2013). The Components of a Successful CEO Apology. Journal of Business Case Studies (Online), 9(2), 89-n/a.

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