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Monday, June 23, 2008
Apologizing for an error in judgment

By Jemele Hill
Page 2

I know where to begin. I just don't know how to explain.

The beginning is easy: I'm sorry.

I'm sorry for being thoughtless and insensitive.

I'm sorry for making a casual reference to something that should never be construed as casual.

Real apologies don't mix with rationalizations, so I won't insult your intelligence by offering you any.

This isn't about my editors because even if the word "Hitler" never appeared in the posted column last Saturday, that doesn't change the fact that I wrote it and, at the time, found humor in making a moronic comparison between a man who was responsible for killing millions to Detroiters who root for the Boston Celtics.

This is about my living up to a standard I expect of everyone else -- respect, awareness, honesty and accountability.

Rob King, the editor-in-chief of ESPN.com, once said something I've never forgotten. I'm paraphrasing, but if we truly want to see racial progress, you have to be willing to be the dumbest person in the room, a person who can admit to being in need of education.

I wish I'd raised my hand before writing that column last week.

In January, I wrote about Kelly Tilghman, the Golf Channel anchor who was suspended two weeks for joking on the air that young players should "lynch [Tiger Woods] in a back alley." I wrote, "... those who, like Woods, believed this is a 'non-issue' would understand that the word 'lynch' is off-limits to most blacks, just as joking about the Holocaust is off-limits to most Jews."

I got too comfortable with my own knowledge and history of dealing with racial issues. I forgot to ask questions, perhaps subconsciously thinking I knew it all. I've served on numerous diversity panels, and regularly work with the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports. I had a this-would-never-happen-to-me attitude, instead of a let-me-make-sure-this-doesn't happen-to-me attitude. I dropped my guard. I got caught up in being cutesy and wrote something stupid.

I let you down.

Just because I'm a black woman doesn't mean I've got an automatic sensitivity chip for cultures outside of my own. Just because I've written extensively about race doesn't render me incapable of making the same mistakes as the people I've written about.

In the Tilghman column, I wrote, "While I don't believe [Tilghman] is a racist, I certainly wouldn't classify what she said as a 'slip.' A cussword is a slip. This was a constructed, racial scenario that is a frightening reminder for some people in this country."

The moment I put "Hitler" and "victim" in the same sentence, I did the exact same thing. It doesn't matter that my intent was to use hyperbole to bolster the humor. I hammered a flash point.

"We are so bombarded with images that are both positive and negative that sometimes it's hard to separate them," said Dr. Richard Lapchick, who directs the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports and is an occasional columnist for ESPN.com. "When you're so used to hearing things, no matter how sensitive you are, you can get caught up in a moment of passion, or someone trying to rally a certain image, or how they're feeling that they don't think through what it might mean to other people. Even though it's the last thing some people might intend to do, you don't foresee the impact."

I once wrote about Don Imus that "speech is free, but consequences are not." I never want to be the exception to that rule, and I'm not sure any of us want to live in a world where hurtful things are hurled around without cost.

My consequence is losing some of my credibility, and for me, that's a stiff penalty. You don't always have to agree with me, but every time you choose to visit this column space, you're placing a certain trust in me. That trust has been shaken. In fact, it might never be regained. That hurts.

I learned some good and some not-so-good things about people during the week of my suspension. I've learned who my friends are. I've learned Boston Celtics fans sure do know how to make the most out of e-mail.

When it comes to race, uncomfortable is best. How can we learn if we always feel good about where we are? The best checks and balances require that we re-evaluate, learn and grow.

With that set firmly in mind, I'd like to make a promise. I promise to be the same columnist I was before -- the one who gets on your nerves, makes you think and laugh. But on one condition: I'll be better and wiser than before.

I'm not going to stop writing about race. It's just that the next time I do, I'll be carrying an enhanced perspective.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.