The Insecurity of White People: Apologize and Be Better
On November 4th of last year, as I stood in line at the polls, I received a message from my former fiance. A painful vibration, that shift in our relationship still fresh enough that the notification caused a moment of excitement before I remembered that we were no longer together. “Good to see you in the voting line.” Fuck you, Carl. Though he had a point. I wasn’t the most active participant in the direction of my society. I always voted for president, but that was pretty much it. I never had to do more, as I’m a middle class white girl from the midwest. Life has always been easy without me even needing to realize how easy I had it. I wouldn’t have claimed wokeness necessarily, mostly because I was still learning the exact definition of woke, but I would absolutely deny all racist accusations and consider myself to be well informed, sensitive, compassionate.
The next day, I opened my eyes to a world that was suddenly very different. It would be easy for my next sentence to be, “We all did,” but that would be untrue. For many, namely People of Color and marginalized groups, it was exactly the same. The only difference was that people like me were made aware of what had been the reality of our nation for decades. Centuries. Our nation was built on the notion that POC are lesser humans. That they are disposable. In my Stillwater, Oklahoma public school education, I had been taught that racism was dead, that it was something that we had overcome. But on November 5th, it became apparent to those of us who had been ignoring our problems that they are, in fact, still there. That our nation is still controlled by racism.
There is so much that needs to be said, and many people have been trying to wrap their heads around saying it, including myself. White people are announcing their allyship and stumbling blindly through moral dilemmas, all the while begging the people of color around us for help. A most recent attempt at verbalizing the situation was performed by Tina Fey. I opened up facebook, and there it was. So many people referencing sheet-caking and posting the video. I watched it and laughed. I related. Me too, Tina. I also scream into material that will absorb my voice when I don’t know what else to do. I talked to a few friends about it and we agreed, it is funny. Then I started looking at the reviews. Some people loved it and some people hated it. Immediate think pieces were thrown up online and the perspectives were divided to say the least. I couldn’t help but notice that the positive reviews came almost entirely from my white friends. Defending Fey’s intelligence, her knowledge of comedy and satire, the funniness of her jokes. Defending their right to find her funny and feel comfortable laughing at what she had to say. There were just as many status updates, though, that claimed the opposite, largely from the POC in my feed. This is no surprise, considering Fey’s track record with cultural insensitivity. They rightly criticized her humor, pointing out that she was calling on white people to ignore what is happening in our country, all the while invoking her inherent privilege. Her sketch was an insult.
The comments on the status updates became vicious and pointed, and I thought a lot about apologies and reparations. How hard it is for people to apologize because an apology, when done right, is a recognition of having been wrong. Of having messed up. And a really good apology typically also has a resulting action that comes out of it, where work is done to “make things better.” Intentional or not, what Tina Fey said that night was hurtful and harmful, and if something you say or do harms someone, to deny them their right to be injured is callous and petty. It is not that hard to listen when someone has been caused pain. Also, this is not news, yet white people keep needing people of color to explain what is and is not offensive, when that is definitely not their job. This brings me to emotional labor.
I have a brother with down syndrome. Well, I had a brother with down syndrome. He passed away last year. I am very public about having grown up with a sibling with special needs. If you’ve known me for more than an hour, I have probably talked about him. So it really surprises me every time I hear someone casually say the word retarded. Maybe you’re describing something you saw that you liked, so you’re using it in a positive light. Or maybe someone’s acting like an idiot, so retarded just makes sense as a descriptor. But it is no secret that the word retarded is offensive. To use it in general is a choice that is being made and to use it in front of me, knowing that I have a close connection to the special needs community, is also a choice, and it is just as easy to not say it as it is to say it. At this point in my life, I choose very carefully when to correct someone. Not because I think it’s okay sometimes. It is never okay. But because it exhausts me to have to correct someone else on their bad behavior. The moment I bring it up, the mood will shift, our relationship will change, and I will end up comforting the offender, when it should be the other way around, because by saying something, I have damaged an ego. If I had more confidence that it would go another way, I would speak up more. But I don’t, so I don’t.
This exact situation is something that any person of color in the United States deals with nearly every day of their lives. Being othered in order to accommodate the comfort of a white majority. Taught that the resulting negative feelings (sadness, anger, depression, etc) caused by these microaggressions matter less than the fragile feelings of the aggressor.
So when I see my friends of color taking the time to speak up and say when something is wrong, I listen, because it is exhausting to fight for something that should be inherently understood. I’m ashamed it took me this long to land on this, to hear this, because it’s been communicated for years. There should be no need to ask for explanations or help. POC have been leaving a trail of breadcrumbs through popular culture, outlining the horrors of their everyday life, for decades. Billie Holiday sang about the lynching of black bodies and police brutality when Strange Fruit came on the radio in 1939, but the song is just as applicable today as it was then.
I’m not happy about the election. Donald Trump is not the leader that I had wanted for our nation. But if it takes Donald Trump to force the United States to hold up a mirror and see what has become of it, then fine. I am grateful for the shame that I have felt this past year and the opportunity to work hard every day to be better. I am also hopeful that I am not alone, that the rest of the white people in the country want to step up to the plate and take responsibility for our words and actions. To stop asking for pardons or explanations from the people of color in our country, cause Kendrick Lamar lays it out pretty clear when he says, “I can’t fake humble just cause your ass is insecure.”