The Violence of white (and non-Black PoC) Apologies
Before you apologize to your Black acquaintance, pause and reflect on a few things…
Many Black people will tell you that the past ten days constituted a whirlwind unlike any other. For many of us our phones rang (and continue to ring) off the hook, our DMs full of white people experiencing racial revelation.
The veil now torn, their eyes newly open to the reality of the world around them, they want to talk about it. They want to talk to a Black person about it.
For many white folks, this revelation is coupled with guilt and shame. As such, many Black people are experiencing an overwhelming influx of apologies. Particularly, long overdue apologies for past microaggressions, macroaggressions, and overt racism
Now, before I dive into my critique, let me be very clear, apologies are important. Incredibly important. For those on the other side of harm, apologies provide a space wherein the harmed person is seen and their pain is acknowledged. In a world that renders Black pain invisible, apologies, when done with self-reflexivity, can constitute a very important part of the healing process.
Yet, white America struggles greatly with apology because apology also comes with accountability.
Accountability means examining the root of what caused one’s behavior. In the case of perpetuating anti-Blackness, this means reckoning with one’s own racism. Many white people (and non-Black PoC) are not ready to do this work, the work of both making amends and taking active steps towards being better ( such as reading critical race theory, attending anti-racism workshops, and educating friends and family).
What many white people fail to understand is that when an apology is devoid of accountability, it is doubly harmful to Black people.
For example, in graduate school I initially made space for white apologies, but I quickly learned that accepting these apologies worked against my own sense of self. I found that making space for these apologies turned me into a dumping ground for white guilt. White folks apologized to me as a way to assuage their shame and then continued being problematic and racist both in and out of the classroom.
These apologies worked to make me mistrustful of myself. Racial trauma makes one turn inward. Everytime a white person apologized to me and then wronged me again I thought, “I am so weak. Why am I being so nice? Why did I allow space for this?” I felt unsafe within myself and within the world. These half-ass apologies resulted in moral injury against myself and as a result, I created new boundaries. I am now very critical of both white and non-Black PoC apologies out of fear that I will forgive only to be reinjured in perpetuity.
Now, my DMs full of long-winded sorries and soliloquy-like apologies, I think it’s time that we collectively talk about the violence of white apologies.
So, white folks, before you click send on that text message you wrote to your Black acquaintance, take a deep breath, pause, and consider the following things:
- Are you apologizing to assuage guilt?
I find guilt, in the context of combating racism, to be virtually useless.
White guilt is dangerous because it impedes upon white action. White people can be powerful allies to the movement because society recognizes white people as fully human. As such, white people can leverage their humanity in a multitude of ways. Including but not limited to: interrupting racist incidents (bystander intervention), physically protecting Black people with their bodies (such as during a protest march), and by educating white community members so that Black people are not asked to educate while also reaffirming our humanity.
If you are white person recently experiencing any kind of racial consciousness you will probably experience a flood of realizations, including revelations about times during which your behavior proved to be actively racist. Instead of apologizing right away, sit with the feeling. Sit in the discomfort. Reflect.
Ask yourself: why do I want to apologize to this person? If they react in a way that is unsympathetic towards me, will I get defensive? Will I make this apology about me? Do I want to apologize but not listen to the harm I caused? Am I ready to be confronted with the depths of my own racism? Am I ready to do the work?
Our society does not often ask white people to sit in discomfort, we task Black people with being inconvenienced so that white people are never asked to be. As a Black person, my life on Earth is often uncomfortable because anti-Blackness is a global framework of subjugation. I live in discomfort everyday. I am now asking white people to do the same.
Apologizing is uncomfortable work because we are met with the truth of ourselves, or at the very least, the reality of how we mistreated somebody else. White people, make sure you are ready to see yourself before you even begin to think about apologizing. If not, then your apology will simply be another instance of a white person attempting to emotionally gaslight a Black person so that you do not have to do the work.
Black people cannot be both your punching bag and your God, taking blows while absolving you of any wrongdoing. Do the work. Do not ask us to do it for you.
2. Are you apologizing for public confirmation of your goodness?
I cannot believe I need to say this, but it needs to be said: public declarations of apology and newfound consciousness are almost ALWAYS a miss.
Unless you are a white person with a large platform who also failed miserably in public (which, upon reflection, is a surprisingly large group of white people lol) do not make a public apology or a sudden declaration of your love for Black lives.
All Black people know that dismantling one’s own anti-Blackness takes TIME.
I am Black and I did not come into my own Black consciousness until college during which I exposed myself, through a myriad of Black studies courses, to the painful and magnificent reality of Black history. The America education system is steeped in white supremacy. As such, Black people must work to seek out our own history. We must work to love ourselves. We do the work to develop our Black consciousness and deconstruct our internalized anti-Blackness. It does not just happen, we educate ourselves.
Quick declarations are not believable and honestly, they are tired. I guarantee you almost every Black person scrolled by someone on their timeline who, until recently, proved to be actively racist. Now, suddenly, inexplicably, this person is espousing the importance of Black lives.
Now, it may be true that they are beginning a consciousness shift, but that shift takes time. I recommend doing that work in private. Read, read, read. And read BLACK PEOPLE. Do not read a white critical race theorist. Read Black PEOPLE. Read BLACK WOMEN. Read Black Queer People, Read Black Transwomen. And when you think you are done, read some more.
We do not need public displays of trendy anti-racism, we need folks to join the movement. As a Black person I do the work to strengthen my consciousness daily. White people, you need to do this too.
3. Is your apology the result of a knee-jerk reaction to the current state of the world?
Let me start by saying you should not need to watch a lynching in order to finally see Black pain and examine your own racism. White people, read that twice. And then sit with it.
So, before you hit send on that carefully crafted message that you typed for that one Black acquaintance who you microaggression ten years ago, think about how useful that will actually be to the recipient of the apology.
Ask yourself: What brought about this sudden need to apologize? Did this person already do the labor of explaining their pain and I did not hear them until now? Did we already have a back and forth where I failed to hear them, but now suddenly, I understand? Am I overwhelmed by feelings of shame and guilt and I need to get rid of them? Am I embarrassed?
Oftentimes, white people believe they are apologizing for Black people, but the apology is really for them.
Virtually every time I experience racism from a white person, I see the incident for what it is. The gift of dual sight or double consciousness is that Black people see white people, while white people fail to see us at all. I see through the defensiveness, the over-explaining, the deflection. I see your wrongness, I do not need you to apologize to me decades later because suddenly you see your wrongness too.
An apology a few years later is probably more harmful than helpful. Sometimes it is too little too late. Sometimes the best apology is doing the work and being better to the next Black person/people that you build relationship(s) with.
Ultimately, apologies are deeply personal acts. I am absolutely not saying that white (and non-Black POC) should in any way avoid apologizing. Apologies are of paramount importance, they provide space for healing, closure, and should folks desire it, reconciliation.
However, I am asking that white folks become more self-critical before they apologize. The revolution is self-reflexive. If you know that you need to apologize (and there are many times when you should apologize), do the work of understanding that an apology is not meant to assuage guilt, receive confirmation of your exceptional goodness, or as a knee-jerk fix to global racism. Apologizing is the dual act of recognizing another’s humanity as sacred while also working to dismantle the internalized-ideologies that led you to dehumanize someone in the first place.
Pause. Reflect. Reflect again. Apologize. And then do the work.