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When we discuss the elements of race in America, if we ever do such a thing, there is always an issue with overdoing it. There is a fatigue level that gets reached and once it is crossed, it's next to impossible to continue. So, we have to leave it off and try to start again at a later time.

That's part of the reason why I wanted to give Jona Olsson's essay, "Detour-Spotting," this kind of day by day treatment. Granted, Ms. Olsson manages to stay very concise in her efforts to discuss the problems we face, but it's still a whole lot of material for white people to try to absorb when many of them didn't know or understand that any of this existed before they attempted to look! In that way, we have to take it slow, take some breaks, and try not to let any of this get personal on our journey of discovery and understanding. Making the discussion personal, as we have already covered, will derail the conversation and prevent us from even examining racism in any helpful way, let alone improve or prevent any of it.

Today's topic is appropriate to that thought...

13) The Penitent

“I am so sorry for the way whites have treated your people.” or “I am sorry for the terrible things that white man just said to you.”



Reality Check and Consequence

While there is probably no harm in the “sorry,” if it is not attached to some action taken against racism, it is most often just another expression of white guilt. Being an ally to people of color is not limited to our apology for other white people’s behavior, it must include anti-racist action.


We know there are different kinds of apologies. There are the kind of apologies where a person is truly feeling sorry for what happened and wants to make that be known. But there are also apologies where a person is just sorry they were caught, or are apologizing for convenience sake and is really only sorry about needing to apologize, not about the action taken that caused that need.

It's also difficult because the person apologizing may not believe they themselves have done anything wrong. In that sense, the apology is really merely for show, or to say something placating, or to divert the thought that the apologist thinks the same way as the abuser.

The problem we run into with an apology, when discussing this as part of our conversation about race, is that it's simply a way for white people to assuage their personal feelings over black abuse, a flesh colored band-aid for a broken leg. Additionally, under normal circumstances, when an apology is offered, it is anticipated that the action that required an apology won't readily happen again. That isn't how it goes. Because from every hate filled word said, to every bullet from the gun of a police officer, we know that there will be yet another case of verbal abuse to yet another family mourning a son or daughter, sometimes only days after the previous case. Then, at that time, another apology is offered.

When behaviors do not change, saying sorry is about as hollow a remark as you can make.

But the apology is only meant to make the white person saying it feel better about themselves, so they don't have to think about the system of privilege and oppression that allows them to make such a meaningless comment to someone who has been abused by said system.

The way to make these apologies have meaning is to work towards never having to make them, again. That means becoming an advocate for black people. It means coming to terms with the issues Ms. Olsson has listed here. It means stopping your own racist or unintentional racist behaviors and working with family, friends and neighbors to help them stop their behaviors too.

But, you know, that's an awful lot of work to do, and it's not even an effort that is viewed as something directly benefiting the people being asked to do that work. So, maybe we'll put that off till another day. This is why dealing with the issue of race in America is so difficult. Sacrifice is considered sacrilege and there is a palpable sense that white people are being asked to sacrifice part of what they have come to understand is standard in their lives in order to "be fair." If you view it from that perspective, even supportive white people who want racism to stop might give pause. This goes back to the "Bootstrap Theory" where it's expected that you should work to achieve, not be given anything.

Of course, that ignores the fact that the architecture of white power and privilege was built with black bodies during the slave trade and perpetuated with the concept that white people are the default and anyone else is lower than that. Now that all of that has been established, now white people are ready to "play fair," which, when you view it in those terms, isn't fair at all.

It's the gaps like this - arguing against Affirmative Action, stating that All Lives Matter, suggesting that there is sadness and sorrow over the circumstances that many minorities have to face in this country but then not being willing to lift one finger to help stop those circumstances, that we have these completely different world views and, sure enough, another day has gone by with no changes to prevent or even slow down the process.

Is there any hope of going beyond the perpetual apologies and making the changes needed to stop racism?


Previous thinkposts in this series:

1. Day One - I'm Colorblind
2. Day Two - Bootstrap Theory
3. Day Three - Reverse Racism
4. Day Four - Blame The Victim
5. Day Five - The White Knight
6. Day Six - Lighten Up
7. Day Seven - Don't Blame Me
8. Day Eight - BWAME
9. Day Nine - We Have Overcome
10. Day Ten - The End Run
11. Day Eleven - Due Process
12. Day Twelve - By Association

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