Today I’m thrilled to share an original essay from Nadia Owusu. Earlier this year, I read her memoir Aftershocks with my Literati bookclub — and was in awe of both her story and her talent as a writer. (You may recognise the title from my book recommendations list a few issues back.)
In Podium today, Nadia writes about apologies — on how well (or poorly) we apologise to each other. I hope you’ll share your own experiences or reflections in the comments.
The apologies came by text and email. The first was from a man I didn’t know well. I’ll call him Jared. His number was not in my phone, and I assumed he’d asked one of our several mutual friends for mine.
“I don’t know if you remember me,” he wrote.” After a sentence or two more of reintroduction—the where and when of our encounters—he got to the point. For an argument we’d had about racism at a dinner party eight years earlier, he wanted to apologize. I remembered him, and I remembered the argument.
I was seated next to Jared at the dinner table. To everyone present, he told a story about feeling threatened by a “big Black guy” whom he believed had attempted to follow him home the night before. I remember waiting for somebody else to interrupt or ask questions. When nobody did, I asked how Jared knew that the man was following him. Jared said that it was instinctual. I asked what happened next, and he said that he’d run as fast as he could and ducked into a bar where he’d had a beer and a shot of tequila.
“Did the man chase you?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “I didn’t look back.”
I remember taking deep breaths and considering my words carefully. I thought of all the men I loved who fit Jared’s description of the man from whom he’d fled—relatives, friends, neighbors. I thought about how they sometimes crouched and slumped to appear smaller, held their hands behind their backs in elevators. I asked Jared if he thought it possible that the man was simply walking home, as he had been. He said that it wasn’t. I pushed, suggesting that Jared’s fear might have been rooted in stereotypes he had internalized about Black men being violent. As a point to ponder, I noted his use of the phrase big Black man.
I purposely didn’t say the words bias, profiling, or racism. Still, Jared became very agitated. He spoke adamantly and at length about how open-minded he was. He argued that, in America, racism had all but been eradicated, except in a few pockets. I remember him laughing and saying something to the effect of, “Actually, as a straight white man, I’m more likely to be discriminated against than almost anyone.” I remember vehemently disagreeing. We both raised our voices. He told me to calm down. The table fell silent. I’m almost certain that I was the only Black person in the room. From everyone else present, I could sense deep discomfort.
Although I believed that I was right, their silence and discomfort caused me to feel shame. Their frowning mouths and darting eyes seemed to say that I’d ruined their fun. I was angry that they had not felt implicated in what Jared had said, or compelled to address it. I felt ashamed for feeling ashamed.
What does it matter what they think when I spoke up for my values? I asked myself. But, it did matter to me. As I often do after such arguments, I felt rotten. Conflict scares me. Afterwards, I worry and obsess: Had I spoken coherently or lost the thread? Had I shown too much vulnerability? Should I have just walked away? What would I lose from speaking up? I like to be liked. Yet, silence, for me, is rarely an option. When witnessing what I perceive as injustice, my body shakes. Even through pursed lips, the words often burst from my mouth. Sometimes I see this as righteousness. Sometimes, uncomfortably, reluctantly, I recognize self-righteousness. An inflexibility. A hardening.
In the argument with Jared, I had almost, but not quite, succeeded in keeping the self-righteousness out. But, it likely wouldn’t have made any difference had my comportment been impeccable. I sensed myself, in Jared’s mind, being caricatured and thus easily disregarded. I was a woman, angry and Black.
I don’t remember how the argument ended, but I know that later that night, I received several texts from people who were at the dinner party. They thanked me for speaking up. Nobody, however, apologized for their silence. After our argument, whenever I ran into Jared, my skin prickled. I’d say a quick hello and excuse myself to find the bathroom or to talk to somebody—anybody—else.
“With everything that’s been going on lately,” Jared’s text read, “I thought of you. I was so wrong that night, and I’m sorry.”
His apology arrived in June of 2020, a month after George Floyd, a forty-six-year-old unarmed Black man, was killed in Minneapolis by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer. Bystanders captured video of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck, Floyd repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe,” and crying out for his mother.
Floyd’s death closely followed those of Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed by police during a botched raid on her apartment, and Ahmaud Arbery who was killed by three armed white men while out for a jog near his home in Georgia. The men who killed Arbery claimed that he looked like a man suspected in several break-ins in the area. Both Taylor and Arbery were Black.
Reading the stories about Taylor and Arbery, and watching the footage of Floyd’s death, I felt physical pain—in my chest, in my shoulders, behind my eyes. It was difficult, in the days and weeks after, to focus on my work or on chopping vegetables for dinner. I’d walk to the store and then forget what I was doing there. My mind returned often to George Floyd crying out for his mother. My knees would go weak; my throat would tighten. I had a recurring nightmare: I stood in a doorway looking out onto a dark street. In the distance, I could hear my brother calling for help. I ran in the direction of his voice, but I couldn’t find him. I couldn’t keep him safe. When my eyes opened, my fears—of not being able to keep my brother and other loved ones safe—did not dissipate. Those fears were well-founded in the waking world. According to the database Mapping Police Violence, Black Americans are nearly three times as likely as white Americans to be killed by police. Over a life course, about 1 in every 1,000 Black men can expect to be killed by police.
My fears, and the violent truths from which they grow are very much related to Jared’s insistence that he had been followed that night eight years ago by a “big Black man.” They are related to three armed white men chasing Ahmaud Arbery and killing him because they believed he fit a description. They are related to Derek Chauvin pressing his knee into George Floyd’s neck even after Floyd had stopped moving.
In my argument with Jared, I had avoided using the words bias, profiling, or racism, but those were the forces I tried to press him into acknowledging, in the world and in himself. Back then, he had been unable or unwilling to do so. But, now, I was so wrong that night, he texted, and I’m sorry. But, what, specifically, was he sorry for? For being wrong about racism not existing? For the biases alive in him? For denying those biases? For George Floyd’s death? For the 1 in 1,000? For the silence of others at the dinner table? For telling me to calm down? For the shame I’d felt about my raised voice? For the sadness and fear I felt then and now? For racism generally? For America? His phrasing was vague. I wasn’t sure how to interpret it. I didn’t ask.
“Thanks,” I texted back. I added and then deleted a period, hit send. Why did I delete the period? To mirror the openness of his apology? To signal the ongoingness of the forces that fueled our argument? What was I thanking him for, exactly? Did my thanks mean that I accepted his apology? I’m still not sure. I felt that I had to respond, and thanks was the best I could manage. From the pain and sleepless nights, I was exhausted.
Soon after Jared’s apology, I received several more. More than five, fewer than ten, all of them from white people with whom, at some point or another, I’d had an uncomfortable conversation or disagreement about racism. Of some of the events the apologies referred to, I had no recollection. Most of the messages were as vague as Jared’s had been:
I was ignorant about a lot of issues, and I’m sorry.
I’m sorry for the times when I didn’t speak up.
I really respect you and I’m sorry if I was ever dismissive.
“Thanks,” I replied to each of these, automatically and without punctuation.
But, two of the apologies were from close friends. Both recalled a specific event, and unlike Jared’s apology, there was also mention of intentions and steps taken to reflect and change behavior. And, both included acknowledgments of how I, and other Black people, might be feeling in that moment. Plus, offers of support if I needed it—a listening ear, a glass of wine on Zoom, or a socially distanced coffee in a park.
At that time, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were all grieving. Many of us still are: The people we’ve lost. The places we loved that were now closed to us, or closed to everyone, forever. Our routines and indulgences. Who we’d been in public, offscreen. And, some people were only just starting to question their obstinate faith in the existence of unassailable conditions, or at least in what they’d viewed, whether they admitted it or not, as reasonable safeguards protecting them, above others, from the worst impacts of disaster.
Of course, the degree to which one felt safe before March of 2020 was a matter of advantage and disadvantage, of privilege, tied to global and national power dynamics, rooted in colonization, extraction, and oppression. Rooted in racism. But, privilege, particularly related to race, is a fraught concept in the United States where many people cling, despite enormous evidence, and despite the whole history of this country, to the idea that one’s wealth and comfort result largely from one’s own effort and specialness. The fallacy of this, too, was being brought into stark relief.
I imagined, or at least liked to imagine, that if we recreated the dinner party Jared and I had attended eight years earlier, Jared’s assertions that racism had all but been eradicated, and that straight white men were most likely to experience discrimination, would have received additional challenges. Widely, it has been reported that Native American, Latinx, and Black Americans were disproportionately dying from Covid-19 due to systemic racism. That Black and Latinx Americans were at greater risk of losing their livelihoods because they were less likely to have jobs that could be done from home, and because they have fewer financial resources to draw upon in the case of lost income or illness. But, of course, we weren’t having or attending dinner parties then, or at least I wasn’t. Also widely reported were stories of very wealthy Americans using their resources not to help those who were immensely suffering, but instead to preserve as much of their own lifestyles as possible. By, for example, paying thousands of dollars for private rapid testing, traveling by private jet and yacht, and hosting lavish parties on private islands.
Friends and relatives told me that the apologies I was receiving were part of a trend. They were receiving them too. Reactions were varied.
Some people were appreciative, and even moved, by the messages. “It made me feel less crazy,” one friend told me about an apology from a childhood friend. This friend is a Black woman who grew up in a predominantly white community and attended predominantly white schools. When, as a teen, she’d pointed out instances of casual racism to friends, she’d largely been dismissed as overly sensitive or humorless.
A few people told me that they were annoyed by the apologies. That they thought they were more about assuaging the senders’ own guilt rather than making amends. Others, like me, were unsure what to make of them. We didn’t want to dismiss even the more lukewarm apologies we received as wholly insincere, but we had questions. Why now? What was all this apologizing about? What was it really about? What would change? If little or nothing, then did the apologies matter?
Meanwhile, also growing was the discourse about national apologies and accountability. About repair. About reparations—compensation for historical and current wrongs, as part of an effort to make amends, in this case to the descendants of enslaved people. These issues were at the heart of the racial justice protest movement that swept across the United States, and also many other countries, following George Floyd’s murder. The response to the movement, from political leaders and private and public institutions has been loud, if not always meaningful.
Many U.S. Corporations publicly shared statements apologizing for racism and discrimination in their histories and cultures, and for failing to contribute to addressing structural racism. Altogether, they pledged $50 billion toward racial equity, according to a study from Creative Investment Research. But in May, the firm said that only $250 million has been spent or devoted to a specific initiative.
In a landmark report, the human rights chief of the United Nations urged countries worldwide to increase efforts to end discrimination, violence, and systemic racism against people of African descent and “make amends,” including through reparations.
And, the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. Congress approved H.R. 40, a bill first introduced by late Michigan Rep. John Coyners in 1989, aimed at creating a federal commission to study “the lingering negative effects of the institution of slavery” in the U.S., including ongoing economic, social, and political discrimination, and to develop proposals for “appropriate remedies,” including potential reparations for Black Americans. To be enacted, the bill will need to be brought to a full vote and approved on the floor of Congress.
In the debate about H.R. 40, and about a national apology and reparations for slavery and racial injustice more broadly, activists use many of the same terms and criteria used by my friends, relatives, and I in our discussions and evaluation of the sincerity of the apologies we received in the spring and summer of 2020. Were specific hurtful actions named? Did the apology suggest a genuine understanding of the nature of the hurt? Was full responsibility taken, or was it diluted with excuses? Was feedback sought and listened to without defensiveness? Were commitments made to behavior change? And, where the nature and depth of the hurt warranted it, were steps outlined toward redress, restitution, or reparation?
In 2008 and 2009, the U.S. Congress and Senate separately apologized for slavery and the Jim Crow laws that enforced the racial segregation and inequities that still persist to this day. In their apologies, though, the two houses disagreed on language, exposing fissures and undercutting the sincerity. Both houses wrote that their branch ‘apologizes to African Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow …’ But, the Senate went on to write that ‘Nothing in this resolution – (A) authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or (B) serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.’ An apology with a disclaimer. An “I’m sorry, but...”
As I thought about the slew of apologies I received last year, and about the larger forces shaping the ways that people of different races relate to one another in the United States, I also found myself reflecting on how well (or poorly) I apologize in my own life.
I am someone who apologizes often. I say sorry for responding to an email a day after I received it, for needing to go to the bathroom or to get a drink of water during a meeting, for being shoved into someone on a crowded train, for asking a question, for crying. In this, I am not alone. Much has been written about how women, especially young women, apologize too often. But, what about when it comes to causing real hurt? How do I apologize then? How sincerely? The picture was not pretty. I’ve often said “sorry, but…” I’ve focused on my intention over the impact of my actions. I’ve used vague language. When I’ve hurt people, even when I’ve been truly remorseful, I’ve avoided consideration of how I must change my behavior. The grade I give myself: Needs Improvement. I’m quite certain that my siblings and my husband, for example, would agree.
“I’m sorry for being consistently late to meet you,” I recently told my sister Yasmeen, “but work has been crazy.”
“I’m sorry if you feel that I dismissed your feelings,” I told my husband, right before launching into a list of counter-complaints.
These examples are small. My sister and husband love me despite my bad apologies. But, if we can’t apologize sincerely for small hurts we cause to the people we love most, who are most likely to easily accept, then what chance do we have to repair serious hurt and secure reparations for historical harm?
Perhaps my discomfort with responding to the apology texts and emails I received last year was not just because I was tired. Perhaps it was also because there were things in myself I wasn’t yet prepared to examine. And isn’t self-examination an important step toward accountability? Isn’t it the difference, or an important part of the difference, between self-righteousness and righteousness?