Food For Thought: White Lies & I Apologize
Over the weekend, I took some time to reflect on Maurice Berger, an author and brilliant voice of our time who lost his life several months ago due to complications from COVID-19. During his life, Berger authored several pieces of work on the topic of race, including White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1999). Albeit a couple of decades old, White Lies is an “oldie but goodie” and continues to support me and the work I do for racial justice. On the topic of racsim, Berger penned:
“The worst kind of racism was no longer just in Memphis, no longer just in the segregated schools of Little Rock: it was in our living room, and there was no way I could ignore it.”
The notion of racism being in our living rooms, residing right in our homes, is resonating with so many of us nowadays. And while not the case for all members of their community, many white people are becoming increasingly aware of the ways in which racism flows through veins of this country. With every passing day, white people are witnessing and absorbing the havoc, violence, and trauma that racism leaves (and has always left) in its path.
Given their position within an intensely racialized structure in America, Black and communities of color have long known the extent of racism’s destruction. Yet, for several people in the white community, the veil of racism has been lifted in such a way that they are finally being incessantly exposed to the very raw and ugliness of racism. Unable to escape this acute exposure, there is an increase of white people who are feeling a strong sense of urgency to engage in the collective pursuit of racial justice with compassion, conviction, and confidence. The unraveling of racism’s veil has moved some white people to grapple and feel their way into that gut wrenching realization that the racist aggressions directed towards marginalized communities is in fact an attack to their own community and humanity.
Racism is not a monster that is just lurking somewhere “out there.” Racism is not just out in these streets kneeling on necks, chasing life down a quiet southern road, spraying bullets in a residence with sleeping occupants, or using 911 as a direct threat and weapon. The monster is both in our streets and within us. While, as Berger suggests, racism lurks in our living rooms, it then follows us outside of our homes, as we then become hosts of racism, embodying the hatred and ego it needs to breathe. Within us, racism emerges as an active terror in our boardrooms, our PTA meetings, our philanthropic agendas, our social justice nonprofit orgs, and our pulpits. This monster is absolutely all up and through our education system and political landscape. Racism, rooted in our homes, has branched out. It is everywhere. And it is rampant.
For white people, apologizing and feeling sorry (either for themselves and/or Black and communities of color) is perhaps the knee jerk reaction upon realizing the work of racism all around them. For some, stepping into an apologetic stance — a stance that is assumed to be appropriate and needed, is not an issue. Yet, for others, the very thought of having to apologize for racism invokes a visceral reaction of disdain and indignation. An example of such an reaction is in the response of a reader to one of my writing pieces when they state:
“Your ideology that all white people need to self-flagellate over our history and our ancestors, the ones who built one of the greatest societies the world has ever known, is not a reasonable system of belief. Frankly it’s absurd. It flies in the face of reality, history, and sanity.”
Notwithstanding the notion that such a visceral reaction is in and of itself a manifestation of racism, for this reader (and those who may hold the same position), I offer that I have never heard any Black person forthrightly exclaim to any white person, “if you would just apologize, that would magically cast away racism once and for all, and we would at last all enjoy that ‘post-racial America’ we keep hearing y’all talk about.” So why haven’t we heard this from traditionally impacted voices? Because impacted voices and communities do not want apologies. Marginalized people don’t care if a “newly woke” white person ‘self-flagellates’ or not.
To be clear: nobody gives a damn about apologies. As far as racism is concerned, we are way past “I’m sorry.” The focus is no longer on words for justice. The focus is on actions towards justice. It is really just that plain and simple.
Pro-tip: Apologies mean nothing. Actions mean everything.
For those who choose to step into the muddy waters of race in America, we have a great work before us. The work is absolutely ambitious in that it requires us to infuse justice, equity, and inclusion in a country that — while it knows how to pronounce and pontificate on the importance of these terms, inherently and intentionally holds an identity that is antithetical to these values. With such an audacious mission, there is literally no time and no room for “I’m sorry” nor will these words shift the needle toward justice in any meaningful way. To this point, Berger wrote:
“As I sit alone in my office, in the dark, in the middle of the night, the idea of atonement seems hollow and fruitless. Only the personal everyday choices I make in the world of racial interactions, and not some abstract or ritualistic gesture of apologizing or of being forgiven, will really make a difference. In the process, I realize, I will always be watching myself.”
Racial justice does not hinge upon ‘I apologize’ from white people. Rather, our collective justice demands a commitment to constantly interrogate the “personal everyday choices” we make in our racial interactions.
It has been said that the best form or an apology is changed behavior. If we hold this to be true, then here’s the CTA for white people:
Be open and vulnerable with yourself enough to sit with the observations that come to you on the ways in which you have been conditioned as a white person, and how this conditioning around race has impacted the ways you think about race, the ways you feel about race, and the ways in which this conditioning has constricted your ability to hold the humanity of others. Be open to sitting with the ways in which your conditioning as a white person manifests in your thoughts, actions, (in)actions, and silence. And from that point, be bold enough to change behaviors that hinder you and I from experiencing a wholeness that we are longing for and deserve —you know, that wholeness also known as justice.
May my words resonate with you. If not, that’s cool too. It’s just food for thought.
Mother. Teacher. Agitator. S. Rae Peoples is a top writer in racism on Medium and the founder and principal consultant of Red Lotus Consulting, a race equity and service boutique. Her writings and opinions have been published in the Washington Post, the East Bay Express, the Oakland Post, BlogHer, as well as Young, Fabulous and Self-Employed magazine. Currently based in Boston, S. Rae is a student affairs administrator at an art school and serves as Co-Chair of the Board of Directors for North Atlantic Books.