There is a formula when it comes to apologizing for racist events. This time it’s not enough.
TRIGGER ALERT: If this piece upsets you, it’s probably a good sign that it is about you. And if it makes you angry, I ain’t sorry. My name is not “Mammy,” and I’m not here to soothe you.
It seems that every week, we get another canned “apology” that is as much of an affront as the racist incident itself.
So we see the pattern:
- White person freely expresses his or her racism, and that act goes viral.
- There’s a social-media backlash and demands for accountability ensues.
- If those engaging in racism experience consequences such as getting kicked off a team or out of school, they hastily offer a so-called apology to save their asses.
- Don Lemon blames hip-hop.
- Fox News laments the liberal media.
- The “good Blacks” offer words and/or images designed to convey forgiveness of the racist and rush toward reconciliation.
We’ve watched this White-supremacist life cycle play out repeatedly in recent weeks. We saw the internet blow up over the video of White Sigma Alpha Epsilon brothers at the University of Oklahoma on a bus, enjoying a boisterous racist chant about how they’ll never allow “ni**ers” into their frat, with references to lynching thrown in for good measure.
The university banned the fraternity and expelled two of the students from school. Last week, ringleader Levi Pettit and star of the video, went on a damage-control campaign that could have been devised by Olivia Pope: He met with civic leaders at a Baptist Church in a predominantly Black neighborhood. He held a press conference where, instead of offering an actual direct apology, Pettit read the letter he’d previously sent to the university president expressing his remorse.
“Some have wondered why I hadn’t spoken out publicly. The truth is I have had a mix of pain, shame, sorrow and fear over the consequences of my actions,” said Pettit, whose voice quivered slightly as he spoke. “I did not want to apologize to the press or to the whole country until I first came to apologize to those most directly impacted.”
This dude even read his own signature at the end of his recycled apology: “
With deepest apologies, Levi Pettit.”
Read the full transcript of Pettit’s remarks, annotated by Kellee Hough.
What was more ridiculous was the optics: There was Pettit, scrubbed up and prepped-out in his classic blue blazer and tie, begging for forgiveness. He was flanked by a group of friendly Black folks that looked like they were from 1-800-Rent-a-Negro. They’re not acceptable in his fraternity, but Black people are surely welcome at his one-stop apology tour, posing to suggest support, empathy and forgiveness, lending an air of Black cred to the sideshow. I fully expected them to burst into a rendition of the classic plantation anthem “Dixie” at any time.
Though Pettit coyly refused to reveal the origins of the racist chant, NBC News reported that frat members learned it at a national event four years earlier. OU President David Boren wrote in a recent letter to the fraternity’s executive director that, “While there is no indication that the chant was part of the formal teaching of the national organization, it does appear that the chant was widely known and informally shared amongst members on the leadership cruise.”
That’s right: Students learned the popular lynching chant on a leadership cruise. Was the name of the ship the U.S.S. Confederacy? Did David Duke offer a seminar called “10 steps to becoming dynamic White supremacist leaders of future America?”
Digest that while we examine the case of Mo’Ne Davis, who skyrocketed to national fame as a 13-year-old female baseball phenom in the 2014 Little League World Series, with skills so fierce that she was named AP’s Female Athlete of the Year, and then rocked the cover of Sports Illustrated—and now she’s going to see her life on the big screen in a movie made by Disney.
Which apparently was too much for White male college baseball player, Joey Casselberry of Bloomsburg University, who tweeted,
“Disney is making a movie about Mo’Ne Davis? WHAT A JOKE. That slut got rocked by Nevada.”
The university swiftly tweeted that Casselberry was axed from the team.
Cassleberry offered this half-assed excuse for an apology via Twitter before deactivating his account, according to Philly.com:
“An example that one stupid tweet can ruin someone’s life and I couldn’t be more sorry about my actions last night,” he wrote. “I please ask you to … forgive me and truly understand that I am in no way shape or form a sexist, and I am a huge fan of Mo’Ne. She was quite an inspiration.”
Isn’t it interesting that he apologized for being sexist, but not racist?
The public discourse on the larger significance of his tweet and the deficiencies in his faux apology was limited—until Mo’Ne Davis responded by forgiving him and requesting that University President David Soltz reinstate Casselberry.
“While I admit I was pretty hurt when I read [Casselberry’s] comments,” she wrote, “I felt sad that he was dismissed from the team … I am sure Joey Casselberry has worked very hard to get where he is and dreams of playing in the major leagues. For this reason, I’m asking you to please allow him back on the team so that he can continue to chase his dream. He made one dumb mistake. I’m sure he would go back and change it if he could. We all make mistakes and deserve to be forgiven. I hope you will give him a second chance and allow him to play.”
Despite Davis’s request, the university stated in an email to the Washington Post that, “Bloomsburg University stands firm on our decision; however, his consequences will be reviewed as is common in disciplinary actions like this.”
What doesn’t happen is anything that might actually help to address or eradicate the institutional racism behind all of these so-called “accidental” chants, slurs and attacks. The apology is not about accountability or transformation, or even the act itself, but for violating the rules and etiquette of 21st-century America that allows for systemic racism, daily forms of racial violence, and persistent inequity as long as you keep your personal racism in a locked closet.
The apologies are, in fact, necessary, to maintain the existence of White supremacy. They work to make racism about individuals who are inherently good, but made a mistake. They are about ignorance that can be easily rectified through personal transformation. Apologies are about highlighting the goodness of White people, from those who “own their mistakes” to those who know never to do such horrible things. Apologies are about the goodness of a nation, marching toward a more perfect racial union. Apologies, thus, erase the entrenched anti-Black racism, and the connection between these incidents and the regimes of White supremacy.
It is not a coincidence that both Pettit and Casselberry are expressing outrage at the possibility of Blacks entering into Greek life and baseball, worlds historically reserved for White folks. Their attacks are part of a long history of threats and protectionism, and how anti-Black violence is used to protect the sanctity of “their” spaces from the intrusion of Black bodies.
What’s especially disturbing about the Mo’Ne Davis case is what it underscores about Black childhood: that Black children are never viewed as pure, innocent, or worthy of protection. The tweet reveals it, but the obsession over her response illustrates the lack of care and concern for her innocence.
Where were Davis’s parents when she was on national TV being grilled by a White man about being called a slut for everyone to see? What White parents would even allow their young child to even be put in that situation? Where’s the Williams sisters’ father when you need him?
What’s most problematic is the combination of sexualized attacks on Black children and positioning victims as saviors of their attackers.
As Britney Cooper wrote in Salon:
“Black girls learn almost from the womb to empathize with others, even when those others have committed deep injustices toward us. Perhaps it is the unparalleled level of our suffering that makes us always look with empathy upon others.
Lest we think this inappropriate sexual shaming of Black girls is an isolated incident, let us not forget that in 2013, The Onion ‘jokingly’ referred to then 9-year-old actress Quvenzhané Wallis, as a ‘c*nt’ in reference to her Oscar nomination that year forBeasts of the Southern Wild.”
Cooper is right, and we must also acknowledge the long and continuing history of sexualizing Black children. This is all central to White supremacy: denying innocence to Black children. Anyone who expected this child to respond has contributed to denying her access to the protected category of childhood. Mo’Ne should have NEVER had to respond to questions about some grown-ass White man calling her a slut! Damn.
The bigger issue, though, is the paradigm of slur-consequences-faux apology-and Black absolution that frames these and so many other situations.
This reflexive, near-obsessive push for insta-forgiveness just perpetuates the problems of deeply entrenched racism. The rush to appease “White fragility,” to protect the zone of White comfort, denies the transformative possibilities that might result in actual racial reconciliation and justice. By not letting the perpetrator fully experience the consequences of their attack, we deny them the opportunity to take full responsibility for their actions. By rushing the victim to respond, we deny them the full, true range of their emotions and psychological response to such to evil acts.
And by fast-forwarding the whole situation back to the comfort zone of the status quo, where racism is the unacknowledged norm, we deny everyone the opportunity to evolve and do better. Nobody acknowledges the real, ongoing damage. And we keep going back to square one where everyone is playing a role designed to prevent progress because it’s too uncomfortable and frightening to even consider disrupting the pattern, no matter how harmful and backwards it proves to be.
There is an almost religious, or Evangelical rush to “forgive,” to absolve the perp ASAP. But this forgiving doesn’t free anybody—not the perp, not the victim, not those who observe the dynamics at play. It just feeds the status quo, and bolsters the public agreement to ignore the truths, trivialize the trauma and minimize the realities of racism, thus ensuring more of the same.
Sometimes I think that Black people should be more like Jewish people, who don’t even pretend to turn the other cheek, and who, when attacked publicly, never talk about forgiveness or absolution of anti-Semites. They have schooled us all to be crystal clear: When they say “never again,” they mean it, without exception, and they would never consider shouldering either the blame or the responsibility for the anti-Semitism aimed their way. That’s something I can understand and respect. But of course if Black people embraced that kind of love and self-preservation, even as we stand at risk for extermination, we’d be called reverse racists.
Instead, Black people too often fall into the role of soothing hurts, smoothing jagged edges, healing everyone’s pain but our own. When we embrace the type of response from Mo’Ne Davis, we are praised for “taking the high road,” “being the bigger person,” showing class, and grace, and moral superiority.
But we are never supported, defended, protected or perceived to have a personhood worthy of upholding.
And the racists who attack us—why do they always claim they had no idea that their language of choice and symbols (watermelons, monkeys, nooses, or calling Black children “c*nts” and “sl*ts”) could possibly be construed as problematic?
When they’re caught, they play dumb, they deny any possibility of ill intent or awareness. And their apologies routinely contain the ultimate caveat: “I’m sorry if you found it offensive.”
And when Black people agree to act as props for White absolution, like the herd around Pettit holding hands, rubbing his shoulders to comfort him in his time of trauma and need, they reminded me of every massa-loving Black house slave whose purpose was to soothe the racist and remind them that they could never truly do any wrong, because their loyal Black underlings were there to prop them up and highlight the rightness of their whiteness in troubling times.
It is so telling that the very same institutions that regularly demonize and punish African Americans afford whites the ability to apologize away their misdeeds, failures, moral shortcomings, and heinous crimes.
They have only to claim that they are “sorry,” followed by the inevitable demand for insta-forgiveness. The process maintains the illusion of white as good, civilized, benevolent, innocent, even while deeply flawed. None of their actions are attributed to their whiteness; all are processed as exceptions rather than rules, as aberrations rather than the normative dynamics of foundational institutionalized racism.
Meanwhile, blackness remains inherently suspect, undesirable, threatening, scary, problematic and, ultimately, unforgivable and irredeemable. Equality remains a dream deferred; justice an unattainable mirage. Blackness is instead viewed as an obstacle to racial progress. If Black people ever dared to express our anger in any way except destroying our own neighborhoods through rioting, what might happen? If we ever refused to offer forgiveness or stand for a photo op and insisted instead on our attackers being held truly and fully accountable, what might happen then?
With the SAE lynching chants, Casselberry’s attack on young Davis, and police shootings and chokings of unarmed Black
people, we see the repeated re-centering of whiteness as both master and victim. When Black people dare to speak up, we are immediately accused of “playing the race card,” as though we set up and maintain this system that dehumanizes us at every turn.
As if we hold the cards or created the game itself.
So no, White racists, your apologies—no matter how frequent or varied—are NOT accepted. They will never be accepted, not only because you continue to ignore our humanity and disrespect our rights, but because you never mean it. You never feel remorse. You never acknowledge the truth. Your eyes are never opened, your minds are never expanded, your hearts are never softened.
Don’t come asking me about forgiveness. I ain’t the one, boo. Do you see an Ike Turner sign on my forehead that says: “Come all ye KKK, rednecks, and closeted racists liberals and disrespect me all the days of my life on earth because White Jesus loves me and heaven lasts forever?” What kind of negress do you think I am?
I will not grant you the Black forgiveness that feeds into respectability politics. I am not one of those “Good Negroes” who will sacrifice themselves to uphold the status quo. I will not sustain this charade. I will not play my part in this heinous masquerade that privileges your people and denigrates mine. I will not support the continuing dishonesty and disrespect of people on both sides, and be the sustenance of this White supremacist monster that stomps all over the dignity of my people and keeps the scales tilted in your favor no matter what you say, what you do, or how you try to excuse it.
Fuuuuck your apologies! I can’t use them. Won’t accept them. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not nevuhhh.
This article originally appeared in Dame Magazine.