Apology As a Significant Act of Allyship

Why saying "I'm sorry" matters.

Flamingo Images/ Shutterstock
Flamingo Images/ Shutterstock

It is clear that we are living in a time when a “moment” is becoming a “movement.” The significant shift is happening among white people who are standing up for racial justice. The concept of allyship is spreading as white people understand their role in a fight that goes back hundreds of years. As a result there are literally thousands of articles, social media posts, and trainings that are exploring the concept of what it takes to be an ally. A YouTube video I made about the topic had thousands of views within 48 hours.

At the end of that video I speak on the need for apology as an essential factor in allyship. That was a spontaneous addition to the main theme of the video. But as I continue to read through all the #Blackin____ hashtags that have Black people sharing stories of discrimination in various sectors, what I realized was missing was the voices of white people owning any role in these experiences, whether intentional or not.

Like the #MeToo movement in which there were all stories of women telling their stories and a very loud silence on the part of men — that actually inspired the first video of my YouTube channel — the telling of Black stories of racism, discrimination, prejudice and bias is an overwhelmingly one-sided one. Black people are being vulnerable and brave in taking professional and personal risks to share their stories. But there is not the same level of vulnerability, bravery — and humility — by white people to acknowledge and own any responsibility for anything they had ever done or said that was racist in intent or impact.

When there is no acknowledgement on the part of white people, it is so easy to invalidate or minimize the testimony of Black people — to say that Black people are “sensitive,” that the Black person had misinterpreted someone’s actions or words, that it is not “all white people,” etc. etc. I understand that nobody wants to be “that white person” a.k.a. “the racist” who intentionally sets out to hurt or oppress. But it is important to note that one need not believe in the ideology of white supremacy to say or do something racist, because as the metaphor goes, racism is not the shark in the water, it’s the water we live in. The truth is that a lot of Black people don’t want to be “that Black person” complaining about racism either. But silence is not an option. Not for any of us. And it shouldn’t be for white people.

Owning privilege is hard enough for some people, but privilege is a benefit you get by virtue of birth and nothing you did. Claiming privilege is not about ownership of one’s own role in the maintenance or support of racism. This piece — that follows a video I recorded — in which I called for an #IApologize movement — is inspired by a Facebook post made by a white male friend of mine, architectural designer Will Adams, who apologized for his “inaction” in fighting oppression.

In this post he wrote, “To my friends and chosen family who are People of Color I am sorry. I am sorry I have not done enough in my 40 years on this earth. I am sorry I didn’t speak up sooner, knowing how hurt and oppressed your people have been for years.”. He then went on to say, “But I promise you this: I’m done sitting back, being an empathetic observer. I’m here to join your fight – to spark change – to have tough conversations to challenge the minds of those who continue to oppress you.” He said a lot more, but these words capture the essence of the post.

I read that and it deeply touched me. Not only for the power of the words, but because it struck me how rare those words are in the present conversations on white allyship. His words recalled the concept of “amends” that is addressed in steps eight through 10 in the 12-step movement: a concept in which the addict takes responsibility for their actions, promptly admits when they do wrong, and makes direct amends — if possible — to those they have hurt. These actions are important to the healing of relationships, and they are the foundation for building trust.

Imagine you are in a relationship, with a friend, a relative, a colleague, or a romantic partner, and they hurt you, over and over again, but they never apologize. They buy you a gift. They promise to do better. But they never say, “I’m sorry.” How would you feel? What would you think about their promise to do better? Would you trust them?

So I am asking you to think about your allyship and what it looks like. I want you to think about words you have said or did not say, things you have done or did not do, and to whom you may owe an apology, for those acts of omission or commission, that supported racism directly or indirectly. Now is the time to apologize: in person, by text, in an email, a letter or a card. And if you choose to do it on social media, I ask you to tag it with #IApologize.

Now, I am not saying that everyone wants to hear your apology, or will accept it. Nor should forgiveness be an expectation. Because no one owes you that. Because it has been a whole lot — systemically and individually — for a really, really long time. But acknowledgement of, and apology for, your role in racism, is an important part of this movement to heal the past, and to change the future of America.

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