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Day of Apology?
Saying ‘sorry’ for past racism is only the first step
Evin Cruz

“I’m sorry” is probably one of the most powerful and most useless phrases in all of language. It’s powerful because those two words can symbolize the start of a whole new beginning to a relationship. But in themselves the words don’t necessarily change anything.

So how useful are apologies to improving race relations? That’s one question author Adam Mansbach considers in his novel Angry Black White Boy. The apology this novel describes is not over any minor mistake. The book’s protagonist, Macon Detornay, is a white college student who loves hip-hop and has trouble enjoying the privileges that come with his skin color. Macon calls for a “Day of Apology” during which white people are supposed to apologize to every black person they meet on the street for slavery, racism, and the mistreatment of black people throughout the years. Unfortunately, when the day of apology comes about, things fall apart under Macon’s feet.

After reading this book I was full of questions and “what ifs.” What would happen if there was a day of apology in real life? Would something that crazy ever work? And is it worth apologizing for slavery when it ended 150 years ago, and both slaves and slave owners are long since dead?

Limited Value

In a telephone interview I was able to put some of these questions to the author. Mansbach, who is white, said he wrote Angry Black White Boy to “remix” the American race novel with a focus on white people’s role in race relations. He explained that the “white privilege” that bothers Macon is something that most white people aren’t even aware of—a set of “unearned, automatic privileges…which allow people who are white or perceived as white to move through the world with much greater ease.”

In Angry Black White Boy, most of the white people who participate in the apology don’t comprehend white privilege either—and that’s one of the main reasons, Mansbach said, why the apology is bound to fail.

“They’re acting without any clear understanding of what it is they’re apologizing for, so there’s no space opened up by the apology,” or no opportunity to begin a useful conversation on the problems of race, he said. While a day of apology could create “some interesting dialogue and interchange,” he sees a fundamental problem with one-on-one apologies: “There is very little to be said to an apology. You can accept it or you can not accept it. Neither one is a particularly satisfying or pro-active thing to be doing.”

Australia Asks Forgiveness

But Mansbach acknowledged that it can be different when a government apologizes, and in fact, that’s what happened in a real-life “Day of Apology” in Australia. On February 13, 2008, the Australian government formally apologized to the Aborigine people, the indigenous people of Australia, for injustices they suffered—especially the government’s taking Aboriginal children away from their parents between 1909 and 1969.

This apology was a big event: There was a lavish ceremony, and the government flew in people affected by its former racist actions to hear the prime minister stand up and say he was sorry for those actions. I watched a video the government produced about the event, and on the tape people listening to the apology were obviously moved, many of them crying tears of joy and sorrow.

image by Freddy Bruce

I couldn’t help being skeptical. I wanted to know what the government was doing, rather than simply saying. When I asked Mansbach for his opinion on this kind of gesture, he said something similar.

“It’s easy for an apology to be completely toothless and mean very little,” he said. It’s not enough to “make a speech behind a podium and walk away. It has to be something that allows for dialogue, allows people to actually talk to each other and confront each other,” he added.

Call the News Crews

In fact, I later found out that since 1998, Australia has had a national “Sorry Day” every May 26 involving marches, speeches, and other activities in communities and schools—so it seems like they’re making an honest effort. And Mansbach said that the government of South Africa, a country that has a history of terrible racial conflict, has done a lot to open up dialogue between people. But he noted that the United States usually hasn’t done such a good job with its formal apologies.

I think he’s right about that: On July 29, 2008, the House of Representatives passed a motion apologizing for slavery and the Jim Crow laws; on June 18, 2009, the Senate did the same. I’ve asked around, and it seems like few people ever heard of either apology. Not surprisingly, these quiet apologies haven’t done much to solve the race problem in America.

I think America should look to Australia as an example as far as making this kind of apology a big deal. Call all the news crews, get all eyes watching, and let it be known to the world that this is a real apology.

National Group Therapy

Then comes the vexing part: After the apology, it’s time to poke and prod at people’s views and assumptions about race. There should be ongoing programs related to the apology. We all have hidden biases and unconscious prejudices that we should work on changing. So it might be useful to start a program like Alcoholics Anonymous that, instead of helping people with their addiction to alcohol, helps people change their thinking habits regarding race. Diverse groups of people can gather to talk about their feelings on race and help one another begin to overcome their biases and misconceptions.

There must be change in the way we talk about race, because if things keep going the way they are now in the U.S., racial healing isn’t ever going to happen. Every time an issue related to race arises, it leads to a pointless back-and-forth that reminds me of “I know you are, but what am I?”

We need a real conversation to understand the things that we might want to apologize for, but as Mansbach put it, instead we have “this culture of a 24-hour news cycle dominated by tiny sound bites and talking heads and people who have no interest in real dialogue. It’s more like a boxing match.”

We need to stop this “boxing match.” Perhaps there should be a day called “The day of sit down and talk already!” This day might include some history lessons, so we all see how we got to where we are. Whether or not anyone apologizes, we must understand and listen to each other if we want to begin new and better relations among races.

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