Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Spark of Wisdom: On apologies, ignorances and condemnations

image This is a guest post from Sparky, of  Spark in Darkness.  Many of you are  familiar with him from Livejournal, as well as from his insightful and often hilarious commentary here. Each Tuesday, Womanist Musings will be featuring a post from Sparky.

Ah, the tools of the privileged who realise they've just been wallowing in some extreme prejudice and the stains are making them look bad. Quickly they resort to apologies, claims of ignorance and fierce condemnation of bigotry.

And, of course, that's not in any way a bad thing. Ye gods it is not! And everyone who sloughs off even a little of their prejudiced thinking and becomes a little more aware of their privileges is a victory for humanity. These are wonderful times and every incident is to be celebrated- and the person waking up should be welcomed and hailed and praised.

image BUT we're not stupid. We know when you're covering yourself, back-peddling or just making a press release. We know the difference between a "My prejudice hurts so many people! I'm so sorry!" And "Damn, this is making me look bad! I'm so sorry!" Don't expect us to hail you as an ally, friend or no longer an enemy because you have the PR savvy  to smile and make pretty speeches. Don't expect us to accept you as sincere if your 'tolerance' is about YOUR image rather than OUR pain.


First of all we need to define what this word actually means - what an apology actually means.

A genuine apology is an expression of REMORSE. That's it. Hopefully it will be backed up with a decent degree of genuine gestures and attempts at correction.

This means, firstly, that if your words or actions show a complete lack of remorse (e.g. "sorry you're offended." because, seriously why not just say "I think you're too touchy" and have done with it - at least it'd be HONEST) or you repeat the offence then your 'sorry' is a waste of time/breath/keystrokes. and will likely be treated with the contempt it deserves.

An apology is not a demand for forgiveness. We do not have a duty to forgive just because you've uttered a word. Marginalised people are not obliged to expiate the guilt of the privileged people who hurt us.

An apology does not cleanse offence, heal wounds or mend damage. Do not expect any of these to go away just because you've said sorry. Do not expect us to forget it happened, do not expect us not to be effected by these actions.

Sorry also does not mean "shut up." If we're discussing an action of privilege or prejudice, especially one that has hurt us, you can't throw in a "sorry" and expect us all to belt up and be quiet. You can't hurt us, throw in a sorry, and expect us to shut up. Do not expect us to drop a subject, drop the anger, drop the offence because you have decided to say sorry. ESPECIALLY if there is severe doubt of your sincerity.

image Too often an apology is cynically used as a tool to silence marginalised people - you say sorry and that's supposed to be the end of it right? Never mind that there is still a complete lack of understanding. Never mind the lack of sincerity. Never mind the total indifference. Never mind the repeat occasions. never mind the hurt, the offence, the pain that has been caused. Never mind what this says about broader culture, society and the experience of marginalised people. Someone said sorry. We can end that discussion on racism/sexism/homophobia/transphobia/etc and move onto something the privileged person cares about. I mean, they said 'sorry' right? Oh my gods, what more do you marginalised folk want? It's like you want something to be about you for 5 minutes!

Say sorry because you mean it. And if you mean it that means you CARE and will listen and will try to learn. Don't say sorry so you can close the whole subject and move on because you're uncomfortable/it's making you look bad.


This is another common tool - say/do something grossly offensive and then claim utter ignorance. Claim you never knew it happened, claim you never knew it was offensive, etc.

And sometimes it's genuinely true. And we should help people who are genuinely ignorant. But if you hurt someone or offended them inadvertently then you need to sit down and listen and be willing to be taught that it was offensive and WHY. If you're not willing to listen, not willing to learn then your ignorance is wilful. By refusing to learn you are saying that you didn't know - you're saying that you don't care and have no problems about hurting them again.

There's also a difference between being genuinely ignorant and being wilfully ignorant (or, frankly, lying). We've seen some amazing claims of ignorance - we saw pictures of the White House lawn covered in watermelons, Obama presented as a monkey (and if you're even THINKING of pointing out Bush was compared to a chimp PLEASE buy a clue, open google and do some research on image cultural context) or the times I've seen people tell me 'faggot' isn't offensive or the times I've seen people misgender transpeople. I've seen all of these quickly followed by a not-apology saying "I didn't know it was offensive!"

Bullshit, to be frank. It is boggling to me to believe for one second that ANYONE in the modern, western world could possibly be unaware that these were offensive. Seriously, there are aliens on the planet Zog watching our planet with ever increasing horror that know this crap is offensive. I find it hard to believe that these claims of ignorance here are anything but lies.

But if they're not lies? If they're genuine? Then they're still inexcusable. Because the only way you could possibly be that ignorant is by not only being inured in privilege - but by utterly wallowing in it. Only a complete and utter dismissive indifference towards marginalised people could create such an attitude of clueless ness. And that? That is seriously not ok.


Condemnation is important. Yes, we can't expect everyone to condemn every piece of silliness in the world - we'd be doing nothing else if so.

But - if people have a reason (a good reason) to believe you may support that crap - especially if you represent an organisation that IS supporting that crap, you have supported it in the past or you have supported crap that is very similar to the current crap in an amazing craptastic fashion - then yes, people are going to expect you to open your mouth and say how very very wrong it is.

But like the above two your sincerity matters. If you're condemning something just to make your critics shut up or because you're afraid you're starting to look bad - then that doesn't mean we're going to take you seriously. We're not fools.

If you're only moved to condemn a disgraceful piece of bigotry after people are outraged and especially if they're criticising you - then why should we take it seriously? Covering your own arse is not a laudable action.

image If you suddenly decide to condemn a piece of bigotry you've supported, worked on and played cheerleader for right until the moment you decide to leap from that sinking ship - yeah, we're not going to take you seriously either.

We don't owe you kudos, consideration or praise because you've got the brains to jump from a sinking ship. You get no praise for managing your own PR and you don't dodge criticism because you're good at covering yourself.

We're not fools. We know when we're being pandered to and we know when we're being silenced. We know when a gesture is sincere and when it's being used to divert or distract. We know when pretty words are used to cover hateful actions. We know when a smile is used to cover hatred and bigotry.

We know when you're sincere. And we know when you just want us to shut the hell up.