Dear Aunt Acid,
As my understanding of racism and white privilege has grown over the years, I have learned to recognise subtle behaviours and microaggressions that are, despite declarations of “not racist,” definitely racist. I grew up remarkably liberal and free from overt racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and general ignorant hatred of other people. However, I also grew up surrounded mostly by white or East Asian people in Europe, Asia and Australia, which is why as a younger woman I did say ignorant and stupid things based on a lack of education. I know a lot better now and I am continually educating myself and others, trying to raise awareness of this more subtle, but still racist mindset, as well as of the disadvantages and discriminatory behaviours that minorities face on a daily basis.
With that “gotta justify myself” preamble, here is my question: 6 or 7 years ago, I was in my mid-twenties and living with a housemate who was black. She remains to this day one of my favourite housemates ever and I love her to the end of the earth. One night I made a stupid comment, which was meant to be a joke, that was outdated and racist. The memory of this “joke” makes me cringe so badly. I knew as soon as I said it that it was not funny, but she just pretended I hadn’t said it and we moved on to other subjects quickly.
I am fairly confident that is one of the most awful things I ever said. And I keep thinking, is it too late to apologise? It would have to be a Facebook apology (which is the way we communicate), and also maybe she forgot about it in the name of love and forgiveness…I have an apology all written up, but I hesitate that it might “make things weird.”
I’m pretty sure the answer is: Hit send, you foolish girl. But any other advice about how to frame it so it’s not about white guilt and it’s a genuine, meaningful apology? I don’t want to fuck it up.
Everyone Thinks They’re Not Racist
I take a different, slightly more Avenue Q-ish view of the world than your sign-off suggests you do. You know the song “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist”? We can all be prejudiced — though, as that song neglects to acknowledge, the prejudice of white people is especially damaging, since we hold so many of the levers of power. Our hate can become law. Our hate can even be godlike: it can dictate who is punished and who escapes, who lives and who dies.
If there were a Kinsey scale for bigotry, many of us who are well-meaning and well-intentioned people might be a 1 or a 2, as opposed to, say, Dylann Roof, who’s a 6. But we are not innocent simply because we’re not as guilty. We all swim in the same toxic water and even when we try not to swallow, it seeps in through our skin.
So one time you were talking to a housemate, someone you value, and you opened your mouth and sewage came out. She was kind enough not to call you on it, or maybe she was just too fucking tired to call you on it; either way, you two remained cordial, even friendly. Now, seven years later, you want to reach out on Facebook, remind her of that time you word-vomited on her nice new shoes, and apologize.
I am generally in favor of apologies. Saying “I was wrong” is an excellent, character-building exercise; we should all work it into our routines, like flossing or dancing to AM radio. But an apology in this particular case seems, frankly, too little too late. What purpose would it serve except to make you feel better? What do you expect your friend to do? Absolve you? She doesn’t have that power. Tell you you’re not bigoted? You are; we are. Tell you she loves you anyway? Clearly she does, since you’re still friends.
She is not your Magic Black Friend. She cannot fix this for you. Also: a joke like the one you made is a cockroach, a signal that many more similar jokes and notions hide in your head and, perhaps, have even slipped out. She knows that. In all probability, you have more than one boneheaded, bigoted statement to apologize for.
I’m not saying this to be hard on you. You seem like an earnest person, the kind of person who tries hard and wants to make this right. You’re also in great company; lots of other people are dog-paddling in the sludge of the Gowanus Canal with you, trying to keep their heads above water and occasionally failing. Supposedly progressive types like Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman, and Anne Lamott have all recently fucked up and, with varying degrees of sincerity and success, tried to make amends. At least your failure was a private moment rather than a public mistake that launched a thousand think-pieces.
I get that you want to do something besides Do Better in general, and that is a commendable impulse. Guilt is sticky and destructive, like melted asphalt; it weighs you down. You’re right to prefer action. Action > guilt. But to get it right, you have to know what you want to accomplish through your action. Only once you understand your goal can you figure out what steps to take to reach it.
Instead of asking your friend to make you feel better about you, what if you shifted your goal to telling her something that makes her feel good about her? She has been tolerant of you. She has been kind and understanding. Tell her that. Don’t dredge up specific painful memories and then ask her to promise you everything is okay. Instead, in general terms, you could thank her for bearing with you even when you were offensive and wrong. (“I was wrong,” remember? Practice saying it. It’s good for the kidneys.)
You’ve known each other for, what, a decade? You think she’s great and she means a lot to you, and she’s been patient with your nonsense. Sounds like she deserves some appreciation. Send it her way. Be real, be heartfelt. Make it clear that if she wants to talk, to air grievances, you will be happy to listen and apologize, because you know you have on occasion made life more difficult for her instead of more safe. But don’t make the overall conversation about you; make it about her. Say thank you.
Also, you should ask a person of color for a second opinion, because what the fuck do I know?