2016 found a number of white folks giving half-assed apologies for racist behavior.
In March, a Trump supporter sucker-punched a protester at a rally, and was caught on camera saying, “the next time we see him, we might have to kill him.” He was later arrested and charged with assault and disorderly conduct. During his hearing, he apologized by saying he was just “caught up in a political mess.”
North Carolina Congressman Robert Pittenger criticized Black Lives Matter protesters in September, saying of those drawing attention to the killing of Keith L. Scott, “[They] hate white people because white people are successful and they’re not.” In an attempt to walk that statement back, he apologized by tweeting, “My answer to BBC doesn't reflect who I am…I apologize to those I offended.”
Most recently, Beverly Whaling, mayor of Clay, West Virginia, went on social media and endorsed a comment calling first lady Michelle Obama an “Ape in heels.” A clumsy attempt to save face followed: “My post, be it may interpreted as racist (though NO WAY INTENDED TO BE), was referring to my personal opinion of the attractiveness, NOT the color of one’s skin.” That “apology” failed. After weeks of controversy, Whaling was finally fired this week.
Part of what makes these apologies so bad is that they use so many diversionary tactics and white-centered language that even Glenn Beck would call them insensitive. The people saying them take virtually no responsibility for their actions and insist that they wouldn’t be seen as racist if only a person would spend time getting to know them.
These apologies aren’t unique. This is an age-old problem. Some white folks have a history of saying racist things and then, as a way to atone for these racist actions, giving apologies that are either not an actual apology or one so weak that Stacey Dash would still be offended.
Let’s take a look at some common whitesplaining strategies of people caught doing things racist as hell.
1. “I apologize to anyone who may have been offended.”
This is the classic non-apology. To say that these words have meaning at all is pushing it. The person in the wrong isn’t expressing remorse over what they’ve said or done; they’re merely acknowledging the response of the offended. This statement is but a logical step away from saying, “Y’all just need to stop being so damn sensitive.”
2. “I have black friends.”
Somehow a white person caught doing something racially problematic thinks having a black person as a favorite in their iPhone absolves them of racism. Someone should tell them it just doesn’t work that way. Put succinctly, we don’t give a damn if a white racist has a black friend.
3. “I know MLK quotes.”
Some white people have a tendency to take MLK’s words out of context. When King wrote in Where Do We Go From Here, “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn,” he was probably talking about the same white folks who are misusing his words, like Seattle Mariners backup catcher Steve Clevenger, who apologized for his offensive comments about the Charlotte, North Carolina, protests by harkening back to MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech: “I am also proud that my inner circle of friends has never been defined by race but by the content of their character.”
4. “You misunderstood.”
This is insulting. The statement implies that what the offended party heard was not actually what the offensive person said. A slightly more authentic, yet just as problematic, approach is the “that’s not what I meant” defense. In that case, one owns that what they said might have been distasteful, but insists that they didn’t intend for it to offend. It’s similar to a 5-year-old who accidentally hits their sibling, but thinks screaming “I didn’t mean to do it” will sufficiently solve the problem. Just because a person didn’t mean for something to be racist, doesn’t mean that they didn’t do something hella racist. Just ask the folks who believe that the Confederate flag is all about heritage. Yeah, white folks who say this sound about as dumb as them.
5. “I don’t see race.”
Aside from the fact that it is nearly impossible, this is a statement centered in white privilege. In Racism Without Racists, Edwardo Bonilla-Silva argues that pretending that race doesn’t exist only perpetuates white privilege because it doesn’t force us to address the systemic nature of oppression. Racism is not just interpersonal—it's also institutional.
A few words of advice to white folks caught being racist: Just own it. It’s not cool, but admit it and learn from your mistake. Your attempts to whitesplain your way out of having said something racist is coming off about as ridiculous as Shaggy’s attempts to prove his fidelity in “It Wasn’t Me.”
Lawrence Ware is a progressive writer in a conservative state. A frequent contributor to The Root and Dissent magazine, he is also contributing editor of NewBlackMan (in Exile) and the Democratic Left. He has been featured in the New York Times, and discussed race and politics on HuffPost Live, NPR and Public Radio International.