Apologies that never were and probably never will be
The thing is, apologies don't actually fix anything. The harm has already been done and the hurt is still there.
My mom apologizes to me and I’m glad she does. Mostly for small things, but sometimes for big things too. Recently, she apologized for her fatphobia towards me and how damaging it was to me growing up. I was appreciative. I thanked her.
Not long after that apology, she made no less than three fatphobic comments to me in a single weekend. While these comments don’t undo her apology, they do make the apology feel somewhat hollow, even though I know it was genuine. At this point, I have learned how to mostly tune out her fatphobia—which she does not understand or recognize the nuances of in the ways that I do—in order to preserve my own mental health.
Her comments don’t affect me as much as they used to, but her apology has nothing to do with that. The difficult internal work I’ve done to unlearn fatphobia, diet and fitness culture, and capitalistic myths is what helped me find some semblance of peace with/in my body long before she ever thought to apologize for how she contributed to my tenuous relationship with it.
I’ve been thinking about apologies lately. What their function is and what our understanding of them is, or isn’t. An apology should be an acknowledgement of wrongdoing along with the intent to not commit the same harm in the future. But apologies are often handed out, especially in the age of social media and rampant fear of public accountability (also annoyingly known as “cancel culture”), with no real intent or even understanding of why the apology is warranted in the first place. Apologies in the public sphere have become, in a word, performative.
Apologies are, simultaneously, among the most difficult things to pry out of harm-doers and also among the easiest of tactics that require very little effort whenever they must attempt to pacify the masses after committing yet another harm. Celebrities and public figures have done this so much that we have gotten used to reading or watching their non-apologies on any given social media platform.
Many of us even find ourselves studying the anatomy of a non-apology and filling in the spaces of a culturally understood but (as yet, to my knowledge) unwritten non-apology bingo card. In these cases, they serve as distractions and pacifiers. Often condescending and patronizing—and sometimes given without even accepting responsibility for the harm enacted—the non-apology is an attempt to protect and insulate the harm-doer but it is disingenuously framed as a selfless offering to the one(s) harmed, all with false humility and remorse. And if we don’t accept their non-apology, then we are being unfair and ungrateful.
The thing is, apologies don’t actually fix anything. The harm has already been done and the hurt is still there. Apologies are meant to be just one aspect of a much larger attempt at making amends, but when apologies are presented as the sole aspect of what is being offered, then they don’t really mean much. Sometimes, they mean absolutely nothing. Other times, they add more insult to injury. Especially when they are addressing harm on a large scale.
When Philadelphia officials recently revealed that they had taken a vote on whether or not the city would apologize for the 1985 MOVE bombing—which killed 11 Black people, devastated a family, and leveled a community—I laughed. Fuck you and fuck this apology, I said. How does a measly ass apology serve Black Philadelphians? Pay them reparations, release all political prisoners, and stop fucking killing your Black citizens. After engaging with a Philly-based activist in the wake of this apology, I learned more about the climate of Philadelphia and the list of demands from local organizers, which includes a plan for defunding the police and investing in communities instead.
After a summer of uprisings for Black life in the midst of a pandemic and economic downturn, it doesn’t necessarily surprise me that the city has made this offering, which they no doubt consider to be quite a generous one. We have seen a whole host of empty gestures over the past few months, both large and small, meant to appease The Blacks and quell our rage. It’s a distraction, a condescension, an attempt at pacification. It carries no intent of making the lives of Black Philadelphians better or of paying reparations to the families of those who were impacted by the MOVE bombing. It’s empty, it’s performative, and it’s 35 years too late.
Through a hell of a lot of internal work, I was able to learn how to care for myself and move forward without the apologies I once needed. I needed an apology from my mom about her fatphobia when I was a child, but I no longer need it as an adult, even as I understand it as a sincere gesture from her. My continuous work towards a healthier relationship with my body would have continued, with or without it.
I once read a piece of advice from a therapist that suggested writing an apology to yourself on behalf of the person(s) who hurt you. It seems like a useful exercise when working towards learning how to live without the apologies you are owed, because continuing to wait for something that may never even come and will never be able to undo damage caused can absolutely compound the hurt.
So, I am wondering if it is possible for us to apply this to our communities and the harms we have endured at the hands of the white supremacist nation-state. I am wondering what might be possible, in terms of healing and clarity, if we all stopped putting any stock in the apologies they rarely even give. I am wondering how much of our thoughts around apologies are carceral, punitive, or reactionary anyway.
I just think it would serve us to accept that the empire will never truly apologize, even as we continue working towards the things we need for our comfort, peace, sustenance, and liberation. I just thought some of us could use the reminder that we can build and thrive on our terms without apologies from entities who we know aren’t sorry anyway.