“Reassuring Sounds”: The Impossibility of White Public Apology

White public apologies for racist words or deeds are often moralizing gestures that tend to aggravate the very wrongs they are meant to recognize.

This article discusses instances of racism and the debates they caused. Black readers who decide to read on, and, more importantly, follow the links, may find reading the racist words that led to the apology and that had to be repeated here for the purposes of my argument upsetting. Due to the subject matter and my perspective as a white man, this article mostly addresses a white audience. The “we” and “I” are consciously white.

Lately, white individuals of public interest have increasingly been compelled to apologize for racist things they said. In a recent apology that soon went viral Joe Rogan addressed the numerous uses of the n-word on his podcast and his relating a movie theater experience of the film Planet of the Apes to the Black neighborhood where the cinema was located.

A number of recent high-profile public apologies have made the rounds in Germany too: Patrick Moster, the (now former) national cycling official and coach, apologized for using a racial slur to motivate German cyclist Nikias Arndt to catch up with two Algerian and Ethiopian competitors at the 2021 Olympics, while Clemens Tönnies, meat producer and former chairman of the board of the Schalke 04 soccer team, had to apologize for his claim, in front of an audience of 1,600 at the 2019 Crafts Day, that more powerplants in Africa would be an antidote to African overpopulation because the electric light would stop Africans “making babies when it gets dark.”

Luckily for those who find themselves pressured to make a public apology, there is a script for doing so that is not hard to come by. It involves variations of “I was misunderstood,” “I feel shame,” “Look at all the non-racist things I did,” “I cannot make it undone,” “It won’t happen again,” “(People who know me will tell you, that) I am not a racist,” “I will make up for it,” etc. These components are combinable modules that can be assembled easily. Did it require great effort from Tönnies’s secretary (or whoever wrote it) to patchwork his statement for Schalke 04 supporters ? How hard did Moster really have to think to attribute his choice of words was due to “the heat of the moment” and to the “general pressure of the team” at the Olympic games, adding that he had “many acquaintances with North African roots”?

Such gestures that aim at the moral rehabilitation of the offender echo what James Baldwin called “those stammering, terrified dialogues which white Americans sometimes entertain with the black conscience” when confronted with the histories of colonialism and slavery. This demonstrative “mea culpa” attitude may be further compounded by a martyr-like refashioning of the public criticism against oneself as a “teachable moment” for the allegedly general – but actually white – public.

Joe Rogan, well-versed in media communication, performs this humility with proficiency when he says, “I do hope that this can be a teachable moment for anybody that doesn’t realize how offensive that word can be coming out of a white person’s mouth. […] My sincere and humble apologies. I wish there was more that I could say. All of this is just me talking from the bottom of my heart. […] Hopefully at least some you will accept this and understand where I’m coming from.”

Other authors have close read such apologies and detailed the white personal and institutional defense mechanisms at work in this gesturing. Sara Ahmed wrote about the functions of individual-as-institutional apologies in her blog feministkilljoys.com, in which she engages with the double and contradictory nature of apology and its “usefulness to the institution,” positing that “apologies can recognize harm and not recognize harm. Apologies can be not made because of what they do or made because of what they do not do.”

There is much more to say about the performative paradox that Ahmed sees in the act of the apology, but I would like to focus more specifically on the hypermoralization of forced white public apologies such as those mentioned above. A close reading of selected instances will show how they in fact obscure, rather than reveal, the soil that racist words and deeds grow out of organically.

Dead Ends of Morality and Intention

The German term for apology – Entschuldigung, literally, exculpation — has its roots in the word Schuld, which is used in legal, financial, and moral contexts to denote both guilt and debt. Public apologies, however, overstress the moral function of the act of apologizing even when it has real-life consequences. The German Olympic Sports Confederation, for example, suspended Moster from his position because his words “contradict the values of the Olympic spirit”. Tönnies did not face a legally binding sports court, because the preceding work of  an ethics commission “deplores” his statements but “refrains from initiating proceedings before the ethics chamber of the sports court of the [German Football Association].” The language of both their apologies and of the institutional responses to them, whether they be defensive or critical, is conveniently moralistic and reductive.

The emphatic morality of white public apologies also exploits a rhetoric of individual intention. Offenders regularly claim to have been misunderstood; they protest that they never “meant to hurt anyone’s feelings.” However, falling back on the kind of moralistic individualism implicit in such protestations precludes repercussions, reparations, or a more in-depth recognition of what happened. Intention and morality are dead ends: “He said sorry, what else is he supposed to do?”

Activating moralistic tropes and appealing to an individualistic conception of intention, white public apologies aim to exculpate the offenders. They do not compensate those upon whom violence – verbal, emotional, or physical — has been inflicted, or even address them directly. The North African cyclists referenced by Moster are hardly compensated by hearing about Moster’s (real?) North African acquaintances. Same goes for Tönnies, who, as former Schalke 04-player Hans Sarpei poignantly states, „until today has apologized to everyone except to those whom he racially insulted” (on Facebook 2 August 2019).

“The ‘apology script’ does not provide any part for the insulted party except for that of the forgiver.”

But the “apology script” does not provide any part for the insulted party except for that of the forgiver. This (optional) role may be included only if it increases the traction of the moralistic absolution desired. Commentators who do not follow this script, such as Sarpei, are told to “switch back a gear,” as a response to Sarpei’s post reads. They are excluded from the negotiations of what is moral and what is not that take place in a largely white discursive space. We are effectively looking at whiteness talking to itself, a public soliloquy of “reassuring sounds” (Baldwin) that comforts whiteness as neutral and non-racist, especially when facing the overt outgrowths of its own, racist anti-Blackness. The philosophical term for such discourse is solipsism. The psychoanalytical term is narcissism.

Let me add that by pointing out this soliloquizing I do not claim to position myself outside this solipsistic framework. This article, too, is whiteness speaking to itself – inevitably. I, too, have been in the position of apologizing for my words and actions. I know and understand the desire to be seen or rehabilitated as the “good white guy” who does the right thing. However, I believe that it is important for anti-racist work and thought to understand where those feelings come from and how they affect our behavior as whites in favor of the very whiteness we know to be racist and violent.

Character Witnesses

Understood as a self-defensive act, the white public apology moves much closer to the original meaning of the term: the Greek apologia has nothing to do with regret or remorse but designates “a speech in defense,” a “justification,” a “‘thought-out response’ to accusations made.” By offering explanations and justifications in the genre of apology, whiteness superficially refashions itself by staking claims to a space for sham moralistic negotiations that hide its inner, racist operations.

One central lever in the mechanics of public apologies is the inevitable question of whether an apology was “sincere.” On the battleground of sincerity, the offender may yield or retrieve moral territory. In addition to Moster’s own aggravating attempt at an apology, his sister made matters worse for him by publicly discrediting her brother’s character (“Patrick has shown his true face”). Tönnies, on the other hand, an experienced and presumably well-advised public speaker, won back enough moral territory to prevent actual, legal proceedings. The ethics commission entrusted with his case concluded: “Mr. Tönnies was able to convey convincingly during the detailed hearing and questioning that he is not a racist. The commission believes that he distanced himself from his statement and that he was shocked by it.”

“Offenders who distance themselves from an act are judged by their character, their credibility, not by the act in question.”

Offenders who distance themselves from an act are judged by their character, their credibility, not by the act in question. In addition, the judges of their character are often white like them and have neither experience nor expertise in the effects of racism or how it operates. Why does speculation about a person’s integrity (or lack thereof) play a role in the assessment of a well-documented act? What psychological evidence could the commission possibly draw on to arrive at a conclusion on whether or not someone is racist? Is the judgement of the ethics commission more reliable than Moster’s sister’s negative comment or the assessment of people who actually suffered from the racist utterance? Even though the language of evaluative judgement sounds differently, we are in murky waters.

White Ignorance

Let us assume for the moment that a public apology is sincere, that an offender does feel the shame they claim to feel and honestly vows to improve their behavior in the future. What would be the consequence of such sincerity? An offender‘s self-defense, even if sincere, still derails their public apology, distracting from the issue raised by the original, racist act by ushering us into the sphere of individuality. It implies that the individual person or act is an exception to the norm, and that one can voluntarily improve one’s behavior. Both implications obscure the fact that, though individual people may be uttering violent or conciliatory words, structural whiteness is speaking through them. It speaks inevitably through each and every body positioned as white. It speaks through the original, racist act. It speaks through the apology.

Yes, individual people must be held accountable for their words and actions and own up to what they did. An apology may be a part of this recognition, but it has its limits: in its function within public debates it is always already complicit in maintaining the violent structures of whiteness. It does the opposite of what it professes to do, especially if it primarily indulges in pseudo-critical, solipsistic, and moralistic navel-gazing. So rather than singling out individual instances of racism, we must see them as part of a bigger picture in which whiteness continues to violently assert – and impose – itself while claiming the moral high ground. Moralistic judgement calls directed at individuals turn the focus away from the soil from which racist words and deeds had emerged naturally, intuitively, and organically: the fundamentally racial structure of the Western world we inhabit.

“Forced public apologies by white people obscure what happens performatively before, during, and after them.”

Forced public apologies by white people obscure what happens performatively before, during, and after them. Consider Tönnies’s speech. Was his racist remark part of a larger dramaturgy, a means of providing comic relief? It certainly seems so: it was embedded in a set of statistical figures and data, meaning it was unlikely to have been a spontaneous aside. How was it received? With laughter and applause. Moster, too, used a racial slur for motivation, though he later attributed it to impulse.

Even if we took Moster’s apology at face value, though: how exactly does the “heat of the moment” lead to racial slurs? What is it that – allegedly – makes white people more likely to say racist things when they think less or when they are emotionally agitated? What does that say about the psychic constitution, the intuitive and instinctive reactions our nervous systems provide for us whites in moments of quick decision-making? These questions concern the emotional, the affective structure of white bodies who articulate those words that then require apologies – and they demand from us a more nuanced view on what we believe to be “natural” about ourselves.

What Black Studies scholars such as Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, Sylvia Wynter, and many others have been articulating for decades is increasingly being pulled into white people’s view by contemporary neuroscience: the human body is biological and cultural at the same time. Most of what we imagine as “natural” or “intuitive” is very much bound up with the social world we inhabit. The culture in which we grow up, the words we learn to describe our existence, physically structure the way we feel emotions and know ourselves and our position in the world.

Racism, then, is not only an institutional, social, and political fact, but also has tremendous impact on our psychological, biochemical, neural existence. Thinking, feeling, and moving as a white person in the Western world means having been shaped by hundreds of years of slavery and colonialism that have imbued us with a deep-set sense of racial superiority. The confidence with which Tönnies can plan and land a racist joke is only one symptom of the racist standard default in which we move in our everyday world.

What makes whiteness – and the assumptions that come with it—so tenacious is its capacity to make itself invisible to its bearers; as white people we are predisposed to see ourselves as un-raced.  Whiteness lets us imagine that we can see the world neutrally, that we can judge, assess, comment on matters of race without affective involvement or emotional repercussions. We assume that matters of race do not concern us while simultaneously claiming that we are in the position to assess whether a statement was racist or not. But if you are white and believe that you have no emotional stakes in talking about race, you have a problem. You cause problems. You are a problem.

Embracing the Paradox

Forced public apologies by white people perform a paradox: the apologizer expresses shock at their own actions and distance themselves from them. The moral impetus for the apology provides a handy cop-out for the offender, who no longer needs to own the words or deeds that put them in a position to apologize in the first place. (This gesture of distancing and disowning is embedded in the etymology of the apology: the Greek prefix apo means “away from” and logos means “speech.”) The apology not only separates the racist act from the person responsible for it; it also ostensibly removes the act from its temporal, spatial, psychological, and affective environment.

But the moral surplus value that a public apology generates for whites comes at an existential cost for whites too: if the offender is now (morally) distant, i.e. absent, from the event they originally embodied (!), where has the event gone? Impossibly, it is undone. And where has the offender gone, part of whose past has never happened? They are still there. What a privilege to exist and not exist in this way! In reality, of course, the event still exists in the bodies and minds of all who ever engaged with it. As self-assurance for some (existing without having happened), as violence for others. If whites recognized the existential illogic in which we live and which is revealed in situations like these, our sense of self would become highly fragile.

“Doing anti-racist work, we need to find a way of dealing with the paradoxical aim of eroding the ground on which we stand.”

White people are created by, through, and for whiteness. Inevitably, we are formed and informed by it, we perpetuate it, we think and feel in it – whether we like it or not. Whiteness cannot be overcome or pushed aside at will. If we could do that, we would be more than human. If we really set out to attack whiteness, we must be prepared for this to become an existential issue that challenges the basis of our existence. If whiteness goes, what will be left of us? Doing anti-racist work, we need to find a way of dealing with this contradiction, with the paradoxical aim of eroding the ground on which we stand, in a way that does not exhaust itself in excessive and aimless breast-beating.

Facing the helplessness that comes with this contradiction, some people turn to hands-on advice. Surely, such advice will help some people and prevent future racist utterances. Yet I warn against relying only on such manuals, or at least doing so thinking that following them will position you on the side of righteousness. The problem is that such anti-racist manuals give the impression that whites can behave in an unassailable way – which is, again, a self-aggrandizing assumption. Rather than striving to find an ideal way to apologize, we should sit with the fact that the “solution” to racism is not within reach and that white people’s work urgently needs to go beyond expressions of remorse.

Recognizing the limitations of whiteness does not have to be stifling. It enables us to enter conversations on racism more genuinely – not by empowering but by disempowering ourselves. It is difficult to wrap one’s head around that, and the work of anti-racism does not end with recognizing its necessity. And surely it doesn’t end (or begin) with the sort of exculpation that the apologies discussed here aim at. In my experience, anti-racist work does not feel great, and it involves shame. Yet this shame does not lie in the fact of being white. It lies in the active, conscious ignorance of what it means to be white, and of the fact that this whiteness is limiting the breadth of our views on and experience of the world.

It is our responsibility to get our defense mechanisms out of the way. For those who suffer from racism directly, the conversation is strenuous, exhausting, and painful enough as it is. Too often, white people make it worse by hypermoralizing and thus actively sustaining our affective, emotional, and intellectual ignorance of the obvious plights caused by racism. It is a contradictory gesture: we need to turn to ourselves to make the conversation not about us. This article represents this very paradox.

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[Title image by softeeboy via Unsplash

Michel Büch

Michel Büch is a scholar, dramaturg, and cultural worker. He holds a PhD in American Studies. His research focuses on Critical Race Studies, Epistemology, Critiques of Modernity, Theater, Media and Popular Culture. He currently heads the LURUM - Community School Lurup in Hamburg, Germany. (Photo: © Bert Brüggemann)

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