Last week, Madonna apologized to fans for using the N-word in a hashtag about her son on Instagram. “It was all about intention,” the pop diva explained in her mea culpa, adding that the word “was used as a term of endearment toward my son who is white.” She also explained that she didn’t mean the N-word as a racial slur and that she’s not a racist.
In the land of Racist Tweets and the apologies that ensue, Madonna has good company. A couple of weeks ago, Ani DiFranco expressed regret for planning a retreat at a former slave plantation in Louisiana. The singer-songwriter had to issue two statements since the first one didn’t include an “I’m sorry.” And before those two famosas made the news, PR executive Justine Sacco apologized for joke Tweeting that she couldn’t get AIDS in Africa because she was white. She said she was sorry after she lost her job.
All of this has me thinking about racial apologies and how incredibly inadequate and uncomfortable they tend to be. No matter how sincere, the “I’m sorry” that follows a Racist Tweet always tends to have that element of a “Whoops” to it, as in “Whoops, I shouldn’t have said that. Sorry!” It’s like: “Whoops, I shouldn’t have used your favorite pen without asking. Sorry!” Nowadays, when everyone knows that being a racist is a social media no-no, the post-Racist Tweet “I’m sorry” is obligatory and necessary, but it usually fails to move the conversation forward.
Apologies are innately tricky. How many of us have issued a snarky remark and then just as quickly said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.” The truth is if we hadn’t meant it like that, we wouldn’t have said it. At some level, we did mean it. What we’re apologizing about is not that we erred but rather that the other person got hurt in the process. Madonna’s apology this weekend came across like that. Is she really sorry that she used the N-word? Or that some of us were pained? And it was only some of us. Her N-word hashtag earned her more than 4,000 likes and even comments like “Awesome.”
In Spanish, the way to say you’re sorry is to declare that you feel the other person’s pain: Lo siento. It’s English equivalent might be “I feel you” and therein perhaps lies the innate inadequacy of racial apologies. They can never really quite convey a sense of “I feel you,” because at the end of the day, skin color continues to largely determine the jobs we get and the schools that are shut down and who gets shipped to prison. So how exactly are you feeling that reality you don’t share? Much of the anger online (and offline) about the Justine-Ani-Madonna fiascos might be that their words underscore how our experiences around race shape everything from private parenting moments to jokes with friends to the hefty decisions we make about how to run our businesses. Social media might be connecting all of us and our abuelas too, but the racial divides remain, in many ways, sharp, blunt and persistent.
None of this is to suggest that empathy across communities isn’t possible. It is. But it requires time, effort, reflection — all the tasks you might privately engage in when you realize that you’ve deeply hurt another person. It doesn’t happen quickly and definitely doesn’t occur at the speed of social media updates.
In the ascent of the digital racial apology, the most telling moments these days might be what happens between the offence and the “Whoops, I’m sorry.” Madonna initially posted: “#get off my d-ck haters!” and Justine Sacco didn’t Tweet another word, but rather deleted her whole account. Ani DiFranco’s initial reaction was more nuanced to be sure, but it wasn’t that different. She tried to quell the haters (she used the word “high velocity bitterness”) and outlined at length how much she knows about slavery and race. Strange to say it, but I sat back in all three cases and felt sickly satisfied that for a nanosecond they weren’t trying to fake a “Lo siento.”
The other way to apologize in Spanish is to “pedir disculpas.” Translated literally, it means that you are asking to be separated from the offense, or the culpa, that you caused. But, as a friend of mine pointed out, a person who posts the N-word on Instagram or who claims to be surprised that a slave plantation has a painful meaning for many Americans is already separated from the harm. The words don’t bruise them, don’t hurt their families, don’t bring up collective memories of cruelties and injustices. Perhaps finally that too is what makes the racial apology so inadequate: The apologizer is nowhere near the pain that necessitates an “I’m sorry.”