Lolade Siyonbola is a graduate student at Yale, something that seems like it would require a lot of nights like the one she had Monday. Schoolwork was spilled out in front of her, all while sleep beckoned. Siyonbola decided to exercise some self-care and catch a few winks. She was in a common area in her dorm when she closed her eyes. She lives there, so everything should’ve been cool, right? She belongs there.
But Siyonbola is black, and soon thereafter, a white student called the cops on her. “We need to make sure that you belong here,” you can hear one of the officers say in a recording of the incident. That this interaction ranged from merely irritating to potentially fatal – depending upon the mood of the cops who showed up – is to understand what America can be for a great many of us. All it takes is one panicked call to 911.
The script that Siyonbola’s story followed has become familiar, or at least more readily available, to all Americans. In the wake of last month’s absurd arrests of two black men inside a Philadelphia Starbucks, the press has paid closer attention to what is an everyday threat to people of color in these United States. Namely, the persistent inability for minorities to move freely in the same spaces as white people without seeing police or other authority figures summoned to re-segregate that space – our safety and dignity be damned. Two black businessmen waiting in a café become loiterers; a black woman who requests plastic utensils at a Waffle House is made out to be a criminal; a black ex-Obama aide moving into his Manhattan apartment is suddenly a burglar. A couple of prospective students, both Native American, are ejected from a Colorado State campus tour after a white woman in the group considered their silent attention creepy. Five black women playing golf become, what, exactly? What crimes are typically committed on the links, perhaps aside from insider trading?
Sometimes, it’s just a university official getting baristas fired for playing hip-hop music with colorful language, as a Duke vice president did just days ago. But for those incidents involving the cops, it is hardly hyperbolic to imagine that any one of those folks could’ve ended up dead had they met the wrong officers that day. I’ve addressed this before, and the rash of similar incidents in recent weeks only further underscore how little some folks feel our lives are worth if they sic the cops on us for any damn reason at all, knowing the risks.
That infuriating and tired reality is all hard enough to stomach without the apologies.
Soon after the press gets wind of these incidents, an apology usually descends on the afflicted party, usually from a suited bigwig or other authority figure. A regretful statement is released. Nebulous plans are made for summits and trainings. Guilty white people with a conscience take to social media to take account for their entire race, unaware of how luxurious it must be for that to be a choice. And the person whose dignity or body was assaulted is left, at times, traumatized and antagonistic while the offending party worries briefly about an injured reputation.
The authority figure, typically, is “deeply troubled” – as the Yale vice president for student life, Kimberly Goff-Crews, expressed to students in an email. Siyonbola received not so much an apology from Yale as a lamentation at the state of the campus. “I am committed to redoubling our efforts to build a supportive community in which all graduate students are empowered in their intellectual pursuits and professional goals within a welcoming environment,” the graduate dean Lynn Cooley wrote to students in an email. Siyonbola, the founder of the Yoruba Cultural Institute in Brooklyn and a published author, understandably found that lacking. “It wasn’t compassionate,” she told the New York Times. “It was very high level – like we have to do better someday, somehow.”
“Sorry” is meant for accidents, my mother always told me. I was a kid who used the word too often, so this lesson was necessary. Rather than an expression of genuine regret, I was using the word to salve some wound, or to de-escalate a bad situation of my own doing. If you think about what you’re doing before you do it, she reminded me this week, then you won’t have to say “I’m sorry.” These episodes of implicit bias showing its ass in public are not accidental. This is all happening on purpose.
The worst thing, really, may be that everyone knows this. Racial profiling, like any facet of racism, requires serious thought and pre-emptive action to end it. Reacting to incidents after the fact, especially with these sudden apologies, reveals two things: most Americans are aware of the problem, yet wait until it affects their employer or brand to take action.
So, like my mother, I am tired of “sorry.” These mea culpas and “my bad’s” have always been more for the offender than the offended. America should demand more of itself.
It’s not as if we will run out of opportunities to do so. Usually, we had to die first, transforming abruptly into hashtags as our families collected belated settlements and staged remorse from public officials. Now, presidents of major corporations are flying across the country to apologize to black people, even when little more than our psyche and confidence was damaged. Weeks after Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson insisted upon apologizing to Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson in person for their indefensible arrest inside that Philadelphia café, Nordstrom president Geevy Thomas – himself a man of color – flew to St. Louis to tell a group of young black men who had been profiled in a Nordstrom Rack store that he was sorry. The three teenagers, all students shopping last Thursday before a high school prom the next night, were stalked through the store by two employees, then confronted by police after leaving with their purchases. They’d been accused of theft. Once their receipts were checked, they were free to go.
Again, it only requires a cursory glance at recent reports of police violence, or American history, to envision that situation ending with those three black students in jail – or worse. Adolphus Pruitt II, the president of the NAACP’s St. Louis chapter, told the Times that “In today’s day in time, it is remarkable” how smoothly the police handled the whole episode. “If we can get that to repeat itself as much as possible, boy, it would make my job easier.”
Jose Arreola was not so fortunate. At a gas station in Orange County, California, last March, he purchased a $1.19 pack of Mentos for his wife Jacqueline and placed it in his pocket. It’s clear on the video released late last week that the off-duty police officer standing behind Arreola in line immediately removed his gun from his holster. “Hey, put that back,” said the cop, his weapon clearly visible to Arreola and the gas station clerk. Arreola told the officer that he’d just paid for them, but no matter. The officer demanded that he take his change from the counter – which he wouldn’t have been owed had he not already paid – and leave. He stood by the door as the officer asked the gas station clerk whether Arreola had paid. After that fact was repeatedly confirmed, the officer then said, “My apologies. My apologies.” As he reached out to Arreola to give him the Mentos that he’d bought, his other hand was still on the gun.
So it went for the four women renting an Airbnb in a predominantly white Rialto, California, neighborhood late last month. Police cars swarmed the women as they loaded suitcases into their vehicle. A helicopter hovered overhead. All four are creative professionals who were in town for an event, and three of them are black. One of the women, filmmaker Kelly Fyffe-Marshall, shot live video from the stop and captured a police officer telling them that a neighbor had reported a burglary at the home.”Three black people stealing stuff,” were his exact words.
Though the cops seem to think that they handled this all properly, those three black women are suing the Rialto police. Airbnb – infamous for past reports of discrimination – called the incident “unconscionable” and requested a meeting with Rialto’s mayor and police chief. Granted, this started with yet another person who decided, much in the vein of that Starbucks manager in Philly, to casually weaponize the police against black people. But how do we stop this kind of nonsense before it happens? When will the suburban neighbors and Nordstrom clerks and off-duty cops realize that apologies after the fact don’t salve the wound cut open by their recklessness?
Apologies have their limited worth. The University of Florida graduates who were manhandled by a “platform marshal” last Saturday as they celebrated commencement with a short dance onstage deserved an apology from the university president, and they got one. But apologies are not time machines. Those students won’t get that moment back. The young men in that Nordstrom Rack are left with the residue of an experience that was humiliating if not outright frightening. Arreola, heading to a club that night, shouldn’t have to wonder whether his wife will become a widow because he stopped to buy her some mints. “Sorry” doesn’t wash any of those experiences away.
“Well, at least we’re getting apologies now,” some could reasonably argue. I hear that. Certainly, it would have been nice if some corporate executive or the police had reached out to Chikesia Clemons, the young black woman brutishly arrested by two white cops last month at a Waffle House in Alabama, and said, “I’m sorry that you were wrestled to the ground like an animal, with police threatening to break your arm and exposing your breasts in public, all because of a dispute over plastic utensils.” But that’s all an apology would have been: nice. Any public performance of regret might only underscore how unnecessary this all was. While I cannot speak for her, I can’t imagine that she is as interested in an apology for what happened as she is interested in that not happening to her at all.
That isn’t to say that an apology for assorted racial indignities can’t be useful, or instructive. Before the opening of the new museum and memorial dedicated to lynching victims in Montgomery, Alabama, the local newspaper, the Advertiser, took account for its role in excusing the mob murder of African Americans. “On the day when people from across the globe come to our capital city to consider the sordid history of slavery and lynching and try to reconcile the horrors of our past, the Montgomery Advertiser recognizes its own shameful place in the history of these dastardly, murderous deeds,” its editorial board wrote on April 26. The frankness with which the Advertiser handled that was welcome, especially considering how essential the press’ willful ignorance and criminalization of lynching victims was to the proliferation of that kind of violence. Ideally, the apology would serve as a lesson to those in journalism who might, in today’s era, ignore or justify police brutality.
That is useful regret. Underneath it was not merely recognition of past wrongs, but an earnest pledge to correct them. There was no pressure put upon black people in Montgomery to swallow it, lest they appear ungrateful. The folks at these universities and corporations could learn something from this. It does us no good as people of color – out here subject to the whims of jittery neighbors, store clerks and police officers – to be supplied with empty apologies. We’re good, thanks. In every sense of the word, we are quite aware of how sorry America is.