It’s a ritual so familiar that it’s become a cliché: A white person says or does something racially offensive, the incident gets broadcast by national media to a firestorm of outrage, and the offender is forced to read a stilted, lawyer-written apology at a news conference, and pledges to perform some act of contrition, like hugging a black child or visiting Martin Luther King’s tomb. If you’re a man, you’re expected to wear a suit and look down a lot. If you’re a woman, you’re expected to seem on the verge of tears. Extra points if you can get Jesse Jackson to stand with you, but any member of the Black clergy will do.
It’s the Ritual of Racial Apology, and the latest individual to perform it is former University of Oklahoma student Levi Pettit, who, along with Parker Rice, helped lead a bus full of their Sigma Alpha Epsilon frat brothers in a disgusting, racist chant that got them both expelled, their fraternity kicked off campus and exposed a history of entrenched racism inside SAE and other fraternities at various colleges that stretches back for decades. They’ve also made themselves unemployable for years, if not for life.
What’s unique about this situation is usually its established businessmen or celebrities that garner this much attention when they make a racial slur, and they have PR teams ready to deflect blame and salvage their careers. In the case of SAE, the consequences hit them so hard and so fast they didn’t have time to get any damage control together. Watching the clips of Pettit at the podium, however, he seems to be a fast learner.
Personally, I’m not buying it.
Why are people of color expected to automatically forgive a racist who hasn’t proven themselves changed? These apologies always feel so fake and inauthentic. The people apologizing never pause to consider their actions until they are exposed, and even then they’re only doing so because of the fear of losing an endorsement or a job. The apology never matches the original levels of viciousness and creativity people achieve when insulting another’s sexuality or ethnicity. When a child actress is called a vile name by an long-running satire site, a beautiful young singer is labeled a stoner for wearing dreadlocks and a phenomenal 13-year old-female athlete is called a slut, they deserve more than a canned, robotic mea culpa.
But that’s what they get, because the object and focus of the Racial Apology Ritual is the redemption of the white racist, not the healing of the black psyche. It’s taken for granted that people of color are supposed to accept whatever apology they’re given, no matter how nasty the insult, and then things can go back to normal. Back to normal for White America, that is, which means forgetting the incident until the next one occurs.
It’s a mentality rooted in white privilege and assisted, unwittingly or not, by the black baptist church ritual of “testifying,” confessing your sins before the congregation and being absolved. But as any churchgoer can tell you, redemption is a lifelong process usually marked by episodes of “backsliding,” reverting back to the familiar bad habits that tarnish someone’s life in the first place. Change doesn’t happen overnight and it definitely doesn’t end with an apology. Real personal change has to come from within, and a real apology has to come from a truly remorseful person to the people they’ve hurt, away from any cameras.
I can’t see into Levi Pettit’s soul, though I do know that how you behave when no one’s looking is what shows your true character. If it wasn’t for that video, Levi most likely would have gone on to become a lawyer, an employer, a banker or a judge with the power to affect the lives of people of color in ways almost as terrible as the lynchings he joyfully sang about.
Maybe the exposure forced him to look at the ugliness of his behavior, and encouraged him to try and rectify it, but I’d feel less skeptical about that if he’d had that epiphany during that bus ride. We’ll see what the future holds; until then, I’ll withhold my forgiveness.