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This week Zoe Saldana apologized for her blackface performance as Nina Simone and honestly, I feel like the apology was even more upsetting than her original sin.


It isn’t.


In 2016, she deliberately ignored protests, including critiques from Simone’s own descendants, insisting that she wasn’t the right fit for the role. Despite that, Saldana defensively doubled-down by darkening her skin and wearing a prosthetic nose to portray a woman who fought hard against racism and colorism in her personal, professional, and political life.


What concerns me about Saldana’s apology is that in this trending anti-racism moment we’re most likely going to hear more apologies from people and institutions addressing the harm they’ve previously caused. For instance, over the last couple of months, white actors have apologized for and even quit their non-white TV roles, including Jimmy Fallon (SNL), Kirsten Bell (Central Park), and Jenny Slate (Big Mouth). Slate apologized for playing a Black character, saying, “I acknowledge how my original reasoning (her parents are Jewish and white) was flawed, that it existed as an example of white privilege and unjust allowances made within a system of societal white supremacy, and that in me playing Missy, I was engaging in an act of erasure of Black people.”


But the erasure reveals something else. I want to believe that these folks and their apologies are honest. But the thing is if they have to “reason” or convince themselves that what they’re doing—even at the expense of another— is justified, they are revealing their own terrifying relationship with power, privilege, and entitlement. Of course, as marginalized women in a white, cis-male dominated industry, Saldana and Slate face their own battles with racism and sexism, however, their decisions serve to remind us that the victims can also be the perpetrators. We are all capable of causing oppressive harm.


I do believe that Saldana’s apology was genuine. I don’t believe it was completely honest. I myself have given and received similar apologies. They’re the kind of apologies only offered long after the harm is done. The kind of apology made to cover asses. The kind of apologies that are too ashamed to go deeper and reveal an uncomfortable insecurity, imperfection, or character flaw. Even as a woman of color with her own set of hardships, especially regarding her racial identity, Saldana still enjoys a level of power, privilege, and comfort provided by her wealth, prestige, beauty, and skin color. When she felt those things were under question (read: attack), she became defensive and did what many of us would've done: respond from a place of insecurity. That’s because our insecurities blur our vision and distort our ability to see ourselves and others clearly. Even worse, unchecked and dormant insecurities yearn for power and deploy unreasonable defenses to provide a sense of safety.


The apologies—at least the genuine ones— should keep coming, especially from those who have misused or abused their power and privilege. But as we move forward in securing a liberated and humane future for all, let’s stop reasoning about harm we have caused or will cause. Let’s stop acting and speaking from a place of insecurity and let’s start moving and apologizing from a place of love, self-awareness, and shamelessness.


And for those of us on the receiving end of these apologies, it’s important that we listen closely to what's being said, ask questions, tell our truth, and demand accountability.


A few days before my graduation in 2013, I received an email from a staffer in the college president’s office asking me to send him a copy of my commencement speech. The email read as basic “housekeeping”: “We just want to make sure we have it!” But I knew it wasn’t the whole truth, particularly because the president’s office and the commencement committee had all received copies of my speech weeks ago. But I read between the lines.


Earlier that week, a friend of mine hosted a campus screening of her documentary, “Why are all the Black girls sitting together?”, which featured me unflinchingly discussing my experiences with racism and sexism on campus. I was excited that the documentary was highlighting the experiences of Black women attending and working at a PWI. I even remember speaking to a tenured professor about potential backlash we could receive for speaking so honestly in the documentary.


But I remember asking myself, “Would telling the truth cost me my dream?”

It’s a question I wrestle with often. But when I do I think of Bloody Sunday, Pettus Bridge, and John Lewis marching into uncertainty saying, “There will be no turning back.”


I went on to give my speech without any alterations or interruptions (at least on my end). After receiving a standing ovation from my peers, their families, and John Lewis himself, I left the podium and entered John’s embrace. He hugged me tightly and said “I am so inspired by you...I wouldn’t want to get in your way!” We swapped places at the podium and Mr. Lewis went on to tell our graduating class to “get into good trouble -- necessary trouble!”.

Later that day at a private reception, Mr. Lewis gave me his business card and said, “If you’re ever in DC or Atlanta, come see me.” It’s been seven years since that day. I still have his card but I never got the chance to take him up on the offer. I think meeting him was enough. John Lewis fought the good fight until the end and we are all better because of him. I want better because of him.


I'm tired of seeing “Protect Black Women” posts by people (mostly men) who have done things to harm Black women, myself included. The ones who repost humiliating videos of Black women, usually poor and working class; who don’t believe or respect the existence of Black Trans women; who do nothing to stop street harassment, sexual harassment, or slut shaming; who remain silent while Black women are killed by both state violence and domestic violence; who silence Black women and take credit for their labor; who think the only women worth protecting are ones they are sexually or romantically interested in; who only protect women with cis-gendered heteronormative patriarchal values; who sexualize their daughters and debate her future desirability; who have no platonic Black women friends (who are feminists); who perpetuate outdated and unfounded beliefs around Black women’s bodies, emotions, and intelligence.


But yeah, protect Black women. #toyinsalau


Photo by @broobs.psd

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