On Apologies, Insecurities, and Power
Updated: Aug 21, 2020
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.
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.