Rainbow Rant: What comes after sorry?

Apologies are hot right now, but healing and transformation require more

Joy Ellison
Musical artists Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears dated in the early aughts.

Britney Spears, Janet Jackson and I all have something in common: Earlier this year, we received long-overdue apologies. 

In February, Justin Timberlake took to Instagram to publicly apologize to Spears and Jackson. “I am deeply sorry for the time in my life where my actions contributed to the problem,” he wrote. “I understand that I fell short in these moments and in many others and benefited from a system that condones misogyny and racism.” 

I never expected to hear the guy famous for the song “Bye, Bye, Bye” talk about his privilege. I am plenty skeptical that a white man who made millions gentrifying R&B is really invested in dismantling racism and misogyny. But I’ve got to hand it to Timberlake, he offered an apology — not an excuse or an explanation, but an expression of contrition. 

I wonder, though, how Timberlake’s apology made Spears and Jackson feel. Because the one I received made me feel lousy. 

The apology offered to me wasn’t as well-crafted as Timberlake’s, but that wasn’t what bothered me about it. In fact, there wasn’t anything wrong with the form of the apology. The problem was more basic: The apology concerned a transphobic microaggression about which I had long forgotten. It brought to the surface a pain I had long moved past, along with a melancholy for all of the apologies I would welcome but never expect to receive. I left the conversation doubting that this apology was really for my benefit. 

Apologies are hot right now. Everyone from Timberlake to Terry Crews is apologizing. The kangaroo court of social media stands ready to judge the quality of those apologies. As a result, fewer public figures are bold enough to offer the non-apology apology, the old “I’m sorry, but” bait-and-switch. Rarely, though, does anyone ask what these apologies mean to the people receiving them. 

Instead, we act like parole boards, ready to decide whether the apologizer has been rehabilitated or deserves social ostracization. Our concern is social punishment, not healing or transformation. 

There has never really been a need to teach people how to apologize. An apology isn’t difficult to write. It’s not a sonnet, a haiku or even a limerick. When someone offers a non-apology apology, the problem isn’t that they don’t know how to apologize; the issue is that they aren’t sorry. When you want to be accountable for your actions, apologizing is easy, but receiving an apology is rarely simple. 

An apology can raise all sorts of questions: Can I trust this person? Do I feel any obligation to forgive? How can I respond in a way that facilitates my recovery? Questions like this can tear at a person. Apologies often hurt, even when they help us heal. Encouraging a culture of apology but neglecting to support people harmed by oppression and violence is doing only half the job. Maybe less than half.

An apology isn’t a balm or magic spell. It is nothing more than an admission of reality. For a person who has harmed another, that acknowledgement represents an important change. The person harmed, however, already lives in reality. For those of us continually violated by systems of oppression, that reality is ever present. 

That’s why the power of an apology is limited — and why we are rapidly reaching the limits of the cultural conversation about them. To go further, we need to turn our attention toward building communities of support and healing for the survivors of oppressive systems, and then begin dismantling those systems altogether.