A few weeks ago, I received a message from an old schoolfriend wanting to apologise for her racist behaviour. She said she remembered upsetting me in the toilets because she kept asking me about my hair. "I want to say sorry for that," she wrote. "It weighs on my mind." The incident happened 13 years ago.
I didn’t respond, closed the message and put my phone down. I felt confused, taken aback and could feel my blood slowly boiling. It’s taken you over a decade to apologise? I thought. Why now?
Following the brutal murder in May of George Floyd, the 46-year-old Black man who died in Minneapolis after white police officer Derek Chauvin crushed his neck with his knee, racial tensions have gone into overdrive. This year the Black community has been forced to deal with their loved ones disproportionately dying from coronavirus and watched as people who look like them are gunned down in the street, choked to death or shot in their own home. It has caused considerable distress and sparked global outrage which led to hundreds of protests around the world. White people have been forced to hold the mirror up and check their white privilege, and how their actions, behaviours and culture play a part in the oppression of Black people.
Reading that message, following an emotional day of protesting in London – and during a pandemic, when emotions are already high – brought all my racial trauma to the forefront of my mind. I recalled being nicknamed "Mop Head" at school, teachers constantly commenting on my hair, telling me it was messy and scruffy, while others encouraged me to straighten it. I remembered people commenting on my dark skin and comparing me to burned toast. For many years I was othered, made to feel inferior. Every time I challenged it, I was told I was overreacting or that I didn't have a sense of humour. Hearing this over and over again for a long time during my formative years, I actually started to believe it. I was being racially gaslit.
Racism in the UK is insidious; it's burrowed so deep into the culture that it has become part and parcel of our lives. There hasn't been a single day in my life where I haven't encountered racism, whether it's being called "darkie" or facing institutional racism at school, work and every organisation I've been involved with, or hearing our prime minister refer to people who look like me as "thugs". It's inescapable.
So when I'm faced with an apology from someone who is very likely to be feeling white guilt, I don't know how to react. Am I angry? Am I sad? Am I confused? I'm not the only one. Other Black women I've spoken to have received similar messages in the last few months.
Jade*, who wished to be anonymous, said she received a message from a white woman who wanted to check in. "I got a text from her apologising for her racist comment in the past and she told me how much her thinking had changed. While I feel glad that she showed some kindness and realised she may have perpetrated racist behaviour, it’s not my role to absolve them from that.
"Whenever I get a message like that I just find it funny because we’re not particularly close, so I wonder how many other Black friends they have and why they are coming to share this with me. I’m torn between appreciating it and thinking they want me to pacify/absolve them."
Another woman said she received an apology from an old schoolfriend for calling her the n-word. "They said they regretted it every day since."
According to Denise Freeman, therapist and member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, the way we feel – anger, confusion or frustration – could be linked to past experiences rather than the message itself. "Many Black people disassociate themselves from racist trauma, so you can end up feeling numb or in limbo," she tells me. "A friend apologising to you 13 years later, after you have disassociated yourself from it, has made you feel overwhelmed because it’s brought everything up to the surface."
Perhaps my old schoolfriend had seen the error of her ways and maybe her apology was genuine, but should I accept that and can I forgive her? I believe strongly in forgiveness as it can be a great form of closure but this time around it was too raw for me to instantly do that.
"Part of the healing process is to understand and forgive, and that’s really difficult for people," Freeman continues. "But forgiveness isn’t always about the other person. When we think about relationships, we think about romantic ones, but every interaction is a relationship. When we are looking at racial abuse, we always look at the other person rather than looking at where we place ourselves in that relationship, and forgiveness is part of this."
Freeman adds that attaching the feeling of the apology to the situation will help us move through it and seek closure. However she admits that this can be difficult as a Black woman. "Getting past racial trauma is difficult because you’re always faced with microaggressions at work, or any form of racism. So how can you ever get over that trauma when you’re constantly reminded of it?"
While I have a million things to say in response to my schoolfriend's apology – mostly expletives – it’s counterproductive. Freeman suggests journalling instead. "Write down all your feelings, sentences and try to build a sense of how you feel. Get all of that chatter down on paper and try to attach yourself back to the actual issues and feelings. This will help you gain control." If you’re struggling to make sense of anything, Freeman suggests talking therapies. "I encourage people to speak it out, and ideally with a Black therapist."
If you do choose to respond, Freeman adds that you don’t need to put pressure on yourself to say thank you. "You can acknowledge the message by saying that it has taken you aback and you’re confused, but you don’t have to say anything else. It’s important to give yourself enough time to process it."
I still haven't responded and I don't think I ever will. What the last few months have taught me is that boundaries and the need to protect my energy and feelings are more important now than ever. White people apologising is exhausting; white people, in general, are exhausting. I don't want to hear apologies for things that should never have been said or done in the first place. Just treat Black people equally and with respect.
If you are struggling with your mental health and want to find a Black therapist close to you, visit the Black, African and Asian Therapy Network here.
*Name has been changed.