Felicity Huffman: White is the color of remorse

White people must confront the reality that their expressions of remorse often elicit sympathy and compassion

Published September 19, 2019 2:05PM (EDT)

Actress Felicity Huffman arrives at federal court in Boston to face charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal, April 3, 2019. (AP/Steven Senne)
Actress Felicity Huffman arrives at federal court in Boston to face charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal, April 3, 2019. (AP/Steven Senne)

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

It is not a shock to discover that white people with status and deep pockets often get what they want when they want it.

Another fact not lost on many racialized, Black and Indigenous people: white is the preferred colour of remorse.

On Sept. 13, 2019, actor Felicity Huffman expressed remorse and shame in response to the college admissions scandal for which she was handed a 14-day prison sentence and a $30,000 fine, in exchange for a plea deal.

As reported by CNN, she told the judge: “I am deeply ashamed of what I have done.” “At the end of the day I had a choice to make. I could have said, ‘no.’”

We recently presented research on remorse and the performance of emotion in cases involving dangerous offenders in Canadian courts. We studied how race matters in the performance and interpretation of remorse by analyzing five years of Canadian media coverage and literature.

Crimes in communities are generally looked at in two ways. One is that the defendant is an expected criminal, fulfilling stereotypes and bias. Their criminal actions are seen as a natural by-product of a lifetime of disadvantage, abuse or pathology.

Alternatively, the story can be seen as coming out of nowhere, defying expectations regarding who commits crimes. Individuals who have no prior history dealing with the criminal justice system seem out of place — as if they don’t belong here.

While we focus our research on Canada, we note the parallels with the United States.

The fallout from this case is a potent reminder of how North American courts — not to mention the court of public opinion in the United States and Canada — reinforce the system of white privilege. Reni Eddo Lodge, the author of "Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race," defines white privilege as “a manipulative, suffocating blanket of power that envelops everything we know, like a snowy day.”

In this case, the judge was moved by Huffman’s show of remorse about her hand in this debacle and how she let down her daughter, Sophia.

The point here is not to suggest that Huffman deserved a harsher sentence. The key message is that courts and the legal system, along with the helpful hand of the media, imagine some folks as worthier of condemnation simply because of how they interpret the defendant’s ability to emote (or fail to emote) feelings.

Racialized v. white defendants

The social media fallout from the Huffman case has been intense, with much of the anger centered on the light punishment meted out to a white A-list celebrity, with several commentators referencing the excessive charges levelled at Black defendants.

Karlous Miller, a Black comedian, tweeted: “Black people, you ever heard of a two-week prison sentence?”

Last month in Alabama, Alvin Kennard, a Black man, was released from prison after spending 36 years in prison for stealing $50 from a bakery.

By contrast, Brock Turner, the white student-athlete from Stanford University who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman in 2015, was was handed a sentence of six months in jail for his crime. “Because (sic) Mr. Turner came before us today and said he was genuinely sorry for all the pain that he has caused to [Jane] and her family. And I think that is a genuine feeling of remorse,” the judge in the case said at the time of sentencing.

As American legal scholar M. Eve Hanan explains:

“Over 10 percent of the judge’s in-court explanation of the sentence was devoted to crediting Turner’s expression of remorse captured in a statement that Turner read during his sentencing hearing. It mattered to the judge that Turner expressed remorse. In the eyes of the court, Turner was a young man who was not defined by his crime but by his regret and shame about the crime.”

Huffman issued a public apology and mea culpa which was similarly received:

“I am in full acceptance of my guilt, and with deep regret and shame over what I have done … and will accept the consequences that stem from those actions … I am ashamed of the pain I have caused my daughter, my family, my friends, my colleagues and the educational community. I want to apologize to them and, especially, I want to apologize to the students who work hard every day to get into college, and to their parents who make tremendous sacrifices to support their children and do so honestly.”

Race matters

Remorse belongs to a class of “retractive emotions,” such as guilt, shame, regret and contrition. As Michael Proeve at University of Adelaide and Steven Tudor at La Trobe University write in their book, "Remorse: Psychological and Jurisprudential Perspectives": these are “retractive” emotions, which means they distance themselves from something that is associated with the self. “That something may be an action, an omission, or simply a certain state or condition of being.”

It is difficult to assess the authenticity of Huffman’s expression of remorse. What we do know, however, is that the ability to express or perform remorse can be critical when judges determine a sentence. And, surprisingly, despite remorse being the least understood emotion, many of us seem to think that we have a natural ability to sniff out the fakers.

Race matters in these implicit assessments.

As Hanan suggests in her review of remorse bias and racism, remorse functions as a “proxy for overall character.” This means it is easy for an assessment of remorse to degrade into the implicit bias associating Black with criminality. Rather than crediting a display of remorse, as the court did in Turner’s case, the implicit bias of Black criminality works to discount Black displays of remorse.

White people must confront the reality that their expressions of remorse often elicit sympathy and compassion. When racialized people express regret, however, they are often viewed with suspicion, if not outright hostility. White is the privileged colour of remorse.

This is a corrected version of an article originally published on Sept. 16, 2019. The earlier story said Brock Turner was sentenced to six months’ probation instead of jail. 

Michael Orsini, Professor, health policy, disability, public policy, social movements, University of Ottawa and Linda Mussell, PhD Candidate, Queen's University, Ontario

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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