Sorry, but forced apologies are the worst. Why can't we quit this insincere ritual?

"Sorry" on demand is worse than saying nothing. And yet this cultural obligation — public and private — won't die

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published August 21, 2021 11:00AM (EDT)

Sorry, not sorry (Illustration by Ilana Lidagoster)
Sorry, not sorry (Illustration by Ilana Lidagoster)

Forced apologies are one annoying cultural ritual we refuse to let die. An apology is supposed to make the offended person feel better after being harmed. And when a person truly understands and regrets the harm they caused and wants to make amends, a sincere apology is sometimes all it takes to mend that relationship. But will the offended really feel better if they can tell it was all a sham? And can't you always tell? 

I learned that from my friend Troy early in my adult life, when he introduced me to a new friend of his from work — a husky white man in a Budweiser hoodie named Wayne. 

"We Bacardi and Cola at work, man," Troy told me. "I'm telling you, Wayne is the coolest white boy since Eminem came out." 

Wayne, as tall as he was wide, gripped his green trucker hat, nodded, and extended his arm for a handshake. I gave him a pound and welcomed him to the block. 

"We don't get many white boys around here," I said, examining his frumpy denim and Nike Cortez sneakers. "Stay close to Troy or they gonna think you're a knocker." 

"Knockers?" Wayne replied, his face twisted into a question mark.

"That's an undercover cop," Troy laughed. "We call them knockers 'cause they hop out the car and knock you right across your head."

"Ain't no cop in me brotha!"  Wayne shrugged. "Not a bit!"

There were some white people on our block — knockers, beat cops, housing police, Johns Hopkins employees who were brave enough to park near us because they were too cheap to pay for the hospital's garage, plus the occasional addicts who journeyed into the city looking for a blast — but not any white residents or peers. Baltimore city is segregated like that. We had to travel 15 minutes by car, or three hours by bus, to see white people. 

Troy asked me if I wanted to hit the bar with them. "First round on me, brotha!" Wayne chimed in. "Only beer though, this ain't a pay week." 

"Nah, I'm good," I replied, finding my favorite place on the steps, where I liked to eat sunflower seeds and see the sun fade, and watched Bacardi and Cola make their way down the block.

Troy was just like me when it came to thinking and dreaming. We both had limitless curiosity, always the first to hit the road and travel to other cities and states, and we questioned everything. We didn't listen to wild stories without grilling the storyteller and then doubling back to fact check everything. You had to be pretty sharp to pull one over on us. The difference between me and Troy, though, is he had a need to connect and network with everybody he worked with throughout the collection of jobs he held. Think of one of those community college diversity flyers come to life — that was Troy. He introduced me to the first Korean, Nigerian, Jamaican, Swiss and Puerto Rican people I ever met. We even went on double dates with women from Alaska. Who knew there were Black women from Alaska in Baltimore that wanted to date street guys like us? Troy knew — that's who. I always admired that about him. I had an impenetrable wall built around me. And in most cases, people who weren't from my neighborhood weren't getting in. 

Troy's white friend Wayne became a fixture over the next three months. I went out with them a couple of times to different lounges and bar-restaurants, and laughed when Wayne pushed up on Black girls. Well, initially, I laughed. But after a while I began to feel uncomfortable, because his rap always went like, "I gots plenty of soul up in me sista, watch me work!" These words always came out in a country, semi-fake-wannabe Black-sounding voice.

"Yo, I'm not coming around this weirdo anymore," I told Troy on one of those nights when Wayne fell deep into that stupid accent. "He acts too."

So Troy approached Wayne and told him he had to relax. 

"I'm sorry, brotha," Wayne responded quickly. "I get a bit wild when the juice in me, brotha."  

I always hated the way he said brotha. And I hated it even more when he called me brotha.

"Just call me D," I told him more than once. 

Each time, he'd apologize with a blank shrug. "My bad, D."

Maybe his apologies were sincere. Maybe they came from the bottom of his heart. But he never really seemed to be sorry. Those interactions left me with the icky feeling that maybe he thought I should be proud to be called "brotha" by him. I was not proud.

I was also stubborn. Since childhood I had been against the practice of saying "sorry" just for the sake of saying it. It made me think of the time when I was five years old and I took the batteries out of a remote and hurled it at my cousin's head with all my might.

"Tell your cousin sorry!" my uncle yelled. The remote had narrowly missed cracking him. 

"Boy! Apologize!" he said, fog building on his square frames. "And ya father gonna whip your ass!" 

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," I said. "I won't do it anymore." 

The problem is that I wasn't sorry. My cousin's remote control car had stopped working, so he pissed in the toilet and dropped my car in. I am 40 years old now and still mad about that — and mad that I was forced into giving a fake apology. Even after I explained my actions to my uncle, he still felt that my apology was necessary. We do that to kids all the time — insist that they apologize even when they weren't at fault, and then we pretend that solved whatever caused the real problem, because it's easier and faster than working through conflict. It's no wonder so may people carry that theory into adulthood — that a quick "sorry" is supposed to magically fix any problem they caused, even if they don't mean it.

Now the fake apology has become an everyday shared public experience, too. One of the latest examples came recently when hip hop megastar DaBaby offered up an apology for disturbing homophobic slurs he made on stage at the Rolling Loud Festival in July. 

DaBaby's on-stage comments dominated the entertainment news cycle for days, prompting several other major festivals where he was slated to perform to drop him. In attempt to quell the professional damage, DaBaby took to Instagram and — just like Wayne's hasty "my bad" — quickly released a contrite statement, apologizing "to the LGBTQ+ community for the hurtful and triggering comments I made." 

Did DaBaby apologize because he hurt millions of people, including fans, by promoting homophobic rhetoric that can have deadly implications, or did he apologize because of the amount of money he stands to lose as a result? Did he understand why his comments were harmful and wrong, or was he trying to stop corporations who don't want to be perceived as friendly to bigotry from working with him indefinitely? 

When someone apologizes too fast, or only after they've suffered financial consequences, I wonder if they are sorry for their actions or just sorry they got caught. In DaBaby's case, it probably didn't accomplish what he hoped it would. Once companies make public statements about dropping you, they are probably going to stand behind their decisions, at least for the near future. A few days later, DaBaby deleted his apology post. I reached out to his team to ask why, but did not get a response. But the damage is done: deleting a hasty apology so fast only makes the apology look even more fake and reactionary. The deletion, which brought another round of public attention to the story, gave the impression that, privately at least, he might still stand behind his ugly words. 

I stopped hanging out with Troy when he had his work friend Wayne with him. But one day Troy spotted me sitting in my favorite spot with my sunflower seeds, watching the sunset, and walked up with two cups and a bottle of liquor. 

"Should I pour up?" Troy asked, fixing us two heavy cups of Remy before I could answer. 

"Surprised to see you out here during peak happy hour," I said, spitting loose shells onto the curb. "Thought you'd be turning up with your boy Wayne."

"Man, f**k Wayne," Troy laughed, swallowing a burning gulp of cognac. "I slapped him at work and got fired."

Troy told me he was standing near the break room and overheard Wayne and another white guy laughing hysterically. He poked his head in, thinking he could get in on the joke, just in time to hear the other white guy say, "Yo Wayne, what's up n***a!" 

Wayne replied, "Sky, ceilin, how you feelin, n***a!"

"Time out!" I yelled, spitting out my drink. "Yooooo, no. What did you do?"

"I did what any respectable Black man would do," Troy said. "I slapped Wayne so hard I'm sure he'll have a headache for at least a week." 

Troy said Wayne hit the wall, holding his red face in his hands, saying, "God, Troy! I'm sorry, relax! Please!" The other white guy ran out of the room and returned with a supervisor who invited the trio into his office. Troy got the boot. The white guys lost a few days without pay but kept their jobs. Troy was charged with second degree assault and reckless endangerment, but never convicted. Wayne and the other white boy didn't come to court.

Troy remained a pretty open guy, but he didn't bring too many friends from work around the neighborhood anymore after that. He told me he did feel bad about slapping Wayne — not because he hurt him, but because he lost a job that he really liked. Troy was sorry that he allowed a person he thought was a friend to take an opportunity from him like that. Unlike DaBaby or Wayne, though, he never made an insincere, forced apologized — not to Wayne, and not to the company. I'll always respect him for that. 

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America” and "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new book, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," is out now.

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