Gender, Inequality

Dear women of color, stop being apologetic for existing

We apologize when we are the ones who have been harmed. It's time for us to be unapologetic in our existence.

This past week, I had a conversation with some of my girlfriends about how unnecessarily apologetic we can be. I started the conversation after one of my friends said sorry for taking too long to finish her meal, which she does pretty often. Not thinking much of it, I just said “You don’t have anything to be sorry for.” We soon realized that, as women, we tend to be unnecessarily apologetic about things that men and sometimes white women don’t think twice about. We feel bad about taking up space, giving our opinions, and doing what makes us happy–we’ve become comfortable in discomfort and feel somehow “wrong” when we dare step out of it.

Studies have shown that women are more likely to apologize than men, especially when they have done nothing wrong. There has been extensive research on the confidence gap between men and women and how it plays into work environments. However, when looking into apologetic tendencies in women of color, I couldn’t find anything except articles about “feeling sorry for black women.” This tells me that either 1) Women of color don’t have problems with expressing our desires and taking up space or 2) No one cares enough about our individual experiences to ask. According to the history of our narratives being silenced and invalidated, I’m going to go with 2.

The intersectional impact of gender and race conflates the pressure on women of color to take up as little space, be as cordial, and undemanding as possible. We apologize for bringing up race or gender, even when it’s perfectly relevant. We apologize when we are the ones who have been harmed. It’s time for us to be unapologetic in our existence. But what’s the point? Don’t we deserve others to respect our right to space, be cordial with us, and listen to our demands as well? Being an oppressed minority doesn’t make our experiences or right to exist less valid.  

Although my friend’s apology sparked this conversation, I had been thinking about my own “sorriness” for a while. My demand that she stop apologizing for her existence was more directed at myself than to her. Just the week before, I had a white person say “nigga” around me. It was not the first time it happened, but it was the first time I reacted. Every time I’ve heard that word come out of a white person’s mouth, it makes me cringe in shame and embarrassment. But never have I told them, “you can’t say that.” I didn’t want to make white people uncomfortable. I didn’t want her to react negatively. I felt like it was better to act like nothing happened and feel insulted in private rather than voice my displeasure in public. And when I finally got the balls to say something, I started with “I’m sorry if this is awkward, but…”

“I’m sorry”? After she used a slur — albeit casually — that she knew was wrong and made me feel uncomfortable, I confronted her with an apology. This ate me up, and still does. I had and have nothing to be sorry about. She’s the one who said something inappropriate. Calling her out on it isn’t offensive. My feelings are valid. My comfort is a priority. Feeling respected is my right. Even knowing all of this, I gave her power over my expression and freedom with an apology.

That conversation with my girlfriends ended in a pact to call each other out on apologizing for our desires, passions, and existence. That following weekend went a lot like this:

“I’m sorry” “For what?” “….nothing.”

“I’m sorry” “No you’re not.” “Okay.”

While it seemed silly and annoying at first, I think it helped us to see how many times a day we needlessly apologize. It was easy to do this among friends, but what happens when we’re not together? It can be especially difficult to be confident in your existence when you are the only one in a room that doesn’t benefit from white and male privilege. It is easy to feel isolated and fall back into the comfort of apologies. But the only way to change a bad habit is to practice a new one.

I challenge you to call your friends out on their unnecessary apologies. I challenge you to create spaces where women of color can exist unapologetically. I challenge you to take up the space you deserve in the room. I challenge you to tell people that they are wrong instead of blaming yourself. I challenge you to stop being sorry for being alive and here.