Voiceless Ancestors

On Asking White People To Apologize

“Dear White People”, says the tweet, “No one is asking you to apologise for your ancestors. We are asking you to dismantle the system of oppression they built, that you maintain and benefit from.”


Maybe it is true. Maybe noone is asking us to apologize for our ancestors. Still, when I read this tweet, I started to ask myself if, actually, asking us to apologize for our ancestors could not be a perfectly reasonable demand, after all. I know we don’t see it that way. But what does it say about us, and about western’s culture?

The fact that we are so defensive about apologizing for what our ancestors did tells a lot about how we see our relationship with them, as well as how we see what apologies are. In our culture, apologizing often feels bad. It is a proof of inferiority, of weakness. It is a punishment. However, when you learn to apologize properly, apologizing feels good. Maybe apologizing for our ancestors might do us some good, in top of the good it could do to others.

Also, in our individualistic culture, you can only apologize for your own faults. Asking us to apologize for the acts of our ancestors is seen as both unfair (since we had no control over what our ancestors did) and manipulative (since it is asking us something that can’t be done).

But what if it could meaningfully be done? After all, they commited crimes, and they cannot apologize themselves. People are still hurting, to this day, from what they’ve done. What if we could say, “hey, in the name of our ancestors, we apologize. We ask you to be kind and compasionate enough to forgive them”? What would be needed for us, individually, collectively, culturally, to be able to say that, and for that to have meaning? What would be needed for it to be received?

I discovered, through the work of Tada Hozuki, the idea that whiteness could be understood as a form of trauma born from an unsecure relationship with one’s culture, and a disconnection from one’s ancestry. It seems to me that this is a striking example of that.

Who are we, culturally, if we cannot even apologize for our ancestors? What does it say about us, if we don’t even see ourselves as able to apologize for our ancestors when we feel like they did something wrong? Of course, we had no power then, we weren’t even born. But we have power now. Or, at least, we could reclaim that power. Nothing prevents us to apologize for our ancestors, but the weakness of our own culture.

I don’t believe it would be fair for White people to be punished for the crimes of their ancestors (although “please dismantle the system of oppression they built” seems a pretty reasonable demand.) But apologies are not a punishment. They are an act of power.

To apologize for your ancestors, you need to feel connected to them in such a way that you can speak for them. You need to belong to a culture that has integrity, that exists through space and time, and that empowers you enough to do so. I am afraid that, for the moment, we are not mature enough, as a culture, for this to even feel possible. It would need a level of integrity our culture doesn’t have at all. It wouldn’t seem fair to me if I had to answer for what my own country is currently doing right now, how could you ask me to answer for what my ancestors did?

I am so sorry to those who would need those apologies, for those who have died, and will die, without hearing them. I am sorry for those who have been led to believe that they should not wait for those apologies to come, that it was unreasonable to even ask. I do not believe this is the case. But we are too powerless, collectively, to be able to speak in the name of our ancestors right now. They are currently voiceless, and I think they will stay silent for quite some time.

I understand how the need to be proud of their people may lead some of us to White supremacy. White supremacy is bad (duh), but the need to be proud of oneself, and of what one belongs to, is something I respect. I, for one, would like to be proud of being White. We just don’t deserve pride, right now, and we won’t deserve it as long as we’ll try to feel proud through abusive ways.

I would be proud, though, if I could, during my lifetime, belong to the generation of White people that would be able to properly offer this long-overdue apology to the people we harmed.