An apology isn't enough

If politicians are oppressive, when do we forgive them?

Vishmayaa oustide the AMS offices

When someone who once participated in a racist depiction of Mexican people tries to run for government, it’s very unlikely I’ll support their campaign.

Why? Because I’m not interested in seeing another person with this kind of history in a position of power. But if it was nine years ago, does that still matter? It matters to me if they haven’t changed.

A racist is a racist unless they’ve proven they’re actively anti-racist. It’s not enough to make the claim that they no longer deserve such a title. If they aren’t actively working against those systems of oppression, then I’m not interested.

I’ll politically support a person who’s previously participated in oppressive actions only if they’ve actively apologized.

What is considered an active apology? It’s not retracting a statement; it’s not standing at a podium and saying, “I’m sorry.” To me, an active apology is presented in both words and actions. Politicians must use their position of power and privilege to actively be anti-racist.

There’s an important difference between being not-racist and being anti-racist. Being not-racist usually entails recognizing that systems of oppression lead to things like the school-to-prison pipeline. Being anti-racist means actively working to end the pipeline. Another example – being not-racist is recognizing that cultural appropriation is unacceptable and apologizing for those actions. Being anti-racist is supporting Black, Indigenous and coloured peoples overthrow those same systems.

Social justice movements are conflicted about apologies – some argue apologies from oppressors are usually cop outs intended to make themselves feel better as opposed to actually changing anything. Others argue apologies from oppressors are the first step in growing into an anti-oppressive activist.

I think context matters here – a politician retracting their statement isn’t an anti-racist action, it’s a step towards being anti-racist. It’s not the be-all and end-all, especially if it’s not also accompanied by actions they can only undertake as a politician with immense amounts of power and privilege.

A great example is Justin Trudeau’s apology on behalf of the Canadian government to LGBTQ+ communities in November of last year. Trudeau apologized for the Canadian Government’s persecution of queer members of the military and other federal institutions, after a class-action lawsuit. The lawsuit awarded the defendants over $100 million in reparations, but the Trudeau government also put aside an extra $250,000 for community projects against homophobia.

The Trudeau government’s commitment to being an ally to LGBTQ+ communities felt genuine because of the financial commitment they made alongside the apology. Trudeau showing up at Toronto Pride was a great PR movement, but the money he put aside will have an actual impact on LGBTQ+ communities in Canada. It matters that politicians put their money where their mouth is, literally and figuratively.

In democratic nations, we elect our political representatives. With that power we give them also comes responsibility; with that responsibility comes even more power. Elected officials must be aware of the cycle of both that comes when they accept the mantle of leadership. So, when a politician says something oppressive, we must hold them accountable for it.

Some would argue that world leaders need to be held to the same standards of moral clarity as the average citizen. I argue that given their positions, we must hold them even more accountable for their actions. The average person doesn’t have the same impact on society that the leader of a nation does. The average person who calls me a terrorist on the bus has little to no real-world impact on my life. On the other hand, President Trump calling my people terrorists has global implications because of the power he holds. This is why we hold politicians to a higher standard; we rely on their moral clarity to steer us towards prosperity.

In every community, at every level, people rightfully hold their government to a higher standard. Federally, provincially, municipally, even at the student government level, people should be asking their representatives to prove they’re actively engaging in anti-oppression work. Likewise, politicians at every level need to be aware that they’ll be accountable to their constituents. If that means we demand apologies from politicians for their actions from years ago, then so be it – better than possibly allowing a despotic figure into office and awarding them a platform to uphold systems of oppression.

I need to know my representatives are worthy of forgiveness. Have they shown they’re truly remorseful for their oppressive actions? Are they working to be not only better, but actively anti-oppressive? It’s no longer enough to be not-racist, when you can be anti-racist. Talk is cheap – a simple apology won’t solve systemic oppression.

My politics are anti-oppressive –  I would ask the same of my representatives.  

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