On Behalf of All White People, I’m Sorry

by Holly Fetter, ‘13


I remember Virginia Tech.

In 2007, I was a sophomore in high school, already overwhelmed by all the typical teen anxieties. But in the days following Cho Seung-Hui’s suicidal murder spree, I felt particularly confused, unsure of how to process the never-ending debates on gun control, mental health, privacy, and how to reconcile all that with the grief I was feeling for 32 people I had never met.

But what stands out most clearly in my mind, though, was the response from Korean people around the globe. I remember public apologies and statements of solidarity with the victims, all laden with deep remorse for the killer’s actions. At one vigil, the Korean Ambassador to the U.S. told the crowd that “the Korean-American community should take the chance to reflect and try to meld once again into the mainstream of American society.” Because of the actions of one sick man, all Korean immigrants were apparently now subject to heightened social scrutiny.Individual Koreans, both in and outside the U.S., also said sorry, sometimes with a certain defensive in expectation of violent retaliation. In a New York Times article following the massacre, a Korean mother is quoted apologizing to all U.S. Americans on behalf of South Korea – the author then explains that this woman’s daughter kept her own child out of school in the U.S. for a while in fear of a violent retaliation against Korean Americans.

And now, 5 years later, we’re confronted with another mass tragedy in which race is relevant. Last week, a man named Wade Michael Page opened fire in a Sikh gurdwara, murdering 7 people, including himself. Page was active in the White Power music world, playing guitar in a band called End Apathy. He often spoke of an impending “racial holy war,” and had a tattoo depicting Stormfront, an White supremacist online community.

Yet despite the fact that his crime explicitly implicates Whiteness, White folks across the world have not apologized on behalf of Their People. Fifth-generation German Americans are not holding vigils to demonstrate their remorse for Page’s actions, and the Finnish Ambassador to the U.S. is not formally apologizing on behalf of all White people in Scandinavia.

The contrast between the collective responses (or lack thereof) to the two tragedies gives White people like me the chance to reflect on our privilege in this situation. Because Whiteness is so normalized in this country, we are not expected to apologize for Page’s actions or to alter our own behavior in order to ensure that other U.S. Americans won’t hurt us or come to the conclusion that all White people are murderers.

But despite the obvious flaws of an entire ethnic group apologizing on behalf of one person in that group, the devastation in Wisconsin has led me to wonder about my role in this situation. Should I feel remorse on Wade Page’s behalf? Am I complicit in his crimes? What can my fellow White people and I do to make things better?

Major media outlets have made it abundantly clear that Page is an aberration – a right-wing, racist, extremist with a penchant for hardcore hate music. They’ve had a field day portraying him as a violent, radical exception to the norm. But the truth is that the massacre in Wisconsin is not a random, senseless, isolated incident – instead, it is an extreme manifestation of a much more fundamental, subtle, and implicit form of racism that we create and encounter on a daily basis. It is the same racism that motivated an apology from Korean Americans en masse afraid of the discrimination or violence that might occur if they mourned privately.

In her piece titled, “Hate Crimes Always Have a Logic,” activist Harsha Walia writes that, “The crimes of white supremacists are not exceptions and do not and cannot exist in isolation from more systemic forms of racism.” She argues that racist crimes are rooted in a logic of White supremacy, defined by two anti-racist activists as “an historically-based, institutionally-perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations and peoples of color by white peoples and nations of the European continent; for the purpose of establishing, maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power and privilege.”

I’m not a neo-Nazi, I don’t have any tattoos, and I’m terrified of guns. But, I’m White. And I feel remorse because I am complicit in the racist systems that allowed Page’s actions. So I want to apologize, on behalf of all White people everywhere, to the victims of White supremacy:

I’m sorry for how Wade Michael Page terrorized Oak Creek’s Sikh community.
I’m sorry that Sikhs have been the target of 700 hate crimes since 9/11, when brown people became a supposed threat to homeland security.
I’m sorry that law enforcement officials have allowed racist hate groups to thrive, despite the fact that innocent Islamic groups have been targeted by the government.
I’m sorry that people of color are more likely  than White people to live in poverty.
I’m sorry that income inequality leads to inequality in access to healthcare and education, negatively affecting people of color.
I’m sorry that our country disproportionately incarcerates people of color, not because they are more prone to illegal activities, but because of racism embedded in the criminal justice system.
I’m sorry that young Black men can be murdered by cops and barely make the news.
I’m sorry that we actually believe reverse racism exists.

And finally, I’m sorry for all the ways in which White privilege and power led Page to commit such an atrocious crime. The root of White supremacy and Page’s “hatecore” tunes lie in the same unchecked principles and acts that allow pervasive racial injustice and its accompanying delusions to thrive. The mass shooting in Wisconsin will reportedly be investigated as an instance of domestic terrorism, a crime motivated by White supremacy, nationalism, and hatred. When any of us let racism exist without actively resisting its efforts to “establish, maintain and defend a system of wealth, power and privilege,” we, too, are complicit in a bloodless act of domestic terrorism.

Resisting racism is a process, not an end goal. The notion of pushing back against something as intimidating as “racism” might seem overwhelming and idealistic. But here are four basic tips to being an effective anti-racist, adapted from an essay by writer Amy Edgington:

  1. Get information: Educate yourself about your own racial identity and privileges, as well as the identities and historical struggles of others.
  2. Do something: Ending racism on a microlevel can be incredibly powerful. Call people out for their use of racist language or jokes. Evaluate your own behavior, and adjust your interactions accordingly.
  3. Listen: Be willing to let others share their experiences with racism. Hear them out, even if it hurts.
  4. Talk: Have conversations with people – especially White folks – about race and racism. It’s awkward, but absolutely crucial to building a countermovement to pro-racist groups like Stormfront and Hammerskins.

Our active apology to Oak Creek’s Sikh community and others ravaged by the reality of White supremacy should be a commitment to ending racism within ourselves, our families, and our communities.


Holly is a senior studying Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity and Sociology.

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15 thoughts on “On Behalf of All White People, I’m Sorry

  1. John says:

    Ill apologize for being born a white male when gays apologize for being born gay? Reverse racism doesn’t exist. It’s just called racism. During the Rodney King riots when I was pulled from my car in Jackson MS by 4, black, 20 something males and called honky and cracker before being hit with a brick and kicked, was that racism or did I ask for it because I was a white male? You need to grow up.

  2. […] On Behalf of All White People, I’m Sorry by Holly Fetter, ‘13 […]

  3. Johnny C Wood says:

    Wow, I like this sentiment and I hope to see it reverberate around the world. I am a white, and I happen to believe that pride in race is just as stupid as any other kind of pride. When one accepts pride they also accept shame, if you want credit you also get blame. If we are to be proud of anything, it should be the disciplines we prove ourselves through, not the fate of being born this or that color. I don’t think Holly was embracing the concepts of collective pride/shame/guilt/etc. I believe she was using these concepts as tools to express a sentiment that we all feel, from whatever position we take.

    “Race” is a concept like so many other words (and isms) and it’s not an accurate portrayal of reality. The word “Race” should always be replaced by the word “Culture” which invites dialog, rather than represses it as the race topic is in our world today. Humans are a species like any other in the animal kingdom, we only vary slightly for the various climates we’ve adapted to. Cultures are more than “Race” or “Color of skin”, and every culture has a place in this garden called Earth. And, in kind, we can expect certain cultures to be more or less compatible, what is customary to some may be offensive to others.

    But the last thing anyone wants to hear, is white people complaining about reverse racism, I honestly don’t think it will ever be cool. I have red hair, and I was tormented beyond reason as a child, by other white kids, for being different. It’s not about color, children are cruel, and they will find any reason to target someone. What matters most is that we grow up and stop behaving like cruel children, and remove racial and gender bias (cruelty) from our legal system. Unfortunately, it’s fair to say that our legal system favors white terrorist groups over brown ones so it kinda makes you wonder if they consider white supremacists to be allies in the war on brown people.

    Hmmmmm………

    • Johnny C Wood says:

      I meant to say “I am a white male…”

      But I also forgot to mention the elephant in the womb: When white people fear and hate brown people it’s usually due to ignorance. And when brown people fear and hate white people, it’s usually because they know their history. And it’s not just history, the world looks very different through brown eyes/hair/skin. If white people were stopped and frisked as often as black people they would have reason to believe they were under martial law.

      White supremacy is not just a ragtag bunch of rednecks who think “black people smell” or “Jews control the banks”, it’s the core truth to the way the system is constructed. We live in a white supremest world, organized that way by design. Our world is hegemonic, but it’s not really controlled by a nation. It’s controlled by (mostly) white European bloodlines and they intend to keep it that way.

  4. Doug McKenzie says:

    Holly-
    I am impressed. Matt sent me the link to this piece, and I was so pleased to see the ideas you are giving voice to in this essay and the site as a whole. What amazing and important work.

  5. Marisa says:

    Holly,

    For the most part, I agree with your sentiments and applaud you for this effort. This is a thought I share, and I thought that wish more of the racial majority in this country considered. While I do not think that we, White Americans, should have to apologize for the actions of one individual who happens to be of the same race or color, we do need to apologize for the reality that non-White individuals experience when faced with situations where one member of that community did something as abhorrent as mass murder. It is neither right nor fair that the action’s of one individual should implicate the entire community. In terms specific to your article, the entire Korean population of the United States should not be held accountable for the actions of single, disturbed Korean man, and, White Americans should not be held responsible for the actions of a single, disturbed White man. However, that is the world we live in. As such, we, as people, should be held accountable, not for the atrocity itself, but for the allowance of an environment in which any form of racial discrimination and superiority is still thought to be acceptable.

    There is a point, however, that I would like to contest. You apologize for the belief in the existence of reverse racism; I agree that there is no such thing as “reverse racism”. There is no reverse; racism is racism and there can be no reversal of the concept, save a lack thereof. Yet, you imply that White individuals are free of racist targeting, and this is absolutely. I am White and proud to be so, not in the way of thoughts of supremacy- I am simply proud to be how I am. I should not have to make apologies for being born in this body. No one should have to do so. Unfortunately, this was not always the case. I was discriminated against, taunted and consistently victimized as a child for being the only White individual around. Still, to this day, depending on where I am and who I am with, I am treated differently for the simple that I am White. I have been mistreated and distrusted because of my race. Perhaps it was my socio-economic position, but I never noticed any particular advantages to being White. In fact, it has been quite the opposite- being white in certain parts of the South leads to nothing but an overly apologetic mindset, for nothing I am actually guilty of, leading to be terrified of ever yourself being viewed as politically incorrect or racist, and seeing preference given to individuals of color for positions and awards simply for that basis. Do I deny that, for the most part, the bulk of racist sentiments are attributed to White persons? Absolutely not. But I do know what its like to be excluded and targeted because of my race, and it is awful.

    We, as a nation, need to focus on forgiveness and understanding. Discrimination is never okay, no matter who is doing the discriminating and whom is being discriminated against. People have a tendency to create an other, often using race as the dividing line. And, while it is one, people have a tendency to read too much into race being a factor in treatment or reason for action, instead of simply looking at individual persons and circumstances as individual persons and circumstances.

  6. esqg says:

    Thoughts that didn’t fit with my other comment, it was too long already:

    1. The other day I read a piece by another student, Alok, in which apparently right after Sept. 11, a white classmate asked him why “your [Alok’s]” people (apparently going by brown skin color) did this to ”our [the classmate’s]” people. That’s appalling.

    2. Holly, I really like the way you broke things down in this post. But I do agree-sort-of with Mario that the end of this post looks like it could push people into White Guilt territory, rather than the anti-racist work you are explicitly advocating, or the obvious parallel with how ridiculous the expectations are that members of a race should apologize for each other. Even though you’re trying to show not tell there, I’m not sure that will get across; the literal reading can still make white people think that acknowledging racism means we should feel guilty. And that’s a stupid reaction–it makes many white people try to ignore racism in order to not feel guilty, or try to do anti-racism as “penance” and feel virtuous, or think “it’s all my fault so I can’t do anything to help”–but it’s one a lot of people have. I even used to think white guilt was a good reaction, as if people of color would somehow be helped by apologies.

    3. I still find myself treading carefully with most people when I have something relevant to say about racism, and it almost never works in a group that’s mostly white. If I say much outright, even responding to someone else saying “there’s a lot of racism against Obama”, people change the subject really fast out of discomfort. But I managed to start a good conversation with a family friend today because of this article and get across some of these points, so thank you for that.

  7. esqg says:

    Over and over again no matter who the shooter is, media in this country try to find excuses not to regard it as “our problem”, and the goal is to say “this shooter isn’t representative of the rest of us”. It’s not just white writers either; a lot of Americans have got this idea that white folks are leading the way in being American. So if the shooter is white (male!) or passes for white, you have to find ways to make the story of their violence special and individual. Focus on mental illness, histories of abuse, whatever you want, so long as you think of them as different from society. If they’re visibly not white, it’s far easier to focus instead on that racial difference in order to mentally exclude them from society. Yet they so often are white, and this isn’t mentioned.

    It’s a pretty common human reaction, when someone does something shockingly terrible, to distance them from oneself emotionally. To say “that person isn’t one of us”. But when you combine that with the way most of our media gives attention to white people and holds white people up as standard, then this “I didn’t do it” reaction looks more like “white culture didn’t do it”. I think that’s protesting too much: trying to keep white culture clean. I think people know that there are hard questions to ask about how our culture operates, but that most people get defensive about it and the media reflect that. We can admit that a culture of hate against Islam, combined with ignorance about non-Christian religions, was behind the 700 hate crimes against Sikhs since 9/11. But when there is any group that is hated, why is the violent enforcer of that hate so often a white guy, even though that’s rarely noted? And why don’t we realize when there are terrorist groups backing some of these white guys?

    I have my opinions about the causes. If one sees how white men learn to expect power and privilege, it makes sense that when things go wrong for white guys, (a lot of them get depressed and) some of them turn violent. And we talk too vaguely about violence in media too, usually just speculating (or citing studies) that TV makes children violent. But if one sees how often the “good guy” on TV is violent, how the vast majority of the violent heroes are white men, it makes sense that white guys are often the ones who act “heroically” on behalf of America. Doesn’t Dr. Tiller’s murderer think he’s a hero? There are endless examples. I’m no expert, I’ve just asked the questions a few times.

    But while it doesn’t make sense for white people to apologize for this any more than the other apologies you cited, an acknowledgment of race being just as relevant to white people’s violence as to others’ violence is something everyone (especially white people) should be doing, and aren’t. Followed, as you suggest, by a lot of learning and an attempt to change the culture.

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  9. good job says:

    Great job, Holly! Very articulate and well-written, and a crucial contribution to the conversation regarding the tragedy that happened.

  10. Thank you for bringing this to the forefront for discussion. Although I disagree that there exists any sort of racial responsibility to apologize for the drastic hate crimes committed by Wade Michael Page on August 5, as a community, society, and a nation, we should be questioning ourselves how to respond to an event that highlights the aggressive discrimination that many still face in this country (and others).

    I am currently working for Witness.org, a non-profit human rights organization that uses human rights video and documentary to advocate for change. After the shooting, I felt compelled, as a member of this country, to bring the underlying issues of race and discrimination into the open and advocate for awareness surrounding the shooting. This Playlist on the Human Rights Channel on YouTube is my response: http://buff.ly/ONKdgu

    We are a nation of multiple identities, and from my perspective, we owe it to each other to do the best we can to understand our prejudices and fight them.

    I would like to draw attention to the portrayal of “terrorism” through media and how Page’s ignorance led him (and others) to believe that Sikhism is associated with Islam, which is entirely false.

    • Holly says:

      Hey Rachel,

      Thanks for your comment. As I said in the post, I also don’t think that people should be apologizing for crimes committed by other members of their identities groups. I was trying to draw attention to the ridiculousness of attempting to do so, and reflecting on my own apologies in the process. The title of my piece was meant to highlight the injustice of Korean people feeling compelled to apologize for one man’s bad behavior, and other U.S. Americans not questioning that reaction. Why are Koreans expected to apologize in that moment, while White people aren’t now?

      Thanks for sharing your work with Witness! One of my favorite orgs. I hope you’re also challenging the portrayal of Islam in the media, not just the unfairness of Sikhs being mistaken for Muslims, as if they are worthy of racism and violence. I’ve heard a lot of rhetoric suggesting the latter recently.

      H.

  11. TLDR: Privilege is a multiplicity. Check the privilege that allows you to apologize for being white in a non-negative way. Don’t assume that others are X because of their race because race and culture are complicated; that’s essentialism. Follow up if you want to discuss and make our community less divisive.

    OK. Let me sandwich my critique of this with a complement, because I’m not trying to be divisive; this is my attempt at constructive criticism. I like that you’re aware of your cultural/racial position within a global system, because as a Foucauldian I think that’s important lest we become ignorant (and at the extreme, racist, insensitive, and violent). Checking normative biopolitics is important, and you are totally great on that front. 🙂

    On the other hand, I think today’s master signifier (perhaps only in Stanford/Bay Area as that’s my locale of expertise) isn’t Whiteness but White Guilt. The reason I no longer come to SSQL meetings is because I am expected to feel guilty and apologize for systems of domination (and acts of violence) that I’ve never tried to perpetuate. You can argue all you want that I *am* responsible for insidious, unconscious (unrealized) domination, but ultimately the impenetrability of subjectivity makes that argument facetious. You do not and cannot fully understand my background and what role race has played in my upbringing (FYI, I am half-white, but that’s only relevant insofar as you treat me differently because of my race). I identify more as hispanic/Venezuelan/Spanish/part-native/whatever (many-races) than white, but I’m read as white and don’t appreciate others speaking on my behalf (especially when it’s something I wouldn’t say myself). You spoke on my behalf with the title (and text) of your article.

    When you speak on my behalf, and when certain other people in SSQL say comments like “I will never vote for X person for a leadership position because (s)he is white,” (that happened) that’s racism. It’s certainly a different type of racism and arguably is less harmful than racism perpetuated against PoC (the type SSQL is great at checking), but it divides the Stanford community into “the queer radicals” and the not queer radicals (I am a radical queer, btw). My critique isn’t limited to speaking on behalf of white people, because others of south asian descent have expressed similar isolation from the group (and I’m sure this affects people besides white and south asian). This cultural putting-me-into-a-box-because-of-X-label also applies to the techy/fuzzy divide. I feel that because I am a Computer Science major who’s read as white and is economically radical in different (but still queer) ways than the group, no one’s willing to *listen* to my opinions or actually argue with them (they are dismissive because they don’t think I get it because of my race/background/academic life/privilege/etc). This deeply affects my interpersonal relations with people in the group as well, but that’s irrelevant; I just care about making the community better. I’d rather discuss the racial thing than the academic thing as well, because that’s more important in the short term in my mind.

    If you or anyone else who thinks that divisiveness on campus is a problem wants to help me change discourse on campus so we can actually get better input and check our academic white-guilt privilege that gives us the discursive power and ethos to check others, I’m more than willing to discuss and help. My only condition is that you don’t speak on my behalf and treat me as an individual rather than a peon within a larger power structure. I am within a larger power structure (everyone is), but you really don’t know what power structures all white people have been a part of and you shouldn’t pretend to. No matter how much you read, you won’t know what it’s like to be a gay/queer white hispanic Venezuelan part-capitalist part-socialist activist who listens to metal and Jpop (you critiqued music in your article), likes computers because of their semiotics, had privilege but was still fucked over by Texan homophobia, and is deep into the text of critique. Stereotypes and essentializing really hurt rather than help collaborative discourse even if essentialism is true.

    Despite that long critique above, thanks for the post. Although my post gets personal, I really don’t take any of this personally (anymore). At the very least, it provided a forum for voicing some things that have been on my mind lately. Please do take me up on my offer to check divisiveness in our community. Thanks. 🙂

  12. Anonymous says:

    thanks for writing this! you are an incredible white ally. i just wish all white people would take the time to think and act as critically as you do.

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