The Misuse of Apology for Black Genocide: A Clarification of Compassion

What happened to Sandra Bland?

What happened to Sandra Bland?

I have received three apologies from white-skinned strangers in the last three weeks in public places. They each said, “I am sorry for what is happening to black people in this country.” Their comments refer to the recent murders of black men, women and children. Each time this occurred I sat there blinking very slowly and then I’d smiled. I was not smiling because of the apology. I was smiling because I thought for a moment that they might cry like I have been crying. I almost laughed in one instance in response to a deep tremor of anger inside me. Although an apology is an effort to acknowledge the suffering, using the presence of my blackness in a public space (this includes the internet) is far too convenient for a situation we used to call genocide and not police brutality. It is not a time for personal confession in which there is no punishment. It is not kind. It is not courteous. It is not Zen.

When someone you care about is murdered an apology is as pale as the whiteness worn by some who utter such a thing at such a time. If they felt the way I felt an apology would never come to mind. They would be enraged, rendered speechless and hurt to a degree in which healing feels impossible. They would suffer not for being “bad people” but for the loss of particular kinds of people-those living in dark bodies. For what we regret can only remain regrettable. What we see as pitiful remains pitiful.

Perhaps the apology is loaded with:

  1. I can only feel pity, shame and guilt
  2. I am not suffering as much as you are
  3. I can feel your rage but I’m not a rageful person
  4. I cannot look you in the eye
  5. I feel hopeless
  6. I can’t change the way things are
  7. You are my cause to fight for
  8. I’m worried
  9. Take Care

In essence, there is confusion between apology and compassion. Compassion is not as simple as saying I’m sorry. Compassion is a felt visceral nauseating feeling that occurs in the gut of one’s body. Compassion as an emotion that doesn’t feel so good. Are you with me? One would have to take the time to remove the shields that keep you from feeling safe and whole. You would feel vulnerable each time you walked out your door. You would attempt to live a full life every day knowing you will be shunned, looked upon as worthless or maybe murdered that day. Apology would be far from your mind in the midst of the annihilation of a group of people.

Here’s the reason we are confused about apology and compassion:

An internet dictionary: a·pol·o·gy (əˈpäləjē/ )

noun: apology; plural noun: apologies

  1. a regretful acknowledgment of an offense or failure.
  2. a very poor or inadequate example of.

com·pas·sion (kəmˈpaSHən/ )

noun: compassion; plural noun: compassions

  1. sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.


So, in our general society apology and compassion are simultaneously about pity and regret. What a pity to reduce compassion to such a thing as pity!

Compassion is born from intimately knowing suffering. Compassion is not something in which you say a few words or take an action and you’re done. Compassion is a lifetime awakening to the nature of suffering. As we mourn these horrendous murders, could this be the time to see into suffering in a way we having never seen before? Yes, for it is only now that the country sees it’s own terrorists. What is it going to take to uproot the neglected bones buried in slavery and the cold war of the confederacy? Certainly not an apology.







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15 comments on “The Misuse of Apology for Black Genocide: A Clarification of Compassion
  1. Zenju,

    Thank you so much. I have been trying to figure this out and you articulate what I have been trying to flesh out– especially since SC shooting and then most recently, Sandra’s death.

    I love that you are in my life and teach me so much.

    I am 1/2 way through Way of Tenderness. It is so timely right now and I hope to hear you speak at Green Gulch 7/19/2015

    Much love,

  2. Andrea says:

    Well Said Zenju! When you wrote, “Compassion is a lifetime awakening to the nature of suffering” that really speaks my life experiences reminding me that compassion is an ongoing practice, not just something to remember when times are hard or during meditation retreat – it’s a lifetime practice. Thank you.

  3. Roberta Werdinger says:

    Brilliant–thank you for saying what must be said, Zenju!

  4. Rose-Lynn Scott says:

    Ache! My anger at the continued, horrific genocide of people whose hue, quantum blood, hair and on and on indicates they are of African descent (my people) is at an all-time high and my tolerance for bleeding heart apologies is at an all-time low. I am having to “watch” myself when I’m out and about…I feel volitile…I am clearly at my limit…feeling…pondering how to transform this righteous anger in elevated action and being. Thank you, Zenju, for your articulate and honest post, for framing it within a clear definition of compassion.

  5. ihop says:

    The best definition I’ve ever heard for compassion is the etymological: from the Latin, it translates as “suffer with.”

    Which is, of course, exactly what you say, but sometimes it’s really useful to have a literally/pedantically/academically ‘correct’ rebuttal to those who cleave to their dictionaries for self-justification.

  6. Keely Meagan says:

    Thank you Zenju. I’d love to share this but the FB like isn’t doing it…I’ll try to cut and past. This is powerful, and something move white folks like me need to hear and pass on.

  7. Terry Wenner says:

    I celebrate the fact that your equanimous presence provided an opening for some whites-like-me to clumsily express unity in the slow progression toward justice and then peace.

  8. Yewtree says:

    Every time I see that picture of Sandra Bland looking so happy and excited and then think what happened to her, it rips a hole in my gut.

    I stand with you.

  9. Brisamar says:

    Zenju,thank you so much for this!
    I am grateful to have connected with your teachings. Your courage is a much needed nourishment in my Being.
    Our Haitians brothers and sisters are going through the same in the hands of the government of the Dominican Republic.
    I am tired of so many marches where the only thing we change is the name of the new one killed.Like you say, an apology is not enough for all these terrorist attacks against Black lives. What is it going to take???

  10. eric eichstaedt says:

    As I interpret it, what I think you are saying, in part, is that whites (me) have to really earn their compassion – true compassion – as you define it. Until then, it comes off as patronizing (def: “treat with an apparent kindness that betrays a feeling of superiority”). I can only think we as whites have to get close to people of color on an intimate friendship-level and spend extensive (if not permanent) quality time in communities where people of color are the majority in order to even just begin to understand their experience – there are no “shortcuts” or weekend seminars to lesson or shorten the long road towards becoming more truly, in broad groups, brothers and sisters – perhaps for the very first time in history of humankind? And, we, as whites with all the built-in advantages from birth we have, have to admit we are in fact, below surface consciousness, ignorant and therefore at a disadvantage because of it, and the health of our society is only as healthy as we are as a total group. This is just my opinion. And I really don’t understand or really get it – that’s my whole point. I have to get used to that and hope to become a better person in this regard for the rest of my life.

  11. Thanks you Zenju for being concerned and for your deep insight. Folks are starting to talk about these issues at least. It seems that we all are inundated with so much mistreatment of Black people that many Whites are confused as to what they should or could do. At the least …Do not become complicit to Racism. We all can look into our hearts and find something that we feel might begin to make a difference. Yes, we are an unhealthy nation looking for the right prescription to heal our minds and hearts.

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