I dressed in blackface back in college. Can I atone?
And other questions for Persuasion’s advice columnist
I dressed in blackface back in college. Can I atone? In 2010, we had a Seventies-themed party, and I came as a “Soul Train” dancer, including blackface. My costume was well-received that night but, unfortunately, pictures might still be on Facebook. Today, I’m a journalist at a small publication, and anytime I daydream about professional ascent, I think about this coming back to haunt me. How can I atone for something that I consider ignorant and embarrassing more than a racist act? Or am I wrong for seeing it that way?
For starters, please stop kicking yourself around the block over an error in judgment you made back during the first Obama administration. If there were any useful regrets to be gleaned from this, you extracted them a long time ago. At this point, you’re just flagellating yourself into a worry-spiral over a cancellation that may not ever even happen.
As for the nature of your mistake, I think “ignorant and embarrassing” is about right. The only harm done by your costume was (potentially) to your own future reputation, and I’m not sure anyone could have predicted in 2010 that this type of makeup would become so taboo that even Fred Armisen’s Barack Obama impression on Saturday Night Live would be considered “blackface” and offensive. (If you haven’t read John McWhorter’s writing on this subject, please do.) Of course, what I and John McWhorter think won’t matter to the kind of person who might dredge up one of those photos with the intent of damaging you personally or professionally. But it should matter to you when it comes to the way you think about this incident and how you respond if it ever comes up.
And what if it does come up? First, be prepared to admit fault and apologize: “I regret wearing that costume. I was ignorant of its potential offensiveness at the time, but I know better now, and it’s a mistake I will not make again.” Second, be prepared to say nothing else.
Do not embellish your apology, do not try to explain yourself further. That’ll be tough, because the kind of people who go hunting for kompromat in your college photo album are also the kind who love to demand apologies that they then refuse to accept, because accepting means they’d have to stop attacking you, and what’s the fun in that? And if you try to placate these people, you will lose. They will sense your weakness and squeeze you like a lemon until they’ve extracted every last drop of penance, until you’re bowing and scraping and begging forgiveness and vowing to donate your life savings to a charity of their choice (if lemons had life savings, which for the purposes of this metaphor, they do). But if you apologize like an adult for the thing you did wrong, and you move on with your life as though this is good enough (which it is!), the world has no choice but to move on with you—and the metaphorical lemon-squeezers will go looking for a juicier target.
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I am concerned about free expression, and may write about this in a dissertation. But I am nervous. The internet can be an unforgiving, judgmental, even violent, place. Should I avoid discussing groups such as QAnon that I think will retaliate? Should I rid the internet of my personal information? Thoughts?
So many thoughts! For one, I think your dissertation sounds very cool, and I think you’ll do a great job on it.
But I also think the chances of anyone trying to ruin your life over it are vanishingly small, not because your work isn’t important, but because — and I mean this in the nicest possible way — nobody reads dissertations. And especially not the kind of crazed conspiracy theorists who stormed the Capitol in an attempt to “Stop the Steal.” Those folks aren’t seeking out scholarly research on the nuances of online expression! They’re too busy watching YouTube videos about the secret cabal of cannibal pedophile lizard people who control the banks, the media, and the world at large from their underground lair inside an active volcano. As long as you’re not going out of your way to post your research to 4Chan or wherever (side note: don’t do this), I think you can count on doing your work in the same manner as most academics: in comfortable obscurity.
That said, since you’re already thinking about it, please take this opportunity to review your online presence and make sure it doesn’t include any personal details you’d rather not have out there. There’s no harm in taking precautions. And even if nobody ever comes after you, your research and writing will be better, and more fearless, if you’re approaching them with the peace of mind that comes from knowing you’ve covered your ass.