An apology can't fix everything, and Benedict Cumberbatch seems to know that. “The damage is done,” he said in a statement to People magazine after receiving criticism for using the term “colored people” in an on-air interview with PBS's Tavis Smiley.
But an apology can, at least, make a strong case that someone really is sorry. By signaling awareness of why what they did was wrong, of how it might have affected people, and how they will do better in the future, apologizers don’t quite erase their errors but do demonstrate that they see them as errors. Cumberbatch basically did all of those things in his statement:
I'm devastated to have caused offense by using this outmoded terminology. I offer my sincere apologies. I make no excuse for my being an idiot and know the damage is done. I can only hope this incident will highlight the need for correct usage of terminology that is accurate and inoffensive. The most shaming aspect of this for me is that I was talking about racial inequality in the performing arts in the U.K. and the need for rapid improvements in our industry when I used the term. […]
I feel the complete fool I am and while I am sorry to have offended people and to learn from my mistakes in such a public manner please be assured I have. I apologize again to anyone who I offended for this thoughtless use of inappropriate language about an issue which affects friends of mine and which I care about deeply.
His apology’s thoroughness wouldn't be worth noting if most public figures’ mea culpas weren't so shoddy. The Internet has countless lists of famous folks botching it, sometimes by passive-aggressively expressing remorse only for people’s offense instead of the action that caused it, or by trying to explain away the mistake. Apologies like these can actually make things worse. When Don Lemon basically asked a rape accuser why she didn't bite Bill Cosby and then responded to backlash with, "If my question to her struck anyone as insensitive, I am sorry," it muddied the issue, implying that anyone who took issue with the question was overly touchy.
Cumberbatch does nearly walk into the chagrinned-white-person trope of referencing his non-white “friends,” but it’s not to excuse his own words—it’s to demonstrate awareness of why his mistake might matter. And it could seem a little self-serving for him to hope that the “incident will highlight the need for correct usage of terminology that is accurate and inoffensive,” but he's actually correct to do so. The word “colored” was in popular usage not too long ago; it’s in the very name of the NAACP. Some people may not realize that it’s been largely phased out because of its racist lineage and because some people of color feel it dehumanizes them. The publicity around Cumberbatch's slip-up could help remedy that in a small way.
There’s another upside to this apology, in that it offers a reminder of how messy progress can be. In the Smiley interview, Cumberbatch was talking about the difficulties that nonwhite actors face in finding roles—an issue that he and a lot of other people think deserves more attention (another silver lining: the controversy will bring it exactly that). So on one hand, you have a white man speaking out for racial equality; on the other, you have him employing a word that’s long helped enable inequality. It’s not unlike what happened with Billy Crystal's apparent display of homophobia recently: an example of how bias can be insidious, weaseling its way into the words of self-professed allies of oppressed groups. The big difference is, of course, that Cumberbatch said he’s sorry, probably in the best way anyone could hope for.