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Why Do We Expect Victims of Racism to Forgive?

The common script is for the oppressed person to offer absolution. But who is served by such forgiveness?
Police tape outside the Emanuel AME Church the morning after a mass shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 18th, 2015.

Police tape outside the Emanuel AME Church the morning after a mass shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 18th, 2015.

In America, we seem to have a limitless fascination with watching miserable people forgive their oppressors: We fetishize endurance, the survival of injustice. When I see this fascination trained on marginalized people who have survived violence enacted on them by someone in power, I often wonder what the point is. When the grieving survivors forgave a remorseless Dylann Roof, days after he walked into their church and murdered nine people, much was made of their forgiveness; it was written about extensively, praised and dissected. But what is there to gain when a family pauses from mourning a dead child to grant immediate forgiveness to the killer? Whom or what is that meant to satisfy, beyond placating a country increasingly obsessed with civility at all costs?

I've been wondering these things while watching recent incidents where white people call the police on black people for doing mundane things. (The existence of these videos is telling in its own right: They're a social product of people being on guard and consistently filming the sorts of situations that they've learned can escalate.) In one of the latest incidents, a black man, D'Arreion Toles, attempts to get past a white woman who is blocking the door of the apartment building they share. He explains to her that he lives there, and that he's simply trying to enter the building after a long day of work. The white woman, Hilary Brooke Mueller, continues to block him from entering, insisting that she's never seen him before. At one point, she demands to see his key fob as proof that he has a right to enter the building. Toles shows her, and Mueller remains obstinately in his path.

Throughout the exchange, Toles is polite and soft-spoken, even through his evident exhaustion and rising frustration. He uses words like "ma'am" and "please," despite the absurdity of the situation. Eventually, he pushes past Mueller and enters the building. She follows him to his apartment, where he enters with his key, a further proof that he lives there. Nonetheless, Mueller then calls the police on him.

Days later, and after losing her job in the outrage that emerged once video of the altercation was released, Mueller got to sit for an interview on a morning news program, explaining how she wasn't racist, and how her life had been "ruined" after the incident was broadcast on the Internet. After the interview came out, Toles insisted that he wanted to sit down with her and try to "make a positive" out of the situation. Positive for whom, I was unsure.

About a week before that, a young black boy, Jeremiah Harvey, was in a corner shop in Brooklyn, New York, with his mother and sister. While walking through a cramped and narrow aisle by the cash register, his backpack brushed against the backside of a white woman, Teresa Klein, at the counter. The woman grew enraged, insisting that the nine-year-old boy had sexually assaulted her. The incident spilled outside of the store, with the woman confronting and yelling at the boy's mother, insisting that the boy had touched her inappropriately. Police, naturally, were called. The boy and his sister were in tears, and his mother was rightfully outraged. The store's camera footage confirmed what the boy had claimed: He didn't touch her. But a degree of damage was already done, particularly the specific trauma of being young and finding yourself accused of a crime as serious as sexual assault.

Somewhat lost in the shuffle of news after the incident took place was an interview Harvey and his mother gave with ABC. The interviewer asked if Harvey forgave Klein for what she'd put him through. He replied succinctly: "I don't forgive her. I think she needs help."

It was a jarring relief to see those words on the page, particularly when the public expectation is that forgiveness will simply be granted in these situations, and I appreciate the honesty of children, who don't always know to concern themselves with the performance of decorum to mask their true feelings. It took a nine-year-old, still reeling from this traumatic encounter, to speak clearly and openly about how he felt. How refreshing. There are people who do not deserve the immediate forgiveness of those they hurt.

Of course, to deny forgiveness is not the same as to wish someone ill. Rather, it is denying a perpetrator the opportunity to feel absolved for their misdeeds. Forgiveness is, in part, an internal process, something that each of us arrives at on our own time and through our own means. To express that forgiveness out loud can certainly be healing, but it's also an exercise that works for the benefit of the perpetrator. There is no honest healing in absolving someone who has done you harm if you don't feel they deserve absolution from you.

It is unavoidable to mention that these expectations of forgiveness are often drawn along racial lines, in situations where there are black victims of a white offender; again, the praise thrust on the family members who forgave Roof in Charleston comes to mind. This expectation feels fueled by a perverse need to see harmed people demonstrate nobility—because that's how we can believe the myths that political suffering builds character, and that righteousness rather than power will inevitably triumph.

But it’s an unfair expectation. The desire to see black Americans show forgiveness is a desire to avoid fully reckoning with black pain, or the lingering effects of trauma that do not serve the public performance as cleanly.

In Ross Gay's essay "Some Thoughts on Mercy," he writes:

Look how I've been made by this. To have, perhaps, mercy on myself. When we have mercy, deep and abiding change might happen. The corrupt imagination might become visible. Inequalities might become visible. Violence might become visible. Terror might become visible. And the things we've been doing to each other, despite the fact that we don't want to do such things to each other, might become visible.

I think about these lines and find myself imagining my way toward a version of forgiveness that holds myself accountable first; a version of forgiveness that would show mercy to me, before considering the healing of an offender. I praise the boy who refused a woman the right to feel absolved. I hope that, in whatever movements he makes toward mercy, he puts himself first. I also praise the man who—perhaps knowing that he has to live at least a while longer in the proximity of a white woman who called the police on him—showed a willingness to forgive. More than anything, I hope that America can see its way to accepting both gestures in equal measure, particularly when such gestures are carried out by black Americans who have made the news for enduring public mistreatment.

To deny someone a forgiveness that you cannot honestly grant them is a reasonable refusal to participate in a ritual of hollow civility that doesn't serve a complex and honest emotional response to trauma, grief, or rage. Teresa Klein and Hilary Brooke Mueller get to go on television and defend their actions, despite their actions being recorded and broadcast for all of us to see on our own. They get to rebuild their own narratives, despite what our very eyes have told us. It stands to reason, then, that the people they've harmed should likewise get to craft their own approach toward mercy or forgiveness. And the harmed party should always have the first hand in establishing what counts as civil, what counts as worthwhile, and what will serve a greater good.

But if the demand is born of a thirst for polite performance, that demand can shorten cycles of both accountability and healing. When forgiveness is transactional, it is meaningless. I was refreshed when young Jeremiah Harvey refused the gift of forgiveness to Teresa Klein. It was a vivid relief to know that, even after he'd been humiliated and denied his basic right to peace and comfort, he was able define forgiveness on his own terms. That, too, is precious.