Why Black People Should Not Always Be Expected to Forgive and Forget

I think about forgiveness a lot – well maybe not A LOT – but enough to consider what it truly means to me and the impact it has on how I heal from harm and trauma.  In the collective sense I think about it too, I think about the fact that on more than a few occasions when a Black person or Black people are harmed by anti-Black racism there seems to be a rush to ask about forgiveness without very much time taken to truly understand the harm caused and the reason this harm was caused in the first place. I thought about that when I shared these tweets in 2021:

I also remembered this case from 2018 – asking a young Black boy whether he forgived someone who wrongly accused him an extremely serious crime:

Why is society and mainstream media always so quick to ask Black people about forgiveness when they’ve experienced harm and abuse?

This is something unsettling which I have noticed when a Black person is victim of racial abuse, racial violence and trauma, the centring around the conversation of forgiveness – often without the inclusion of the core and fundamental reasons why this type of abuse happens. The act will be reported but very little interrogation will be undertaken to assess the seriousness of anti-Black racism.
There seems to be a demand for forgiveness which is weaponised against those who have been harmed. It is used to absolve those who have caused harm or even the systems and structures in which they navigate so that the real damage of anti-Black racism is never truly faced. It means that racism persists without very little interrogation and we are encouraged to “forgive and forget” so that everyone can “just get along”. At times it feels like we are not even given the space to feel our full range of emotions: anger, pain  The language surrounding forgiveness is in my view another tactic used to silence anyone who has been hurt or harmed and soften the impact for those who benefit from the racist structures/environments that exist. I suppose in the grand scheme of things perhaps forgiveness in and of itself is a survival mode but it can be draining to have the expectation of forgiveness seemingly imposed upon us by a society which does not want to face the depth of the pain it causes us through racism.  This 2017 phenomenal piece by Mychal Denzel Smith in the New Republic: When racist violence kills their children, black women are called forth to perform a version of womanhood that is meant to convince white people they value motherhood and to soothe white fear. Black women must be devastated, but not angry. They must stand up for their children, but never question the system. They must fight for justice, but forgive everyone when none is delivered. 

Do not get me wrong, I absolutely do believe that forgiveness in its purest form is essential for our mental and emotional well-being. Forgive whoever you feel like you need to forgive in your own time, at your own pace once you have undertaken the work to heal from any trauma that the person has caused you but peace and grace come first. Forgiveness without healing further compounds trauma in my experience.  Forgiveness is not a race and should not be rushed, nobody is entitled to it. Society rushes our healing processes too quickly and it manifests in other areas of our live – resentment, frustration and more.

I love this from Hanif Abdurraqib 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.

Nobody is entitled to forgiveness – whether it is an individual who has caused racial harm or the persistent harms of structures that maintain inequality. We, as Black people, have forgiven so much historically and yet in spite of all this forgiveness the harm persists. And whilst I know we forgive for ourselves first our forgiveness should never be taken for granted.

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6 Comments

  1. Soneni
    January 26, 2022 / 11:09 pm

    What a brilliant article. Thank you so much for writing and sharing this, Ronke. And what happened to the 9 year old is beyond disturbing. That poor boy. X

  2. CB Husbands
    January 29, 2022 / 6:01 pm

    This is excellent. I have only one disagreement with anything you’ve said here; for me, forgiveness is neither essential nor desirable in every case. I believe everyone asked to forgive has the right — and sometimes, the duty — to demand those asking to specify what exactly they’re being asked to forgive. If those asking can’t or won’t say, the dialogue should end there, until they’re in a position to do so. The subtext is critical here; am I being asked for a general pardon, or does this person accept and confess to the wrong they’ve done, and the harms it has caused?

    There is only one valid criterion for granting forgiveness: does it serve the persons wronged (or in the very worst cases, bereaved)? If it does, than the wrongdoers and/or their apologists should be relieved and grateful that doing right by those harmed and wronged happens to serve their interests too. If it does not — well, those are the breaks. In these circumstances, wrongdoers need to reflect not just on what they’ve done (all wrongdoers should do that), but also the ongoing harms and/or other consequences of their acts (or failures to act, or incitement, etc).

    Thank you for this insightful piece.

    • February 8, 2022 / 3:39 pm

      Totally agree with your comments about the person/system requesting for forgiveness being made to outline exactly what they seek absolution from. That way, an interrogation of what has occurred will naturally occur.

      Ronke – Really good and insightful article!

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