White People Owe Us An Apology, But We Don’t Owe Them Forgiveness

Corner Store Caroline apologized but Jeremiah didn't forgive her, nor does he have to.
Jeremiah Harvey and his mother, Someko Bellille.
Jeremiah Harvey and his mother, Someko Bellille.
ABC News Videos

By now, we should all be familiar with Corner Store Caroline, the latest in a long line of white people crying to authorities over imagined transgressions by black people. Caroline (real name Theresa Klein) called the police ― or, at least, appeared to ― on 9-year-old Jeremiah Harvey, accusing him of sexual assault.

After surveillance footage corroborated all of the witness accounts detailing that the boy had merely brushed Klein with a bookbag as they walked out of a small New York market, Klein offered an “apology,” saying “I was wrong.” She told ABC 7, “Young man, I don’t know your name, but I’m sorry.”

This is asinine on so many levels. Firstly, he is not a “young man,” he is a child. The legacy of black children being treated as adults, especially related to crime, is not new nor neutral. Secondly, she had time, she could have learned his name, but clearly did not care.

Thirdly, and most importantly, this isn’t an apology. When Klein states that she is wrong, she’s not quite expressing regret for the humiliation and trauma that she caused Jeremiah. What she’s actually doing is attempting to absolve herself of responsibility and guilt. She enters into a history of white women who say they are sorry amid media pressure, but do nothing to rectify the damage they have caused.

When presented with this half-assed statement of wrongdoing, Jeremiah’s mother accepted the apology and wished no harm to come to Klein. Jeremiah, however, did not immediately let Klein off so easily, “I do not forgive this woman and she needs help.”

“We are more obsessed with black forgiveness than we are with white sin.”

In the United States, there is a historical expectation that the wrongdoing of white people toward people of color needs the closure of forgiveness ― a forgiveness that closes the loop of a situation in order to allow the oppressor or perpetrator to move on.

But that isn’t what real forgiveness is about. In forgiving, a person frees themselves of the poison of hatred and resentment and chooses to move on to live in the present moment. This doesn’t mean, however, that wrongdoers are absolved of the consequences of their actions; it means that in light of their actions, the forgiver is choosing to let go for their own life and health.

Forgiveness doesn’t require getting an actual apology, or an invitation to be absolved or reconciled. And apologies are only first steps; the acknowledgment of wrong by itself isn’t a righting of wrong. This is why apologies like Corner Store Caroline’s are cheap; they don’t right wrongs, but rather invite the notion of free “forgiveness” in order for her to move on.

In the call to forgive perpetual incidents of white people’s racism, white people are not actually seeking forgiveness but exemption from the impacts of their racism or confronting the systemic factors that contribute to racism.

Apologies and the rhetoric of forgiveness become tools used to close the loop on racist incidents and to create a context to morally diminish those who continue to critique and question perpetrators of emotional or physical racial violence. Forgiveness is used as the end of the sordid story, and the white person who has committed a wrongdoing is meant to be free to move on.

Mass murderer Dylann Roof.
Mass murderer Dylann Roof.

After the mass murder of nine black church members in South Carolina by Dylann Roof in 2015, family members of the victims offered forgiveness in an act of mercy that Roof certainly didn’t deserve, ask for, nor seem to want. That was big of them, but it had nothing to do with absolving Roof of what he did. Forgiveness was about them and their freedom, their choice to not let racism kill them in another way ― through not letting the building of resentment and animosity destroy them from the inside out.

We are often more obsessed with black forgiveness than we are with white sin. While acts of forgiveness can be beautiful and selfless, they exist in a legacy of black people being expected to allow white people to move on from the consequences of their individual racism, while ignoring the systems that create racist ideologies and perpetuate racism.

A racist outburst from white people becomes about the character and goodwill of black people who choose to forgive. Ignored is the white racism that ought to be at the center of the conversation.

Begging for forgiveness when it is not deserved often delegitimizes the valid rage of people who choose not to offer that balm. White people want to get over it, forget and move on ― and expect the victims of racism to do the same. Black people are expected to move on and forget their pain.

It is much easier for white people to move past the racist things that they do than it is for people of color to recover from the trauma of racist incidents.

“We are so quick to implore people of color to forgive and too slow to hold white people to full accountability.”

We are so quick to implore people of color to forgive and too slow to hold white people to full accountability. Racism, however, cannot be tidied up or cleansed without repentance, change and restitution ―matters that are much harder than apologizing and receiving forgiveness.

I’m not saying that forgiveness isn’t important, it is! But too often in these conversations about forgiveness, we are telling people of color that racism is in the past and to not hold onto that and look forward to the future while gaslighting people of color and perpetuating racism in the present

White people must develop the inner life that people of color are forced to, one that looks atrocities in the face, sees them for what they are and wrestles with their implications. Forgiveness can be offered when they have wrestled with what history has done to us. Apologizing can no longer be a get out of jail free card meant to absolve individuals and move the conversation forward.

Forgiveness, in the true sense, is more about the victim than the person being forgiven. It is about choosing to free ourselves, to heal, and to move forward however we can, to not let resentment be the food we eat every day. It is about the healing of our inner lives.

And forgiveness cannot mean that there is a lack of consequence for racist actions. Racists cannot simply ask for an apology, accept forgiveness and move on. Instead of being concerned with being forgiven, white people should focus on what they’ve learned and change the racist actions that required forgiveness in the first place.

When a young black boy like Jeremiah chooses to step outside of the expectation that black people will offer or owe white people their forgiveness and humility, it’s a noteworthy and honest moment.

He eventually came to the conclusion that “friendship is the key,” and accepted Klein’s apology. But Klein is still accountable for how she humiliated this young boy. His resistance and ultimate decision to forgive allows him freedom from (more) of the brutality of everyday white nonsense.

Forgiveness is hard, it is painful and it requires that we engage with what actually happened, how and why, and then choose to forgive, even if it isn’t all at once.

Brandi Miller is a campus minister and justice program director from the Pacific Northwest.

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