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When do racists deserve forgiveness?

Ralph Northam, Liam Neeson, and when confession causes more harm than good.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam speaks with reporters at the governor’s mansion on February 2, 2019, in Richmond, Virginia.
Alex Edelman/Getty Images

White people are doing a lot of soul-searching these days.

Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who recently admitted to wearing blackface in a Michael Jackson impersonation competition, just announced that he’s going on a “listening tour” to learn about racism. Actor Liam Neeson admitted to wanting to commit a racist murder in his youth, saying, “It was horrible, horrible, when I think back, that I did that.”

I’ve been thinking about the complexities around confession and forgiveness. As a psychotherapist for 25 years who has worked immersed in issues of race and racism, I believe it is important for white people to find spaces where we can name our past racist failures and identify the ways we have been both contaminated by racist systems and have perpetrated racist acts.

But it is important to remember that to inflict such confessions on people of color without their consent is a kind of psychological violence. We have to think about the settings we speak into, and how they may inflict further injury.

I was taught this lesson many years ago as a social work intern working in a clinic for kids in Brooklyn that served a diverse community. The frontline staff was almost as diverse as our clients. A newly hired supervisor gathered the team together and announced that we were having a workshop to talk about race and racism. She asked us all to think of the first moment that we felt racism and awoke to the effect it would have in our lives. She then asked people to share.

An overeager intern, I was the first to go. I told a story from preschool, about visiting a friend’s house. I was surprised to see that she had a white mom and a black dad, when I had expected both of her parents to be black. Excited by this discovery, I shared it with my parents at dinner. My father chewed his food in silence and stared at his plate. I saw his jaw clenching, and I felt in my bones I would never get to play with my friend again. I didn’t know if this was because my classmate was black or because of her parents’ interracial marriage. I was filled with a nauseating shame realizing that there was something very wrong inside my father.

After a few minutes of silence, another volunteer spoke — a white man who had discovered his grandfather was a Klansman — when a black woman across the circle from me stood up saying:

“NO. NO. This is not happening. I am not doing this. This is not okay.” And she walked out.

The air was frozen. We sat stunned and silent for a moment, before the supervisor dismissed us. Once I shut my office door behind me, I inhaled — and thought about what just occurred. Her voice saying, “I am not doing this. This is not okay,” rang in my ears. It seemed to be filled with deep exhaustion. There was no way for this “sharing” to be equal. It would be a kind of violence to force her to sit there and listen to the dehumanizing racism that had been an everyday part of our white lives, the language we were taught to speak at home.

Yes, the suffering of perpetrators matters in the process of healing and reparation. But it is not more important than nor is it equal to the suffering of those who have been victimized.

I’ll illustrate with another work story involving criminal acts. A few years later, I worked with former offenders who had been incarcerated for violent crimes including assault and murder, and who struggled with psychosis. A few of my clients were participating in a restorative justice program designed to support and heal victims while offering perpetrators a chance to participate in repairing the harms they had inflicted. My job in those cases was to assess if my client could participate constructively in the program.

My clients, the ex-offenders, said yes quickly and reflexively. They wanted to be forgiven. I had to remind them: “This can’t be only — or even primarily — about what you need to feel better.” They first had to understand that the victims may need to release anger at them, or tell them all the damage that stemmed from their crimes. The victims might need to make the perpetrator feel more guilt and pain, not less, in conceiving of the long-lasting impacts their offense had generated.

There was a crucial step that had to happen before forgiveness — which might not come at all — could even be possible. My clients had to first assume and withstand responsibility for their actions to their victim’s satisfaction. When they understood the realities of the process, some couldn’t face it. It was too much. One man said: “It will take me years to get that strong. I’m gonna try but tell them it might take me years.”

Forgiveness is powerful and cleansing and is often a deep desire of those struggling with the painful guilt. But forgiveness can’t be requested prematurely. Perpetrators of harm can’t ask to be unburdened while their victims are still carrying the painful weight of past and present injuries. There is a great deal of work to be done on the long road toward forgiveness. It is far more important to get to work repairing what we have damaged or broken, than to be released from the tension of guilt with the magic wand of forgiveness.

Too often white people rush toward these hard conversations seeking the relief of confession or forgiveness. But the restoration of those who have been harmed is more important than the relief of those who have perpetrated harm.

Perhaps our task, when we feel the impulse to confess, is to be certain others aren’t injured by our admission, and to wait until we are strong enough to assume responsibility for who we are and all that we have inherited, whether we are forgiven or not.

Martha M. Crawford is a writer and a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City, and the author of the blog What a Shrink Thinks.

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