The Cost of Black Forgiveness

On October 2nd, Amber Guyger was sentenced to 10 years of prison for the murder of Botham Jean, a man who was killed in his own home a couple of weeks shy of his 26th birthday. Sunday, September 29th, would have been his 28th birthday. The state asked for at least 28 years, a number representative of how old Botham would have been had Amber not taken his life. That wish, however, was not granted. To all of our surprise, Botham’s younger brother, Brandt Jean, asked the judge to give Guyger a hug, which was allowed, resulting in sobbing. It was certainly a moving scene, a scene in which the emotions felt from the outsiders looking in were heavily varied.

I find myself conflicted. On the one hand, I sympathize with Brandt. Death is never easy, and it doesn’t get easier when the loss of a loved one becomes yet another example of the wrongful death of Black people at the hands of the police. I’m certain that in announcing his forgiveness, in hugging her, he can start to move on. If that is what he needs to move forward, I’m glad it was the step he took. I want nothing but peace for him and his family.

On the other hand, Brandt’s forgiveness of Guyger is a snapping of a rubber band. Over and over Black people have had to give forgiveness to their trespassers. We’ve had to extend the olive branch to those that have wronged us because the same dignity, compassion, and understanding is not given to us. Take the #ExoneratedFive for example; men, who were framed, destroyed by the media and treated terribly, have yet to receive their apologies from the women that falsely put them in jail. Families whose lives have been drastically altered by police brutality and racism were expected to give forgiveness because we have to be the “bigger person” in these scenarios.

I think this expectation of us, this real but invisible pressure to be the bigger person in these racialized traumas, extends from survival instincts. We’ve had a long history of playing nice to live. At a certain point in time, “sorry” was the difference between going home for dinner or getting lynched. To apologize was to live another day, even if we weren’t in the wrong. It is a tradition that’s been passed down throughout the generations, and frankly it is a hindrance.

Take a hard look at how much work was taken by the state to solidify the image of Botham Jean as a Christian, as a good man. His character was already in question for his marijuana use. Yet, somehow, Guyger is the one who receives sympathy and hugs. Why are we comforting a murderer? Had she been Black, would that same sympathy be extended to her?

The problem is that racism is not a Black person’s problem. The ideology of white supremacy was created to maintain power on the ridiculous notion that those with darker skin were inferior. Around such an idea were systems created to ensure that whiteness would never be threatened. The systems currently in place in American society were never created to fit Black lives into the equation. Hell, even the 13th Amendment, the law supposed to give us freedom, has loopholes. The system that we so strive to change is working as it should: to maintain white supremacy. Guyger’s case is a glitch; I was certain that she was going to be found not guilty. Yet, she was only given 10 years. Yet, she is the one being comforted for her crimes.

Black people have learned and internalized that forgiveness for racialized trauma will not come from white America, that their peace has to be found within. There is no peace for us to be found in a justice system that does not give us justice. Black people are not given the freedom to be properly angry, to grieve and to hurt, because survival says we have to forgive and forget in order to continue another day. How long are we going to give whiteness a pass for grossly impeding upon our right to exist? Botham Jean was sitting in his house, eating his ice cream, when he was shot and killed. Why must we forgive her for taking the life of an innocent man?

When racism is forgiven, we prevent white people from taking the proper accountability for the destruction white supremacy has caused. How is an entire group supposed to recover and move forward in a system that still relies on our oppression? The judge giving her hugs, Brandt giving her hugs–these actions perpetuate the innocence of white women, again excusing them for the real damage they have caused in the name of upholding white supremacy. Think about it–when have you ever seen a judge extend such humanity to a Black person convicted of a crime? When has that ever happened? 

I suppose this is the symptom of existing in a white supremacist society. Our need to survive here is so deeply ingrained. Even if Brandt won’t be angry, I will be for him. 10 years is not nearly enough for taking the life of a man trying to relax after a hard day of work. 10 years barely touches the two and a half decades Botham Jean lived. I do not believe that in continuing to sympathize with white supremacy that we can get American society to change in the ways we need it to. If forgiveness is the game, then it needs to be given to Black people in jail for weed charges, for using a relative’s address to get their child into a better school. One size does not fit all.

I hope that the Jean family finds peace. I hope they heal. I hope we can stop coddling whiteness, stop coddling murderers, stop dapping up the system that is our constant downfall.

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