Myisha Cherry is interested in issues at the intersection of moral psychology and social and political philosophy. She has published on manipulation, white privilege, resistance, and state violence and is currently co-editing ‘The Moral Psychology of Anger’, under contract with Rowman and Littlefield. She has taught philosophy at such schools as the City University of New York and St. Johns University. She is a blogger at the Huffington Post and is the host and producer of the UnMute Podcast. Myisha is currently pursing a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
What Does it Mean to Ask Blacks to Forgive and How Should They Respond?
In 2012, I read about a horrific case that would have an impact on my research interests. In 2002, Adam Wright, repeatedly raped a 12-year-old girl in a Brooklyn elevator. He was caught 10 years later. While acting as his own lawyer in court, he looked at the victim and said, “Let go, learn to let go … Don’t hold on to any pain, don’t hold on to it. Give it to the Lord and he’ll take care of it for you.”
His words rocked me to my core as I sat and watched the video clip of the trial. I did not think he had the right to ask the victim to do that. I also felt that the problem with his request was rooted in his definition of forgiveness, in his desire to not be held accountable, and in the belief that girls and women have no right to feel violated or to seek justice. They should just “let it go.” His request was not an oddity. It was quite familiar.
I had heard about women who were instructed by their pastors and church mothers to forgive their abusing husbands. That kind of forgiveness required them not to leave, but to stick in there, love him because ‘this is what Jesus would do’. I had heard “let go” requests throughout my life. African-Americans have always been instructed to forgive injustices and to let go of the pain of oppression. African Americans have always been told that the Lord would take care of it although the State would not. After hearing Adam Wright make his request in court, I got angrier and more tired of hearing such requests. I also got interested in trying to figure out exactly what forgiveness was. I thought, “They must have got it wrong.” At that moment, I became interested in the rhetoric of forgiveness and how it can be used to silence others and prevent justice. I also became interested in the nature of forgiveness and the value of anger.
My current research focuses on how forgiveness rhetoric is used in response to anti-black racism and state violence against blacks. I noticed during the Charleston Nine Shooting, the shooting of Eric Garner, and the shooting of Samuel Dubose, that judges and the press would ask or demand the forgiveness of white perpetrators from black victims. The requests were all made within a few days of the violence. This was quite odd to me. In no press conference or court hearings of the Sandy Hook Shooting, the 911 tragedy, or the recent attack in San Bernardino is it recorded that the press or judges asked victims to forgive the suspects. I call the request for marginalized groups, particularly African-Americans, to hurry up and forgive, the “Hurry and Bury Ritual.”
The Hurry and Bury Ritual is a public ritual of asking for and expecting immediate forgiveness from black victims of anti-black racism, white violence, and state violence. As indicated above, an asymmetry exists. This asymmetry forces us to ask what is really going on. I think the ritual reveal several things: 1) A desire to ignore the problem and the solution of racist acts, (2) a lack of empathy for blacks, (3), the myth that black people have superhuman strength, (4) a fear of black rage, and (5) a belief that anger and forgiveness cannot co-exist. The cases above are uniquely useful for seeing these interactions. I claim that the Hurry and Bury ritual has illocutionary force and perlocutionary effects but it is also an example of exercitives. In other words, the requests made has the intention of motivating the victim to take the moral high road with the hope the victim will say “I forgive.” But the ritual also denies black victims the power to choose their own emotional path. By asking for forgiveness, they are commanding it, challenging black victim’s ethical and religious commitments, and controlling the narrative. The Hurry and Bury ritual is informed by both a particular view of blacks and a particular account of forgiveness.
The Standard account of forgiveness views forgiveness as the overcoming of anger. Philosophers Norvin Richards, Jeffrie Murphy, Howard McGary, and Macalester Bell all hold this view or a form of it. The Prudential account of forgiveness encourages the overcoming of negative emotions in order to feel better. Nigel Biggar holds this view of forgiveness. So there is no way for me to address the Ritual and forgiveness without understanding anger. Last year, I gave a TEDx talk entitled “Anger Is Not a Bad Word.” In that talk, I argue how appropriate anger is useful in the pursuit of justice. I think that it is important for marginalized groups to keep their anger. I believe the standard accounts of forgiveness, with its negative view of anger, burdens the marginalized and the oppressed. It burdens them because it focuses on the character of the victim and not the damage done. It encourages the romanticizing of the forgiver while the damage itself is never addressed and rectified. It also creates a preference for feeling better over fairing better and this may impede social change. The accounts also implicitly require a compromise of self-respect for if proper self-respect is tied to resentment, a person who does not resent an injury is lacking in self-respect. These accounts of forgiveness are also too much work for victims. They de-emphasizes self-care and can place more focus on the care we offer to offenders and not the care we offer to victims.
I offer an alternative to the standard and prudential accounts. I refer to it as ‘Outraged Forgiveness’. British Moralist, Joseph Butler, has greatly influenced my account. I claim that while those who argue for the standard account claim to borrow from Butler, they instead are misreading him. I read Joseph Butler as not only valuing resentment but also giving us a unique account of anger. I argue that this makes room for black victims to maintain their resentment while forgiving. I claim that not only should we not forgive too quickly, but if forgiveness includes the forswearing of resentment, it is best for oppressed blacks not to ‘forgive’ at all.
‘Outraged Forgiveness’ is an individual action and not something that one person does for the whole community. My account of outraged forgiveness is a fittingness account of forgiveness. To forgive, on my view is to offer an appropriate, proportionate, and reasonable response to injustice. Forgiveness that is not appropriate is not an example of Outraged Forgiveness but is rather revenge or mercy, for example. For this reason, my account does conflict with arguments for Restorative Justice. Outraged forgiveness can also look different depending on the social context. Unlike the standard and prudential accounts, Outraged Forgiveness retains anger to affirm self-respect and condemn moral injury, it makes room for compassion and benevolence, in it the concept of virtuous character is broadly construed, it doesn’t burden black victims with saving others but places responsibility on institutions to correct the damage, and it doesn’t impede social change. Outraged forgiveness is a matter of action, inaction, and the heart.
In some ways, my account of forgiveness is a way to respond to the Hurry and Bury Ritual. I do not think my account is something that blacks should adopt; I think it is an account that blacks have adopted throughout the history of this country and should continue to do so. When a reporter asks another black victim of state violence to forgive, I hope the victim will respond, “Black people have been practicing Outraged Forgiveness forever. So there is no need to ask for it! Next Question.”