Mallory: Hey, Carvell: would you say that white Americans pretty much constantly misunderstand the concept of black forgiveness?
Carvell: It’s hard to know what white Americans are thinking, but given what they say, then yes. Like…a lot. A lot. Like this guy who got on the shooter’s Facebook page and forgave him publicly. I saw a lot of white people, even friends, sharing that, like: “See! Isn’t this beautiful?” Whereas a lot of my black friends were more, “If this fool doesn’t get THE ENTIRE FUCK out of here with that…”
I saw that made some white friends nervous.
Like they felt like this shooter needed to be forgiven by black people in order for them to feel comfortable. Which, if you’re not the shooter, is bizarre to say the least.
Carvell: I think a lot of people forget that forgiveness of racists among black people is something that WE DO IN ORDER TO KEEP OUR SOULS INTACT.
Mallory: Oh man, let’s start with that. Break down a little, if you will, what you think forgiveness means in the context of Black American Christianity, with the usual caveat that you do not speak for all black Americans, but are familiar with the broad context?
Carvell: Yes. Thanks for that, and also why do we still have to explain that I don’t speak for 40 gajllion people. But. Anyway. There’s a difference between the private act of forgiveness and the public act of forgiveness.
Mallory: Which I think maybe a lot of white people do not understand! Again, there are many kinds of white people and white Christians, but in the broad Christian context I grew up in, saying “I forgive you” was generally understood to be a complete act. You forgave someone when you were DONE wrestling through what they had done to you. And it meant that you were, if not over it completely, at a certain amount of peace, and that things were, generally speaking, “okay.”
Carvell: Right. Well, when your entire history in this country has been about literally dying to be considered human, you have to develop a Christianity that enables you to fight while also “forgiving them” who hurt you. We have to forgive the sinner because the accumulated resentment could destroy us, but that will never mean that we don’t fight tooth and nail against the sin.
Mallory: So it has more to do with self-protection than it does with absolution, it sounds like.
Carvell: Absolutely. It’s nothing to do with the offender and it’s not about granting a pass to anyone.
Mallory: I think a lot of us miss that entirely.
Carvell: It’s more about clearing your heart of hate SPECIFICALLY SO YOU CAN CONTINUE TO FIGHT.
Mallory: Whereas we hear “I forgive you” and we think “Wow, what a great guy, I would NEVER be over ___ so quickly”
Carvell: Yeah, no. You guys probably need to get that untwisted.
Mallory: It seems this idea of forgiveness is 1. an act that is about keeping one’s own soul free from bitterness and destruction and 2. as a process. But more often white people or just society at large tends to think of it as a final act that lets the offender feel unburdened from guilt. Does that seem roughly accurate?
Carvell: Again, I don’t know what white people actually think. But it seems like there is not nearly enough urgency about getting this racist shit under control and it doesn’t seem like the “endlessly forgiving Negro” story is helping that at all. This is why I cringe when I hear white people sharing stories of black folks who were royally fucked over six ways till Sunday saying “I forgive you,” like “isn’t this beautiful.”
America has a long history of raping, robbing, enslaving and killing people and then urging those same people to find and express forgiveness and peace. So when I hear “pray for peace” from a white person in the hours after Charleston, it lands very, very wrong.
These folks were praying for peace and expressing forgiveness by letting this dude into their church when they were slain. Their pants were pulled up and they weren’t “challenging authority.” And they still got killed.
Carvell: Genuine forgiveness is important for one’s soul and serenity. But an oppressive nation likes to use forgiving the sinner to get people to forgive (and thereby allow the continuation of) the sin. That we won’t do.
This is why, for today, for me public talk of forgiveness is out.
Mallory: That makes a lot of sense. I think for the rest of us, for non-black people, if we hear “I forgive you” from a black person to someone who has harmed them and to assume “this story is over now, what a beautiful ending to a sad tale,” we commit a huge moral error.
We hear “I forgive you” and think “Well, then, there’s nothing more to see here.” And that thought lacks empathy, lacks courage, lacks self-awareness, lacks goodness.
Carvell: Yes. It sort of speaks to the thing I’m always talking about, the inability of oppressed people to be seen as human in the eyes of the oppressor. Black people aren’t some mysterious magical race with superhuman forgiveness powers. We are people like you and we are exactly as pissed off as you’d be if this stuff was happening to you for all these years.
Mallory: It’s a relief for us, in some ways, a pressure valve. “If the families of nine people murdered in a church can forgive the killer, racism must not be so bad in this country.” It’s a weird and twisted moral gymnastic leap to get out of accountability
Carvell: Yeah, no. You need to feel like racism is real bad in this country. Because last week, nine people were murdered in a church. There should be no clause, “but” or caveat after that sentence. That should just sit in your stomach like some bad meatloaf for a long, long time. There’s no bright side.
Mallory: The forgiveness belongs to those families; it’s not ours to share
That’s exactly right. Stop trying to co-opt these people’s forgiveness. They can forgive all they want, we should be outraged and entirely unforgiving of this bullshit as a society. The way the media handles forgiveness is like it’s something that washes the stain away, wipes it clean. That is the OPPOSITE of reconciliation in this country.
America tries to pass it off: “the past was bad, but hey, it’s all good now.”
Mallory: I think sometimes that because on some level white Americans know that we are complicit in racism, we are especially eager to talk about forgiveness. It wouldn’t interest us so much if we didn’t on some level feel culpable
Carvell: Right, but the irony is as long as you cling onto your forgiveness fantasies you’re going to have this problem facing you everywhere you turn. America is living a fucking ghost story.
We should all know this. we’ve all seen Poltergeist.
Mallory: (I have never seen Poltergeist)
(but I get the gist)
Carvell: except for Mallory we’ve all seen Poltergeist!
The spirit of our past continues to haunt us because we ignore it. Or try to, with some cockamamie stories about forgiveness and post-racial and reverse racism and all the other nonsense white men shout at me on Twitter.
Mallory: It seems it would be so painful and disconcerting, to constantly experience and be reminded of the ways racism still has a hold on this country, while simultaneously hearing from white people “That doesn’t exist! I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Like racial gaslighting.
Carvell: That’s exactly what it is. I do not exaggerate when I say that every single thing in the killer’s manifesto is something someone white has said to me in response to a piece I wrote, while claiming not to be racist. But when someone comes along who is really about that Aggrieved White Guy life, the very same one you’ve been talking about, all of a sudden everyone claims to be mystified. But this guy didn’t parachute out of a UFO to do this. He’s an American who is living American Whiteness. He’s making the same arguments you are. How is this a surprise? To be black in America is to come under constant attack on your soul, humanity, and everything else you need to exist.
That’s why we’ve learned to forgive and fight at the same time.
We’re forgiving and fighting the same things at the same time. I forgive for myself while I fight for all of us.
Mallory: Is there any ground you felt like we didn’t cover?
Carvell: I just wish people would leave black folks alone. Stop trying to police us, control us, steal from us, manage our behavior at every turn. I wish white people would instead just admit 1. “this is a racist-as-shit country, and it’s killing some of us and hurting all of us” and 2. “We need to get right about that because we’re the ones wrong about that.”
Mallory: Hey, thank you for taking the time to chat about this with me for the site.
Carvell: No problem. The Toast is the best!
Mallory: Also is Poltergeist any good, should I watch it
Carvell: Yes. if I recall correctly.
a well-made movie about a modern day haunted house that works pretty neatly as a metaphor for American history.
Carvell Wallace has seen Poltergeist. Mallory hasn't.