The Perverse Spectacle of Black Forgiveness

Image: AP

The guilty verdict passed down to Amber Guyger—the former Dallas police officer who shot and killed her 26-year-old neighbor Botham Jean in his apartment after mistaking it for her own—should have been cathartic. One doesn’t have to be a supporter for the carceral state to at least feel a sense of relief that yet another white cop didn’t kill an unarmed black person and get away with it. But any feeling of justice was swiftly doused by the a few brief moments after the verdict, and the fetishization that soon followed.

After Guyger was sentenced to 10 years in prison, Jean’s brother, Brandt, spoke directly to her. “I forgive you, and I know if you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you,” Brandt said. “I love you just like anyone else... I personally want the best for you. I personally want the best for you. I don’t even want you to go to jail… because that’s exactly what Botham would want too.”

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After finishing his statement, Brandt asked Judge Tammy Kemp if he could give Guyger a hug, which she permitted. Brandt stood up from the witness chair and made a beeline to Guyger, who sobbed in his arms.

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It was an intense moment, but not the only one in which Guyger received comfort from an unlikely source: After the sentencing, Judge Kemp gave Guyger a bible, prayed with her, and embraced her.

Image: AP
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The graciousness bestowed upon Guyger quickly became a source of heated debate on social media. Were the hugs a step too far? Is it fair to judge how the Jean family navigates trauma and forgiveness through their religion? Is this whiteness at work?

But more frustrating than debate was the salivating over the range of Brandt Jean (and, albeit to a lesser extent, Judge Kemp’s) propensity for forgiveness. The clip of Brandt Jean quickly went viral, eliciting saccharine commentary from beloved celebrities like Chris Evans—“This is easily one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen”—to loathsome Republican politicians like Ted Cruz— “A beautiful, powerful example of Christian love [and] forgiveness.”

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How the Jean family decides to grapple with the emotional trauma of the death of Bothan is, frankly, between them, their God, and—apparently—Guyger. But there’s a voyeuristic element to the cumulation of Guyger’s case, and the racial optics matter.

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America loves black people who forgive their tormenters. It’s why there was so much praise for the victims of the Charleston church shooting forgiving unrepentant racist Dylan Roof. It’s why people love this long-debunked photo of a black medical team operating on a member of the Ku Klux Klan. And it’s why people love to weaponize this story about a black man who spent 30 years befriending Ku Klux Klan members, as evidence against those who won’t forgive someone’s racist transgressions. The latter, importantly, got a lot of circulation during the Shane Gillis SNL controversy.

Writer Hanif Abdurraquib wrote about this phenomenon in 2018 for the Pacific Standard (bolding mine):

It is unavoidable to mention that these expectations of forgiveness are often drawn along racial lines, in situations where there are black victims of a white offender; again, the praise thrust on the family members who forgave Roof in Charleston comes to mind. This expectation feels fueled by a perverse need to see harmed people demonstrate nobility—because that’s how we can believe the myths that political suffering builds character, and that righteousness rather than power will inevitably triumph.

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Black people do not possess a supernatural ability to forgive, no matter what church they may or may not go to. But this doesn’t track with America’s obsession with watching traumatized black people take the higher road. And America’s obsession with watching traumatized black people take the higher road is borne of a culture that wants to abandon trauma, that seeks for a neat ending to the structural clusterfuck that forces black people to experience so much of it.

And perhaps the most glaring part of the reaction is that it’s almost impossible to imagine the same level of compassion that Guyger received—both from Brandt Jean and Judge Kemp in her moment of absolute unprofessionalism—being extended toward a black person who was just charged with murder. The care Guyger received is especially puzzling given the fact that Guyger has a history of being racist: She made derisive comments on the professionalism of her black colleagues and even joked about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

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But these facts are irrelevant now. Guyger’s former employer, the Dallas Police Department, are eager to move past her record, thanks to the mighty power of Black Forgiveness.

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Viral acts of radical Black Forgiveness might be great feel-good content for non-black people, but when this becomes the expected norm for how black people should respond to trauma, it looks a lot less heartwarming and a lot more sinister. It’s hard to find much to forgive.

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About the author

Ashley Reese

Staff writer, mint chocolate hater.