Forgiveness As Fear and Survival: The Racism Hole

The following is an excerpt from Umm Zakiyyah’s newly released book, The Abuse of Forgiveness: Manipulation and Harm in the Name of Emotional Healing.

It took me some time to realize that my emotional triggers in environments of forced forgiveness were at least partially due to having lived daily in a culture that taught me that only white people mattered. As an African-American woman, I subconsciously understood that my social acceptance in wider American society, as well as my emotional and physical safety in predominately white environments, depended almost entirely on my filtering all experiences with racism (by myself and other African-Americans) through one of four lens: denying that any racism was involved, blaming the victim (even in cases of murder), acknowledging the wrong but emphasizing the good intentions of the aggressor, or forgiving any aggression, no matter how horrific.

I also subconsciously understood that none of these lens would be applied by American society to me. If I were to offend a white person, even if only by responding to a question posed by them regarding my experiences with racism, then I could not and would not be forgiven. In the face of their apparent offense, it was then my job to console them until they felt reassured that I was ever so grateful to them for even asking the question.

If by chance my initial response to their inquiry involved any expression of intense emotion, whether in frustration or anger about my experiences with racism, it was then my job to apologize to them, even if none of my venting was directed at them specifically. If they were mindful enough to ask my forgiveness for any wrongs they had committed, I was required not only to accept their forgiveness, but to eagerly display the most effusive enthusiasm in light of their ostensible contrition—even if I knew full well that their apology would be followed up with absolutely no action to right the wrong (as was almost always the case).

Under no circumstances was I allowed to bring up the topic of racism myself, even if I was experiencing it daily. All discussions of racism required prior approval by white people. This approval was generally granted either by a white person asking my thoughts on the topic, or by a white person facilitating a formal discussion on the topic. The formality of the discussion allowed the topic to be addressed in a distant, scientific manner that neither stated nor implied any specific culpability or accountability of the white people present. In this way, white people could feel “safe” from both me and their guilt, while feeling contented that they were in the frontlines of battling racism, even if the racism they battled was only philosophical and thus disconnected from anti-Black racism in any practical way.

In such environments, I always forgave. I didn’t have any other choice. It was either forgive or suffer. I generally chose the former. Because this “forgiveness as fear” had been one of my earliest experiences with forced forgiveness, when I encountered this same mentality in support groups claiming to support emotional healing, I was repeatedly triggered. In these environments of forced forgiveness, I was immediately reminded that I was in danger of suffering if I didn’t forgive in the precise way that my “superiors” dictated I must.

Forgiveness As Apathy, Helplessness and Pseudo-Religiosity

For Black people in America, forgiveness has almost never been a choice. It has been a coping mechanism. In the face of horrific events beyond our control, we have repeatedly turned to faith in God to purge from our hearts the natural anger and frustration felt by those who are relentlessly abused but then denied their right to even the acknowledgement of pain that precedes all healing.

Despite all the extensive research on transgenerational trauma, on suffering emotional and psychological abuse, and on being continuously subjected to gaslighting thereafter, the field of mental health largely ignores the fact that Black people’s experience with daily racism falls under all three of these categories. Furthermore, whereas most mental health experts emphasize the need to remove oneself from abusive relationships and toxic environments, they fail to address the fact that the sheer ubiquity of modern day racism (which is sometimes overt and sometimes covert) makes this advice largely impossible, especially for “successful” Black people in predominately white work spaces whose very livelihood depends on working everyday in environments of passive aggressive racism that negatively affect their mental, emotional, and even physical health.

To add insult to injury, when Black people make efforts to create organizations, support groups, or awareness campaigns to address these issues amongst themselves, they are accused of living in the past and wanting to create racial division in “post-racial” America. Meanwhile, efforts to spread awareness about the effects of psychological and emotional abuse get loads of media attention and support, so long as racism is not discussed as a form of them. For even in topics concerning their own mental health, Black people aren’t allowed to offend white people.

Tragically, under the umbrella of forgiveness, this devaluing mentality is often spread by Black people themselves. However, occasionally, there emerges a Black person who becomes fed up with the culture of forced forgiveness and speaks up vehemently against it publicly. In his article “Black America owes no forgiveness: How Christianity hinders racial justice”, Chauncey DeVega says, “Blacks are expected to absolve White America of its crimes. The rules change when the victim happens to be white” (August 2015). He then goes on to share the following:

On the one-year anniversary of the death of an 18-year-old black teenager named Michael Brown by a (now confessed racist) white police officer named Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, Brown’s mother, Lezley McSpadden, was asked if she forgave Darren Wilson for his cruel and wanton act of legal murder. She told Al Jazeera that she will “never forgive” Darren Wilson and that “he’s evil, his acts were devilish.”

Her response is unusual. Its candor is refreshing. Lezley McSpadden’s truth-telling reveals the full humanity and emotions of black folks, and by doing so defies the norms which demand that when Black Americans suffer they do so stoically, and always in such a way where forgiveness for racist violence is a given, an unearned expectation of White America.

The expectation that black people will always and immediately forgive the violence done to them by the State, or individual white people, is a bizarre and sick American ritual (August 2015).

He goes on to address the role of religion in this forced forgiveness culture:

The African-American church is also central to the black American ritual of forgiveness…The notion of “Christian forgiveness” as taught by the black church could also be a practical means of self-medication, one designed to stave off existential malaise, and to heal oneself in the face of the quotidian struggles of life under American Apartheid…

Here, the ritual of African-American forgiveness allows White America absolution and innocence without having to put in the deeds and necessary hard work for true justice, fairness, and equal democracy on both sides of the color line (August 2015).

Not surprisingly (at least for those familiar with the transgenerational cycle of racism), this double standard of forgiveness has roots in the time of the European enslavement of black people. In the first stage of forced forgiveness during this time, black people were forced to become Christians, thereby cutting off any possibility of even hidden beliefs beyond their masters’ control. Then they were taught a very Euro-centric, pro-slavery version of their faith, human goodness, and forgiveness.

In the White American version of Christianity, God became a white man and thus their Lord and Savior (literally), and it was Black people’s God-mandated duty to serve the White Divine in body and soul. As such, black slavery was ordained by God, and submission to slavery was a Christian duty. Inherent in this religious duty was the obligation to forgive one’s enemies (who happened to strongly resemble their Lord and Savoir). Any evidence of discontent, frustration, or anger with one’s oppressive circumstances was swiftly punished in the most gruesome of ways. Naturally, the Christian-ness of the violent, white aggressors could not be questioned, as this was against the law of both church and state.

In this stage of forced forgiveness culture, Black people were taught that good Christians were loving, forgiving, and content with their circumstances. In contrast, bad Christians were angry and violent (if they were black) and thus insubordinate to their masters (who were white). Since the white man was god, his wrath upon black people could not and would not be questioned. But it didn’t matter, they were told, as any suffering on earth would be rewarded with Heaven in the afterlife for “good Christians.”

As a coping mechanism to these egregious conditions, Black people embraced forced forgiveness because it was their only means of physical survival and mental sanity. They learned to appear content, happy, and pleased with even the most degrading of circumstances. As a form of self-encouragement, they kept telling themselves and each other, often from the church pulpit, that they were good people because they chose forgiveness instead of hate. Till today, the stereotype of the “angry black person” serves as a deterrent to Black people acknowledging or expressing hurt, frustration, or pain.

A similar dysfunctional ideology continues today in nearly all abusive environments, irrespective of one’s ethnicity or religion. Naturally (and by design), it is oppressive governments, abusers, and wrongdoers who benefit most from this passive, apathetic concept of human goodness and forgiveness. Not surprisingly, this non-aggression and automatic forgiveness is demanded only from those being oppressed and abused—not from those doing the oppressing or abusing. And like the stereotype of the “angry black person,” the stereotype of the “angry, bitter person” who suffered abuse serves as a deterrent to abuse survivors embracing their right to both human choice and angry emotions.

Through this self-destructive definition of human goodness and forgiveness, victims are made to feel good about themselves by viewing all negative feelings and emotions as traits of “bad people” and all positive feelings and emotions as traits of “good people.” Thus, survivors continuously strive to keep themselves in the latter category, lest they “turn bad” like their abusers.

In this narrow, overly simplistic understanding of good and evil (and of humanity itself), oppressors and abusers are allowed to continuously harm others and subsequently expect automatic forgiveness and absolution. Meanwhile, this dysfunctional forgiveness culture dictates that victims are either required to submit to the abuse and bear it patiently—as Black people are continuously required to do till today (by both church and state), even in the face overt racism and horrific acts of murder. Or, alternatively, survivors are permitted to escape the abuse itself, but they are then required to do absolutely nothing to hold the oppressors and abusers accountable for their abusive behavior—even if only by not forgiving them in their hearts.

READ MORE: The Abuse of Forgiveness


Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of more than fifteen books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, His Other Wife and the self-help book for Muslim survivors of parental and family abuse: Reverencing the Wombs That Broke You. Read HIS OTHER WIFE novel now: CLICK HERE. Subscribe to Umm Zakiyyah’s YouTube channel, follow her on Instagram or Twitter, and join her Facebook page.

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