After both studying and writing about racial inequality in the United States, I have come to learn that, much like our interpersonal or romantic relationships, most of the ongoing strife between African-Americans and the nation stems from the absence of atonement, forgiveness and reconciliation. Personal relationships are often threatened by wrongdoing. That’s because human beings are fallible and imperfect.
For that reason, it is extremely important that we all understand and employ steps towards reconciliation. It’s the only way to heal the gaping wounds created by centuries of racism, and also to create stronger and healthier relationships on a micro and macro level. After all, society is merely the sum of our collective human behavior – our relationships to one another, to institutions, to other countries and even the Earth itself. Each and every one of us is responsible for establishing healthy relationships interpersonally, just as our country is responsible for doing the same with all of its citizens.
This list outlines important steps that must be taken to properly reconcile any relationship threatened by a participant’s misdeed. These steps can be applied to any relationship — whether it’s between lovers, friends, family or racial groups and institutions — but in the spirit of furthering much needed conversations about racial inequality, the steps will be applied to reconciling the relationship between white America and Black people as well.
- 1. Acknowledge wrongdoings
- 2. Accept and welcome feelings of guilt
- 3. Accept responsibility for the ramifications of your transgressions
- 4. Establish ways to atone for misdeeds
- 5. Allow those you have wronged to fully express their disappointment, anger or sadness
- 6. Beware of others who reinforce bad behavior
- 7. Do not look to those who have been wronged for a solution
- 8. Do not expect immediate resolution
- 9. Examine the larger forces at work that informed those unhealthy decisions that hurt others
1. Acknowledge wrongdoings
The first and most important step towards reconciliation is the mutual agreement that there has been a misdeed. There is no worse feeling than for someone to not only do something hurtful or damaging to you, but to also completely deny that they have done anything wrong or refuse to publicly acknowledge that wrongdoing.
White/Black America’s Relationship: White America has yet to publicly denounce slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, redlining, forced sterilization and or any other wrongs done to the Black community over the course of American history. This failure represents a reluctance towards true reconciliation. This country must publicly denounce racism in order for equality to prevail.
2. Accept and welcome feelings of guilt
Guilt is an extremely powerful emotion. It arises when an individual believes they have acted in a way that violates his or her own moral standards. Our immediate and first responses to guilt — and all other negative emotions — are often avoidance, repression and/or projection, otherwise known as defense mechanisms. Avoidance and repression simply do not address the issue, which leaves room for it to crop up again in the future, while projection — like victim-blaming — displaces responsibility from the perpetrator of an unjust act to the victim, which is very problematic. One must overcome and embrace feelings of guilt in order to take steps towards restoring harmony.
White/Black America’s Relationship: Today, white people struggle with feelings of guilt about the way Blacks and people of color are treated in this country. That is not only undeniable but unavoidable, because racism violates not only our individual moral standards, but even that of the country at large, which preaches freedom and equality for all. That violation forces the country and most whites into defense mode, where mechanisms are employed to obviate guilt. Some of the most common defense mechanisms employed by white America are:
- Repression: Claims that racism no longer exists. The Colorblind Era — where everyone claimed they didn’t “see color” — is the most recent example of how repression fails to address an issue.
- Avoidance: Segregation in institutions and neighborhoods creates distance between whites and Blacks and their respective experiences.
- Projection: Black people are constantly blamed for their poverty, while their culture is referred to as “dysfunctional,” despite the fact that white supremacy is at fault for perpetuating a system of inequality that is responsible for these results.
3. Accept responsibility for the ramifications of your transgressions
Human beings all live in a vast, interconnected ecosystem where each and every one of our actions directly affects and influences the environment and those in it. Thus, the impact of one wrong action can have a ripple effect throughout all of the society. The impact of years or generations of wrong doings, of course, will have a much greater impact. It is important that one not only accepts responsibility for the initial transgression, but also acknowledges how such behavior may have resulted in numerous other detrimental outcomes. For example, if you cheat and/or lie to repeatedly to your significant other, don’t be surprised if they have major trust issues.
White/Black America’s Relationship: The end results of structural racism and the after effects of centuries of inequality can be seen in everything from disproportionate poverty rates among Blacks, to the wealth gap and a Black life expectancy rate that is shorter than that of whites. Poverty and the creation of “ghettos” through discriminatory housing practices are responsible for widespread violence, yet America continues to brand African-Americans as “thugs” and “welfare queens,” displacing the guilt from the perpetrators to the victims.
4. Establish ways to atone for misdeeds
Because of the widespread impact our negative actions can have, it is important that we address not only the bad actions themselves, but also that which results from them. For example, if you hit someone with your car, of course you should get out and apologize to the victim. However, you should also see to it that the person is given medical attention and is able to pay the bills which result from your bad-driving. Atonement must be all-encompassing.
White/Black America’s Relationship: While many argue that Civil Rights Era legislation like Affirmative Action atones for centuries of oppression, today we see that it has not. Affirmative Action legislation has benefitted white women more than any other demographic, the income and wealth gaps persists, schools are still segregated, Black people still lack access to equal health care and millions of Black people are incarcerated for non-violent offenses or murdered by police while unarmed. After the murder of nine Black women and men in their place of worship, America responded by demanding that South Carolina and other states take down of the Confederate Flag. While important, such a response failed to atone for the original wrongdoing, or address the white radicalism that inspired it. America must do better. It must establish a plan to address these issues head on.
5. Allow those you have wronged to fully express their disappointment, anger or sadness
No one wants to hear that we have hurt someone else, plain and simple. But it is an important part of the healing process that those who are hurt are allowed to express that pain fully. It is crucial that victims of our misdeeds are lent a supportive, nonjudgmental ear.
White/Black America’s Relationship: Oftentimes whites try to quiet people of color who attempt to address oppression or inequality or dismiss such individuals by labeling them “angry” or “race baiters.” Instead, White America should simply be quiet and listen.
6. Beware of others who reinforce bad behavior
The hardest “bad behavior” to challenge in ourselves is that which aligns with the status quo. There are always people out there in the world who will co-sign our wrongdoings to make themselves feel better for committing something similar. It is crucial that we separate ourselves from the pack and evaluate our actions based on our own moral codes and standards. Just because your buddy John cheats on his wife while he’s on the road and says he won’t tell if you do the same, doesn’t make it any less of a shitty thing to do.
White/Black America’s Relationship: White transgressions against Black people and people of color were/are not only socially acceptable but state sanctioned to a large extent. This presents one of the greatest difficulties when trying to tackle the issue of racism in the United States of America: it requires the very isolating dedication of those willing to separate themselves from the herd to act based on what they deem as morally right or wrong. That separation is courageous and commendable, but also takes a lot of strength and bravery because human beings fear isolation and ostracism. Nevertheless, it is the cost of progress which many whites and Blacks have already paid. Others must step up and continue to sacrifice for the greater good.
7. Do not look to those who have been wronged for a solution
The human mind not only attempts to displace feelings of guilt, but also responsibility for resolving problems of its own creation. When we transgress, it is our responsibility to find solutions that are amicable to all who have been wronged. It’s not fair to throw up your hands and say to the person you’ve victimized, “Just tell me what to do so you’ll forgive me.”
White/Black America’s Relationship: White America’s go-to response after confronting racism is often, “Well, what should we do about it?” The onus is not on Black people or minority people to come up with a resolution to the long legacy of institutional racism and oppression, though by closely following what I outlined in #5 — that is, listening to grievances — you’re likely to glean some tips.
8. Do not expect immediate resolution
Just like physical wounds take time to heal, emotional ones do as well. People must be given the time and space to work through issues without judgement.
White/Black America’s Relationship: White America’s tendency towards telling Black and other people of color that they need to “get over” slavery/segregation and to stop “living in the past” is dismissive of the pain caused by those forms of oppression and the oppression that is still ongoing.
9. Examine the larger forces at work that informed those unhealthy decisions that hurt others
Though we all value our individuality and personal autonomy, the ways in which society shapes our thinking — our socialization — should never be underestimated. Much of our behavior is socialized and cyclically passed down from one generation to the next– even those which may not be healthy or productive. We have all internalized varying degrees of sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, classism, ageism and other forms of discrimination that is not only hurtful to others, but also has negative impacts on our own well-being.
White/Black America’s Relationship: At this point in the debate, it is nearly impossible to deny the existence of racism in America, and those that do will more than likely never change their opinion. For the rest of the nation that understands the need to confront this fact, that confrontation begins with the self. We must all examine the racist notions and stereotypes which we have internalized and also evaluate where we stand in the social hierarchy created by white supremacy and acknowledge the ways we benefit from our participation in it.
Original by Tiffanie Drayton