It should never be the oppressed who must manage the pain of an oppressor realizing his wrongfulness.
T he well-known South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was created to help form a unified society out of the ashes of racist division. Moving from a society carved out by legalized bigotry called apartheid to one made whole by equality was a mammoth task no one could achieve perfectly. Despite the violence done to people of color, particularly black Africans, the TRC called for “a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation.”
To obtain closure, victims and victims’ families could confront the agents of violence who had acted out of political motivations (from both the apartheid and anti-apartheid sides). The TRC aimed to provide amnesty for such people, if they gave satisfactory testimony: There was a fear that people would never find out the fate of loved ones or the identity of transgressors if amnesty was not offered. Instead of answers, there would be only silence. Amnesty would allow truth to blossom, and, as many know, silence is not conducive to stability, because when things are unsaid it also means they’re not resolved.
Whether the TRC was a success is its own discussion. But for all its faults, it recognized that it should never be the oppressed who are forced to manage the pain of an oppressor realizing his wrongfulness. It wasn’t the victims attempting to convey to their oppressors why they had done wrong. The wrongdoers themselves — out of fear, shame, desperation, or whatever — were the ones coming forward, carrying a knowledge of wrongfulness to the altar of amnesty for all to see. However bloody that altar became, we did not expect the victims to maintain it.
The wrongdoers themselves were the ones coming forward, carrying a knowledge of wrongfulness to the altar of amnesty for all to see.
This lesson doesn’t appear universal.
A few months back, in the United States, Frederick Sorrell was “charged with … intimidation after following a black Muslim couple in his car while hurling threats through the window.” He did this for twenty blocks, yelling racist threats and making violent gestures.
He pleaded guilty, and after being sentenced, Sorrell wept, claiming “I guess my ignorance and my stupidity is why I opened my mouth, and I shouldn’t have and I claim full responsibility.”
If he had stopped there, that would be dodgy enough: He doesn’t actually acknowledge he did anything wrong, only that he “shouldn’t have” acted the way he did. Does that mean he shouldn’t have acted then and there? Or that he should’ve waited for a better time when he would not have been caught? He claims responsibility for his actions but doesn’t tie his actions to being wrong. (In case you’re wondering, that’s how you make a proper apology.)
But he continued, saying “I would love to sit down and have an open conversation with [the couple he targeted] and have an open mind and apologize.” If Sorrell had his way, his victims would give up time, to sit with him and have an “open conversation.” They would gain nothing, while he would get a free education and good PR. They would sit in a room with a man who conveyed pure hatred and violence toward them, all for the gamble that their aggressor might emerge a better person.
Too often, people from various spectrums of privilege who might say or do something offensive to a marginalized group put out a call to be “educated.” Men who do or say something sexist call for women to “educate” them; white folk want to hear from black people why they can’t say the N-word; and so on. Like Sorrell, people like this are asking those already targeted by the status quo to do the emotional labor to educate them.
Consider men and our alleged ignorance about feminist issues. As Lindy West noted in her New York Times column, a lot of men claimed ignorance when confronted with various issues raised by #MeToo, such as affirmative consent and gendered socialization. But, especially in the digital information age, this can longer be an excuse. “The reason [nuanced conversations about consent and gendered socialization] feel foreign to so many men is that so many men never felt like they needed to listen,” she wrote. “Rape is a women’s issue, right? Men don’t major in women’s studies.”
They would sit in a room with a man who conveyed pure hatred and violence toward them, all for the gamble that their aggressor might emerge a better person.
These discussions didn’t emerge when women finally had Twitter accounts. Feminists do and have written on these various subjects for decades, so they’ve already carefully researched and argued the very points men continue to feign ignorance about. If you can work out how to operate a computer, you can find books and blogs and articles written by feminists on feminist topics you are ignorant about. Books exists, podcasts exists, blogs exist. You can even give money to such wonderful publications that aim to educate on feminists matters.
This applies to issues of race, disability, and so forth. Ignorance is only seriously condemnable if you do nothing to alleviate it once it’s pointed out. And it’s easy and lazy to respond by wanting those who’ve called you out on your ignorance to solve it for you.
The flipside of laziness is the condescending insult of assuming this education is what you are owed. Consider Sorrell again: How entitled must you be to think that the people who you targeted with horrific, racist bile should then sit down with a cup of tea and become benevolent educators? That they should be the ones to forgive what you haven’t apologized for? While ignorance might explain part of racism, it doesn’t explain aggression, targeting, and threats. Sorrell didn’t unintentionally make a rude remark in a public space this couple overheard: He followed them for a mile for the grave crime of walking in public while Muslim.
It is not the job of the oppressed to sit with those who think that, to one degree or another, they are less than people. It’s a nice, cozy ideal to expect the oppressors to be “better,” to go “high,” when everything is dragging you low. This is why it’s doubly insulting when alleged allies call on oppressed groups to not be “too hasty” or “dismissive,” to have a “dialogue” — as if we’re disagreeing about the best Marvel movie, not our personhood. If you think there’s “both sides,” rather than recognizing one side is bigoted and the other a target of bigotry, I’m not sure you’re the ally you think you are. If you want a calm response to bigotry, and you are not part of that targeted group, feel free to enter the fray. Indeed, as men, it is on us to call out other men’s sexism; it is our job as straight people to call out homophobia; it is our job as cis people to call out transphobia.
But we ought not to entertain these opinions as mere political views arising out of ignorance: They harm. To paraphrase Dr. King, sometimes the biggest obstacles are not the screaming bigots but the moderates who, even if they’re not the ones planting the seeds of hate, are flattening the soil with their shovels of civility.
The oppressed are not lost for words: books, articles, speeches all exist and those with bigoted views are welcome to them and, better, moderates are welcome to direct their bigoted friends to these words. We’ve spoken them already. We’ve in fact already done the work. It’s time to stop expecting oppressed groups to, with some preternatural calmness and civility, simply smile and calmly discuss a bigot’s bigotry, to their face, until it unravels and he reaches Enlightenment.
It’s not our job to yank them out the dark well they wallow in. They put themselves there and many ladders have already been stitched together. It’s their job to grab a rung and pull themselves out.