The views expressed in this article are the views of the author.
Last September, Botham Jean, a 26-year-old accountant, was shot in his home by his neighbor and Dallas police officer, Amber Guyger. Recently, Guyger was sentenced to ten years in prison for his murder. During the sentencing, Brandt Jean, the brother of the deceased, demonstrated an act of forgiveness with more than just words: He hugged the woman who had been convicted of his brother’s murder.
That act created a debate about forgiveness from the black community. Some praised Jean for his capacity to forgive, holding him up as an example. Others cited the event as the latest example in which black people are expected — even encouraged — to forgive those responsible for injustices they have suffered.
I’m more inclined to stand with the latter camp. That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with what Jean did. However, it wouldn’t be wrong if he didn’t. Some of the praise directed toward Jean implies that his reaction was right; an example of human generosity and compassion, the best reaction someone could have.
But expecting forgiveness from someone who has been wronged revokes their agency to express their grief. Believing that every act deserves forgiveness flippantly disregards the emotion of those who can’t or won’t forgive for the injustices suffered by their community, their friends, their family or them personally. By tagging Jean’s actions as the “right one,” then any other reaction is, at best, less right, if not altogether wrong.
Those who hold an unshakeable anger in the midst of their grief aren’t wrong or even less right. They just have a different reaction. For the individual, forgiveness can bring a sense of calmness and ensure that they aren’t consumed by their anger, which is a positive. Many black people see their anger as their downfall, either in their personal lives or in their behavior in the larger society. In that situation, the possibility of letting go of that weight is a great thing.
But society needs angry people. It needs people who can’t forgive, because they can’t accept what has happened and the idea that there might be nothing stopping it from happening again. It needs the angry people to speak their grievances and castigate those in power who are more than happy to see the endurance of the status quo.
Jean’s reaction was an indicator of hope for his family. It brought a sense of optimism, a belief that they could overcome a terrible and avoidable incident. But sometimes the only hope people have is in their anger, because it drives them to fight for change. There isn’t a simple “right” reaction to the kind of horror that Jean’s family has suffered. There’s just what gets a person through.
It’s important to be cautious when reflecting on events like Jean’s reaction to Guyger’s sentencing, because we send a message about what we want our society to be. The people who say that marginalized and traumatized communities shouldn’t be expected to keep forgiving injustices are right. Without the fury that drives those statements, the progress that could save others from a fate like Jean’s would be marching even more slowly.