The Need For An Amend

I was on the phone the other day with someone with whom I was trying to work through some tough dynamics and at one point I shared something she said that was hurtful and she responded with, “I’m sorry you feel that way”. It made my skin crawl. I was then at a gathering of friends and acquaintances yesterday and in casual conversation someone offered up that same line as a good way to respond to another person in tense moments. Again, my teeth were set on edge. Why is this an acceptable response to potential harms done in interpersonal relationships, or even worse in moments of greater social impact and import (I have a patchy recall of then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger saying something to this effect when challenged on a racial slur he made toward a Latina)? What makes this condescending and dismissive response pass for a response at all when it is clear someone is in the wrong? There is no solution in it, there is no place for deep understanding, in practical terms there is nowhere to go as it effectively stops the conversation, and most importantly there is no healing in it. None. In fact, “I’m sorry you feel that way” subtly places the responsibility on the one who was harmed and not on the “harmer” because it focuses on “feeling hurt” rather than the action / person that caused the harm in the first place. The net result is an opaque (and apparently socially acceptable if the frequency of its usage is any indicator) mechanism by which the affected person gets blamed and the initiator of the action takes no responsibility.

 

Why am I raising this issue? Ferguson.

 

There has been a substantial amount of coverage, commentary, and other sorts of input regarding the painful events that have taken place in Ferguson, MO and so I won’t rehash or chime in and add my two cents about the racial dynamics playing out there. I do, however, have one small element I would like to add to the conversation with respect to healing, change and moving forward – the need for an amend.

 

Amends are different than a vapid “I’m sorry you feel that way” or even a slightly more sincere apology (for example, if officer Wilson or Chief Jackson had shared how truly sorry they were for the incident). These two responses reside in the emotional top soil of the moment and do nothing to address the deep roots that underlie not only the shooting of unarmed Michael Brown, but also the fatal shooting of a knife-wielding man in St Louis days later, the fatal choke hold of the “gentle giant” in New York City last month, and innumerable other examples of People of Color dying at the hands of those in power. Amends, however, hold the potential of getting underneath superficiality and reaching the tap-roots of racial oppression in this country. This is because they are designed not to focus so much on the person harmed but rather on the person who intentionally or unintentionally did the harm. The first cousin to “I’m sorry you feel that way” is the oft repeated phrase from members of dominant groups, “I didn’t mean to hurt you with my (racist, classist, sexist, etc.) remark” with the implication being that if it wasn’t meant, it didn’t hurt. Amends take away the possibility of intention being the arbiter of harms done and focus on the impact, regardless of intentionality. Through the lens of “impact”, of what actually happened, we stand the chance of having more honest dialogue and productive action regarding racial issues in this society. By making amends, the majority White city council of Ferguson, the majority White police department of Ferguson, and to a larger extent the majority White power structures in this country could go a long way in healing this nation’s racial divide by offering a humble willingness to take responsibility for harms done and to set them right in any way possible.

 

Here’s what that could look like: First, Whites in this country would identify the many ways we have been selfish / self-seeking, dishonest and afraid in our actions toward Communities of Color and Native Communities. For example, we would finally acknowledge the outright theft of Native lands, the true costs and debt yet to be paid for Japanese Internment, the rights due to the Chicano/a community after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and the need for reparations for the institution of slavery. White society (regardless of social class, although social class does mediate the degree) has leveraged racial oppression to consistently and profoundly benefit Whites economically, socially, politically, and psychologically and this selfish utilization of a violent and oppressive system for those ends must be openly and honestly accounted for.

 

Similarly, White U.S.-ers would speak truth to the countless ways we have distorted history, lied in the public sphere, and intentionally misled this nation into thinking that Whites have earned all the benefits and privileges we have accrued and that our superior status justifies the maintenance of that system of privilege. Race is a lie. White Supremacy is a lie. The Racal Narratives of People of Color and Native Communities are a lie (told in so many ways for so long that they seem real) and the story must be re-written with unflinching honesty. And finally, the ways White society has reacted out of fear and aversion toward Communities of Color and Native Communities must be accounted for and set right.

 

Second, we would make these face-to-face amends to People of Color and Native Communities. It could sound something like this.

 

To Native Peoples and People of Color in this society,

 

I have a pattern of wrongly using people, places and things for my own selfish gain with complete disregard for how that has historically and currently impacted you. I wrongly did this by (fill in the blank here with any number of countless examples of systemic racism over the last 400 years).

 

I also have a pattern of lying about my actions and instead blaming you for the racial divisions and racial disparities in this society. I have wrongly done this by teaching a distorted history in U.S. P-12 education, presenting biased mainstream media coverage, and by using my power to control the social narrative of race in this country so it consistently favors me and my demands (again, add any other examples of dishonesty).

 

I also have a pattern of acting out of my own fear and fostering fear in other White people so as to create a false notion of “People of Color are a threat” thereby justifying my creation of systems like the prison industrial complex as a way of “creating safety” in our society and “keeping our streets safe”. Another such example has been the militarization of our local police forces… (again, continue to clearly identify what has happened).

 

Please know that none of these actions had anything to do with you as I have treated all communities of color in this same, selfish, dishonest and fear-based way. Also please know that I deeply regret my actions and the harm I have caused and am coming to you to own my part in this long and painful experience and do whatever I can to set it right.

 

Are there any additional harms that I have not mentioned and that you care to tell me about?

 

How can I set right these wrongs?

 

Obviously this is not a superficial apology. Importantly, it is also not White Liberal groveling as a result of self-induced guilt or shame. Instead it is freedom. It is the liberation that comes when you stop defending, denying, obfuscating, and manipulating in order to not speak the truth. It is the lightness and wholeness that comes from leaning toward our fellow humans in a desire to heal and feel whole again. It is the gift of honesty coupled with the salve of accountability that opens the door to true and lasting release from the specter of racial oppression that has yoked this country for centuries. And while the body of such an amend could span pages and pages, the make-or-break part is the very last sentence – this is where I place my deepest concern and my greatest hopes for Whites in this country. Can we move past blaming People of Color / Native People, past denial, past fear and distance, and even past White Liberalism to the uncharted terrain of being willing to do whatever it takes to heal? If not yet, what will it take to get us there? If you are White and reading this through the lens of a zero-sum-game, I know for certain that it is not. While making amends would go a long way toward supporting Communities of Color and Native Communities to heal from racism, the process is vital to the healing of White folks as well.

 

I wish my friend had offered an amend on the phone the other day. Had she done so, she would have found me ready and waiting for her in that middle space of reconciliation. I wish the folks at that social gathering had seen the value of amends. And, each and every time I hear a report from Ferguson, this is what my heart most wants from White people there, in Missouri, in the Midwest and in this country as a whole – an amend. There is no way out but through. There is no way through without healing. There is no healing absent of love. White people making racial amends would humbly and respectfully open a door to authentic dialogue and action with Communities of Color and Native Communities – a door through which there is love for all of us, healing for all of us, and the way out for all of us.

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