On Tuesday, Asma Jama, a Kenyan American woman stood up in a Minnesota court room and forgave Jodie Burchard-Risch, a white Minnesotan who, a year earlier, smashed a beer mug in her face and jeered, “speak English.” Jama, who is Muslim and wears a headscarf, has lived in Minnesota for over 16 years and speaks English.
“I don’t have any ill feelings towards you. I just want you to understand at the end of all this that we are all the same,” Jama told Burchard-Risch in court. “It doesn’t matter what’s on my head…It doesn’t matter the color of my skin, we are all the same human beings, we are fighting for the same rights.”
The video, which has gone viral, is a real tear jerker. And it makes sense: It’s compelling and powerful to watch a black woman stare down the barrel of violent racism and say, “I forgive you.” When I watched it, I teared up at Jama’s courage, mostly for her ability to look at Burchard-Risch, much less forgive her.
It cannot be understated, Jama’s act and words were heroic.
But I am unnerved by the sometimes blanket celebration of black people forgiving white racists for their violent hatred.
Days after Dylann Roof killed Nadine Collier’s mother and eight others at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, Collier addressed Roof, 21 at the time, and said, “I forgive you.” She told him he took “something very precious away” from her that she won’t ever get back. “I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul.…You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you,” she said.
Black rage, however, is nearly always condemned. Images of angry young black men and women are viewed as unacceptable. Cable news videos from Baltimore and Ferguson, where young black people scream in fury with handkerchiefs tied across their faces, is rarely celebrated. Neither is the civil unrest that comes with it, where stores and cop cars burn up in flames and people run through the streets, anger rushing through their veins. Those moments are hardly ever presented in my Facebook feed as acceptable and appropriate reactions to racism. These acts are seen, by most, as unforgivable, inappropriate, and unjustifiable.
But smashing mugs in our faces is unforgivable, inappropriate, and unjustifiable. Killing nine Christians as they worship is unforgivable, inappropriate, and unjustifiable. Where one person finds solace in forgiveness, another might also be angry. And anger is something to celebrate, too.
The incredible acts of forgiveness by Jama and Collier are not the only acceptable responses to racial hatred. And we mustn’t allow ourselves to weight forgiveness over anger. There are not enough stories of white redemption to ignore and disengage from black rage.