Apologizing for the Past?
April 4th is the day we remember the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but it is better to say that he was really martyred. Dr. King was always willing to die for the causes he fought for. It was his choice to continue his dangerous march towards peace, equality and human dignity. He knew he was marching on the same difficult road many before him had trod upon, the bloody road of redemption and advocacy for the oppressed. But as a United States citizen and member of the black community, I strongly believed he knew that he wasn’t merely an individual making these choices, but a representative of convictions shared by his community.
He had begun to embody a larger than life identity that was given to him, an identity that made him a target of enemies he didn’t know, a spokesperson for people he would never meet and a symbol of freedom for survivors of oppression who would eventually outlive him. He was and is still today a symbolic representative of the longings that oppressed minorities all over the world have for liberation from those who oppress them. Important to note though is that wherever one is at in the world, those who oppress or are complicit in oppression also have individuals who are representative of their oppression, whether those individuals want that identity or not.
Like Dr. King, anyone who ends up representing an ideology will not always be given a choice to do so or not to do so. Some may have to become a representative of a specific ideology for which they are not keen to represent, but they do so nonetheless. The U.S.’s 2015/16 election cycle has seen two non-establishment candidates rise to prominence – Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. They have become representative of certain ideologies (both good and bad) that neither anticipated, but are theirs to keep nonetheless. In the same way, Wheaton College’s administration stepped into a representative role this past winter when they chose to take unfair and harsh disciplinary action against their only tenured black female professor in the history of the school. Sadly, they chose to join the long history of racist actions against women of color, and whether they wanted to or not, they joined representative racism.
Representative Racism at Wheaton College
Wheaton College has now passed out of the media’s eye and returned to normalcy in the public view once again. Back in December and January of this year and last, the only tenured black female professor at Wheaton who taught political science came under close and unfair scrutiny by her then employer, Wheaton College. It all stemmed from a comment she posted on Facebook about how Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.” She later clarified her statement within the bounds of the school’s doctrinal statement, but received sustained harassment from the administration and eventually a formal call for her dismissal. To be clear, many of her colleagues in the school opposed the actions of the administration, but they were not heeded soon enough. Throughout the ordeal (click here for the full story) which lead to her voluntary, but painful choice to resign, she remained calm and encouraged her supporters to resist demonizing those in the administration. The facts are still not clear on all that happened, but a joint statement by the school and Dr. Hawkins was released to end the ordeal and allow her to move on. The provost behind the harsh and unfair scrutiny, Dr. Stanton Jones, helped to bring some healing to the issue when he finally apologized to Dr. Hawkins for his unfair treatment of her.
The question being asked about his apology is whether or not Dr. Hawkins should forgive him, but even more interesting is whether or not we should forgive him. The answers that have come back are Yes & No. Noted scholar and author, Dr. Alan Jacobs of Baylor University, wrote that Larycia and her supporters should forgive Dr. Jones and that not doings so is “uncharitable, unproductive and shortsighted”. Here are his thoughts,
“…it seems that many of the supporters of Prof. Hawkins are in no mood to forgive members of Wheaton’s administration. In a widely leaked email to the college community, Provost Stan Jones wrote, ‘I asked Dr. Hawkins for her forgiveness for the ways I contributed to the fracture of our relationship, and to the fracture of Dr. Hawkins’ relationship with the College…. I apologized for my lack of wisdom and collegiality as I initially approached Dr. Hawkins, and for imposing an administrative leave more precipitously than was necessary.’ And so on. It’s a very full apology. But I have already read a number of comments from Christians that this apology is problematic because it does not acknowledge Wheaton’s history (and present) of structural racism and sexism.
This kind of response strikes me as uncharitable, unproductive, and shortsighted. And I say this as someone who believes that Wheaton really does have serious problems in knowing how to deal with faculty and students who are not white males.”
It is important to concede the simple fact that forgiveness is the best road to walk in any and all circumstances, but the conditions and timing of that decision are in the hands of the one who needs to do the forgiving – no one else. So should Dr. Jones be forgiven…now? Yes & No. Here’s why:
Forgiving the Past?
Alan Jacobs says we should forgive Provost Stanton Jones. I agree. But should we forgive the white male power structure he represents and the historical precedent to keep screwing up in the exact same ways over and over again expecting no reprise from those who are disregarded – absolutely not.
Alan strikes me as level-headed, but the problem with his presentation of Jone’s apology as quasi-sacrosanct does incur a form of mockery of the human condition and our historical narrative of slavery and oppression.
Stan Jones’s actions were not isolated as much as they were representative.
The moment he decided to act in a discriminatory way towards a very high profile situation (on any other day he may have been ignored), it caused him to enter an ongoing historical narrative of bigotry and oppression based on race and gender. He didn’t mean to do that, but the fact that he thought his actions would be dealt with on their own merit (or lack of) and not viewed as representative of centuries of oppressive power moves by white male leaders over and against black women is frankly naive.
The fact that we should expect to regard his apology as an isolated opportunity to forgive one man for his singular actions is also naive. He entered a much larger and longer standing narrative of oppression and took the role of an oppressor so while he can be forgiven his actions, it will take much longer to forgive what he represents and how he chose to use his power from within that representative body.
Research has shown that white male evangelicals operate out of a race toolbox that includes 1) accountable freewill individualism, 2) relationalism (attaching central importance to interpersonal relationships), and 3) antistructuralism (inability to perceive or unwillingness to accept social structural influences).
Being expected to accept his apology is a healthy expectation, but in my experience, marginalized communities have no problem forgiving individuals – they’ve had to and are possibly much better at it than the white community.
What they cannot and should not be expected to do is overlook the representative power that is embodied in the oppressive actions of a white male discriminating against a black female – and the mere fact that it’s happening again and that is keeps happening, again and again and again…and will happen again.
So the call to forgive the representative racism of Wheaton’s administration is a just and right call, but to do so without Wheaton’s acknowledgment of their representative oppression makes that decision so so difficult. Minority communities in the U.S. have had to endure representative racism for too long. If Martin Luther King Jr. was killed for what he represented, if black women and men in the U.S. can continue to be unfairly treated because of what their skin color “represents” to law enforcement, then white powerful and privileged men who are representatives of a long history of abuse and oppression can also apologize for their representative racism. We are not only individuals, we are also representatives, it’s just that some of us benefit from what we represent while others are oppressed.
“Unlocking the chains of slavery did not in turn break those chains. Lifting the ban of segregation did not expel the bane of bigotry and claiming equality does not an economy of equity create.
We are not the vanguards of victory over racism, and our common memory is still shrouded by history’s amnesia. We are merely the heirs of hate, north, south, east and west. Ours is to name what is, regard what was and seek our shared humanity as we, with the basin and the towel, wash the blood off each other’s feet and hands.”