The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches
All women are expected to forgive
Forgiveness is defined as “the act of forgiving or the willingness to forgive”. It is an act expected of women more than men. This was expressed well by Margaret Atwood in her book, The Handmaid’s Tale, by what she called; “…the temptation or feeling you must forgive a man, as a woman. It’s difficult to resist, believe me.”
Here she describes the impulse instilled in women to forgive men even while they continue to control and abuse them.
Like anger, which is taught as an emotion that ‘real’ women do not express, a problem we explored in detail here, women are taught from an early age to forgive regardless of how they may feel about it. This expectation is embedded in religion and cultural practices that require women to carry the responsibility of forgiveness. It would be a mistake therefore to think of forgiveness as simply an individual act by nice people.
Black women are expected to forgive more
2020’s International Women’s Day brought attention to this expectation which is felt more heavily by Black women. The logic being Black women have a much longer list of grievances to forgive; racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia and so on. Having to forgive not only white men, but white women and Black men. It was therefore a welcomed opportunity to be at an event discussing whether Black women should take an unwilling stance to this expectation, to say enough is enough.
The event, tantalisingly titled; F*ck Forgiveness, was part of the Women of World festival at London’s Southbank celebrating International Women’s Day. It started with this claim; “Historically the Black community, particularly Black women, have been expected to forgive and forget injustices suffered.”
The all-Black female panel was led by Hannah Azieb Pool, see picture above, British–Eritrean writer and journalist, alongside Jumoke Abdullahi co-founder of the Triple Cripples, Minna Salami feminist blogger and writer, Liz Ward founder of Black Lives Matter UK, and Jazandrea Byrdson co-founder of SOUL Sisters Leadership Collective.
A packed audience of women that included school children and the UK’s first Black female MP and the longest serving Black MP in the House of Commons, Ms. Diane Abbott, indicated a collective frustration among Black women to forgive injustices. A feeling the expectation imposed on them to be forgiving is in itself, an injustice.
Black women often forgive in the absence of accountability
The discussion opened with each speaker outlining their view on whether Black women should withhold forgiveness. With the exception of one speaker, all seemed to agree there was validity to this response. This was mainly based on a lack of reciprocity between those forgiving and those being forgiven. Which is to say, those who oppress Black women; white men, Black men and white women, expect to receive forgiveness while neglecting to take responsibility for their actions.
The speakers rightly talked about the mental weight that Black women carry as a result of facing increasing hostility and hatred. Constantly coming up against this aggression whilst forced to repress feelings of anger in order to avoid being dismissed as angry Black women.
The expectation on them to readily forgive and forget also extends to familial relationships. For example, Liz Ward briefly talked about her experience as a queer Black woman facing homophobic attitudes by family members. For Ward, this meant surrounding herself with people who love her unreservedly outside her immediate family. This highlights that Black women face injustices they are expected to forgive and forget in their public and private lives.
Black women deserve the full range of human emotions
According to Margaret Atwood, “… forgiveness too is a power. To beg for it is a power, and to withhold or bestow it is a power, perhaps the greatest.”
Here Atwood links the act of forgiving to the ability to influence the behaviour of others, power. A view from which it can be argued that Black women refusing to comply with the expectation to forgive is a helpful approach. Consequently, validating the sentiment; fuck forgiveness.
However, Minna Salami, author of Sensuous Knowledge, was the only speaker on the panel to directly disagree with the sentiment by relating forgiveness to human need. She encouraged the audience to view it not from the position of those oppressing but from the needs of Black women. To take the focus back to the fact Black women are human beings. And as human beings, choosing how they express their emotions can only achieve positive results when it is related to that fact.
In other words, Black women’s ability to forgive is their ability to express human emotion. Suppressing this puts a cap on the range of human emotions available to them. The refusal to forgive can therefore be seen as a negative stance because it is not focused on Black women’s human need.
This is different to Atwood’s perspective which encourages thinking of human emotions as a place to combat oppression rather than where we realise our human condition.
The needs of Black women must be the focus
Minna Salami’s woman-centered approach exposed, and still is, my own vulnerability. This persistent feeling that a Black woman’s existence is dependent on the ability for white men and white women to accept it. Making the existence of Black women as human beings, a debatable point. Which leads to the desperate need in us for those groups to take responsibility for racist attitudes and behaviors that endanger Black women.
A woman centered approach on the other hand works always from the assumption, Black women are.
This means we can reject what Black lesbian feminist writer Audre Lordeexplained as the work imposed on women, “to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educate men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns.”
We may not always be aware that we are preoccupied with his concerns. Certainly, debating whether and how Black women express emotions might seem like an activity that serves their interests. However, basing it on the behaviours and attitude of those who wish them harm brings the focus on the oppressor’s concerns.
If we accept that Black women are, white men, white women and Black men coming to terms with that fact is unneeded. As a good friend once taught me; we have to be mindful not to give people a vote on how we live our lives. White men, white women and Black men do not have a vote or get to take a position on the existence of Black women.
The goal is to BE your genuine Black female self!
From this woman focused position, we can start to see the sentiment to give up on forgiveness can be unhelpful because it is preoccupied with those who oppress. Thus distracting from Black women’s need to express a full and complex range of human emotions that go to being our authentic selves. A need that requires us to see and maintain seeing ourselves for ourselves, uninfluenced by how and if others see us.
Therefore to reject any part of what makes us human, especially in the face of continual suffering of injustices, is to wed the existence of Black women to the existence or nonexistence of “male ignorance” and white ignorance.
This position does not minimise, deny or excuse the growing hatred Black women suffer every day. It does not free men and white women from taking accountability for their own actions, which, as Salami pointed out, is something they must work through themselves.
We are instead encouraged to invest our energies in the needs of Black women.
That is why it was inspiring to hear from the panel that the best way for Black women to face growing resentment and hatred is not navigating through different versions of ourselves created to suit different scenarios of whiteness and maleness. But rather bringing our whole selves into whatever room.