Race and ForgivenessJANUARY 24, 2009
- Gwen Gipson
- (Deb Meredith)
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Members of Macomb County's Renaissance Unity church faced the legacy of racism eight years ago. Out of the blue, their white, female minister asked whites to apologize to blacks in a forgiveness ceremony. The church has had several ministers since then. But church members say they'll never forget the impact of that moment.
Gwen Gipson, 71, is a graphic designer who lives in the Detroit suburb of Southfield, Mich. She and her husband, Charles, love sailing and hope to live on a boat someday. Gwen Gipson is African American.
Gwen Gipson: I never felt that whites owed me anything. I was raised by my grandparents and parents that you get out there and get things yourself. But I do believe that whites owe a debt to this country. It was built on the back of slaves, and that has to be acknowledged.
That day in church, I was uncomfortable. I didn't feel responsible as a child of a slave any more than they felt responsible as a child of a slave- owner. But we have to understand our history and what happened to us.
I was holding someone's hand, as they wanted so much to give me an apology. I wanted to receive it and forgive them, but it was motherly feeling. I wanted to forgive because I loved them, not because I was holding them responsible for anything.
I never thought about the meaning an apology from whites would have for me until now. I think the experience highlighted the fact that I didn't need anyone to apologize to me. I knew that they were no more willing to carry on the legacy of racism than I was.
Charles Gipson is Gwen's husband. He's retired from the Air Force and from General Motors. He's also an avid sailor. Charles Gipson is African American.
Charles Gipson: When a person has to apologize for something that happened a long time ago, it forces them to think about the past. Just bringing that to mind gives them a choice of how they want to treat people right now.
I never really experienced the harsh racism that some people have. Maybe I was protected. God kept it from me; I was blessed.
Now that we have a black person running for president, people really have to examine their inner feelings. They have to bring it up front and be able to honestly say, "I'm looking at the candidates for their abilities."
Maureen McDonald, 58, is a freelance writer who lives in Detroit. McDonald is white.
Maureen McDonald: There I was, holding the hand of someone who was looking at me with some criticalness. As we did this prayer, it was as if she was thinking, "Yes, that's true! You should be apologizing for that!" I was listening and thinking, "You don't know who I am. You are looking at me as an average white person." I was uncomfortable that she didn't know who I was and what I was about. I wanted to say, "I'm your friend. I'm not the enemy."
I came away with a feeling that some African Americans are open, and some have a lot of issues. They're walking around with some hatred. It may be personal, it may be cultural. I have to accept that. I can't change that.
No one left there saying, "Let's hoppity-skip and have eggs for brunch!" But we left there thinking, "What can we do about racism?" After that day, I opened myself more to hanging out with people of color. I've made some very close friends. It's a far greater joy to me.
What America can learn from that experience is that all of us need to make a little more eye contact. Just beyond those eyes lies a human being. If they have kinky hair, curly hair and poker straight hair, it doesn't matter. What I hope is people get over it as far as what color you are.
Gary Madden, 66, retired after spending 34 years in the Detroit Public Schools. Madden is white.
Gary Madden: Where I grew up, I had almost no contact with anyone who wasn't a European American. But all my life, I've been involved in varying degrees with confronting racism. I've devoted my life to doing the healing work that needed to be done.
I remember feeling uncomfortable that day in church. I felt we were being put on the spot because of color of our skin. It wasn't fair for me, who has done what I could to serve the African American community.
I'm looking more from the perspective of the African American community and realizing the depth of the hurt, especially people my age, still carry with them. I can just see the damage that racism has done. Their lives have definitely been touched and scarred by the past injustices.
What the experience reinforced for me is that it's important to apologize. I didn't feel that I bore close personal responsibility for the racial situation in this country, but it's like guilt by association. I am white.
The victims of racism need to know that a lot of people don't agree with the injustices. If nobody speaks up, how are they to know that those people are out there? In that way, the apology was important.
Shirley Tolbert-Madden is a retiree who worked for Detroit Public Schools over 34 years. She is now a writer and a beauty consultant. Tolbert-Madden is African American.
Shirley Tolbert-Madden: My husband, who is white, stood up and we looked into each other's eyes. Tears came to my eyes as he was asking me to forgive the white race for things they had done to African Americans. I couldn't tell you what the words were, but I felt them. It became one race saying to another race, forgive us.
We've gone through civil rights and we've legislated changes. But to come out and say, "Forgive us"… this is the moment that takes the wind out of the sails. We build from this moment on.
The experience taught me that you don't look at the whole race and say, "The race of whites did this." It really allowed me to look at individuals. You don't take a whole race of people and say they're wrong or they're right. You can't do that.
Forgiveness is very powerful. If we're ever going to grow and be the moral nation we claim to be, we need to ask forgiveness.
Eldora Stevens, 66, is an African American who coaches Detroit Public School principals who are trying to turn around underperforming schools. Stevens is African American.
Eldora Stevens: A stranger came up to me, took my hand and looked me in the eye. She was a woman about the same age as me. She appeared to be emotionally sincere in the words she was saying to me. Tears came to her eyes. While this was going on, there were people in the sanctuary that were crying. The whole room had that type of energy. I never had a white person apologize to me for what had been done by her race to my race. But I felt I needed to comfort her more than she comforted me. I'm glad that if she wanted to cry, it helped relieve her of some of the anguish she felt. I gave her a hug. It was a cleansing moment. It was a warm, embracing feeling.
The thing about an apology is that it has to come from within a person's heart. Otherwise, it's just words.
At this time in history I think there is definitely a need for forgiveness. So many people are harboring negative feelings for anyone who is different from them. Yes, I think we need to dig deep and find that place where we can forgive.
Lynn Behrens-Hanna, 53, is a registered nurse. Behrens-Hanna is white.
Lynn Behrens-Hanna: My mother was born in Scotland, and my father is second-generation German. So my ancestors weren't here during time of slavery. So I never felt the need to give an apology.
I remember holding the African American woman's hands and looking at her face. I don't remember the statements I made, but I know I got such an emotional release. Tears were flowing. She seemed grateful that I was willing to apologize for things in the past. It felt like we were talking about the past, but I know that things are going on everyday.
I think that whites don't realize the pain they've caused. Just because I didn't feel I did anything wrong, it doesn't matter. People like me did wrong things.