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Race and Forgiveness

Desiree Cooper

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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.


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Rob Miller


    I liked your site

    By Donna Worrell

    From Roanoke, VA, 05/02/2010

    I have, many times in my life wanted to apologize on behalf of my family for any harm, however present or as far back that the crimes were. I, as a representative of my family's past...not knowing what took place, know that it is very possible that injustice did take place. I am sure it did and does. I apologize to all races for my family's cruelty. Please forgive us. Much love to all.

    By Kelly McDonalod

    From Tucson, AZ, 01/31/2009

    The prayer can be found in Marianne Williamson's book - Illuminata: A Return to Prayer.

    By Laura Lucinda

    From Austin, TX, 01/27/2009

    Thanks so much for sharing these stories. I am grateful to hear of these people's experiences, and to know about the prayer. I am a 41-year-old white woman and member of a historically black church. I will bring this prayer to the attention of people at church, so we can consider using it or something like it in the parish-wide conversations we are having about racial reconciliation.

    For me, it has been important to apologize to black people not for things my ancestors may have done but for the unfair benefits I have experienced, at a cost to black people. This is a gnarly concept and requires some hard thought; what it comes down to for me is that if I'd been black, I would not have had the education and health care I have had, and I would almost certainly have overdosed on drugs. That is unfair, that those differences exist, and it is worth apologizing for, and it demeans no one to make such an apology.

    I apologize for my participation in a system that has benefitted me to the detriment of others. I go forward in the hope of righting the system so it serves all well.

    By Eve Abrams

    From LA, 01/26/2009

    Thank you so much for this story. It had me weeping in the middle of my kitchen -- no onions in sight. The way it was told was as beautiful as the content. I will miss you, Weekend America.

    By Jan Witte

    From Duluth, MN, 01/26/2009

    How can I get a copy of the prayer?
    I was so touched. I cried. I would like to see this prayer or a similar one repeated in every church.
    I will miss this program so much.
    Thanks for everything you have broadcast. Jan

    By CH Rehn

    From Walla Walla, WA, 01/24/2009

    Why is it so difficult for us to get along together?

    By Linda Cooper

    From Chicago, IL, 01/24/2009

    For those of you who state that you, nor your family were here during slavery, miss the point. This country, since slavery, has created, supported and tolerated laws that have abused, neglected, and assaulted the very digity of African-Americans. How would you like to go to war and fight for your country only to return home and be told you cannot eat in certain restaurants, stay in hotels, live where you choose, go to school where you choose, swim in public pools, play in public parks or be given due process in the courts. The list goes on...This is very recent history and still exists in some parts of the U.S. today. How would you feel?

    I am a 60 year old white female

    By mabel macdonald

    From CO, 01/24/2009

    When i heard the prayer re: slavery and race i stopped and really listened. It said everything that is needed for our reconciliation, to set to rights 400 years of wrongs. I want a printed copy of the prayer, but could find none on your site. Help please.

    By Kevin Stanchfield

    From pasadena, 01/24/2009

    I think it would have been more helpful to ask the black AND white people in the congregation to thank their country for going to war with itself to end slavery.

    Furthermore, I would bet that most people in that church (black and white) had nothing to do with slavery.

    By Kelly McDonald

    From Tucson, AZ, 01/24/2009

    I too am bummed out that your awesome and quality program is going away. I listen most weekends. You keep me company while I am cleaning and puttering around my house.

    I loved your story about race and forgiveness. Since I can remember I have felt a gnawing and uncomfortable feeling. I think it is guilt - for all the past inhumanity done to all races by whites. I am a 48 year old white female.

    When I was a teenager, I met a Vietnam Vet in an airport. He was a sad person, and I am sure he had PTSD - which was not a term at the time. Sort of spontaneously, I apologized to him for the way he was treated when he came home. He started crying very hard,and explained that it meant more than I would ever know to hear those words.

    That was an isolated experience. I couldn't imagine being able to make amends in a similar way to people of color that I meet - until now. I would like to have the opportunity to say this prayer aloud and face to face to individuals who have been persecuted for so long because of their color. To those people who don't get this - this is how we will change things. Making amends in this way is not saying that you personally have hurt or offended a person of color. It is an acknowledgment of their experience.

    By Carol Bell

    From Cleveland, OH, 01/24/2009

    I am so sorry that your show is being discontinued in the economic downturn.....
    Although I don't listen as much during the weekends to my pubic radio station as I do during the week. (12 hours or so on the weekdays, 4-6 hours on the weekends.)

    I do want to tell you that your story about race and forgiveness is a powerful story. Although I have tried throughout my life to meet people as they are, regardless of color, and culture, and have actively chosen to live and attend public schools in integrated environments, never the less, minor stereotypes driven by media, television, movies, radio, can slip into your unconscious. Thus a racial apology is good idea, just as the general apology is a part of prayers in a Catholic mass. But the race apology has the power to be more meaningful because it was given in a face to face method...that forces one to confront your own deeper feelings.
    I know that even though our children have tried always to be open, they have also as children come home from school feeling "guilty for being white". Maybe such a ceremony could help them put that "guilt" aside.

    By t j

    From Pittsburgh, PA, 01/24/2009

    No other story in a long time has horrified me more than this one. It a story of racism, victimization and blame. racism because it promotes and manipulates people to action based on the color of a person's skin; victimization because the assumption is that a black person needs an apology in order to be a respected human being rather than being a respectful human life in their own right; blame in that all it bespeaks of working backward rather than forward in terms of solving problems, no true leader would ever promote such a thing

    Lastly, shame on the person who orchestrated such a fiasco. It is the antithesis of human spirituality.

    By aaron barmer

    From Staunton, VA, 01/24/2009

    thank you for this audiologue! I am a biracial man of african-american and caucasian heritage. I truly wish everyone could have the courage to JUST TRY to say such an affirmative, empowering prayer to african-americans. it really would make a difference all of our consciousnesses.

    By Julia Barton

    From MN, 10/21/2008

    Thanks for all your thoughtful responses.

    Just to clarify, the on-air piece included voices from two white women, one white male, and two African-American women.

    Julia Barton
    Weekend America

    By Christine Farren

    From Sacramento, CA, 10/20/2008

    I very much enjoyed listening to this story, but wished the producers of the piece had included more African-Americans in the story telling. I see that on-line, we can read from 4 blacks on the various ways the experience of the group apology felt to them, but I only recall hearing from one during the episode. I was equally interested to hear about the reactions and emotions felt by the people of color in the congregation as I was to hear from the whites. Given the topic, it seems a poor ommission.

    By Lynda Williams

    From Canoga Park, CA, 10/19/2008

    I'm a 56-year-old white American woman in Southern California. To the best of my knowledge, none of my ancestors ever owned slaves or tolerated slavery. In fact, it's likely that some were active abolitionists. But I don't know any of that for sure. I do know that there was bigotry in my family in the early part of the 20th century toward Jews, Poles, and Italians, although that bigotry was not passed to my parents, my sisters, or myself.

    Like others who've posted here, I never felt that I needed to apologize to a race of people for atrocities perpetrated by people I don't know and to whom I'm not related. And certainly never perpetrated by me personally. However, after hearing this broadcast, I have begun to think differently.

    When individuals of one group are harmed by individuals of another, it's an unfortunate fact of human nature that each group will enter into conflict against the other, regardless of the feelings or wishes of the individuals that make up the groups.

    Often, it's an angry, unforgiving minority that manages to take hold of the group consciousness and drive the society to acts of cruelty and violence that as individuals they would never participate in, or even tolerate.

    This behavior has been going on for hundreds of years all over the world. Someone has to take steps to stop it.

    If I can contribute to that healing by apologizing as an individual for the harm that other members of my race have done, then I do so with heartfelt enthusiasm and complete sincerity.

    To all African Americans: I offer my apology for the discrimination, pain, embarrassment, humiliation, and even death that you and your ancestors have suffered at the hands of the members of my race in years past, and continue to suffer to this day.

    I hope you can find it in your hearts to forgive us all and begin to contribute, along with me, to the healing of our society. I pledge my heart and my hand to the service of eradicating this behavior from this moment forward throughout the rest of my life.

    By Doug Taylor

    From WA, 10/18/2008

    I am the son of a white southern bigot. I suspect that my lineage is wrought with the people that perpetrated many of the social crimes against blacks and anyone else that crossed their aims over the last 300 years or more. As a young boy, I learned to be like them. Fortunately through a chance experience as a boy of seven years, I learned that in my deepest heart, I was not like them.

    By an earlier posters faulty logic, I should not be sorry for I am not my father, nor his father’s father.

    But by my early experience of being forced to examine the passive ignorance in my heart, to uncover the truth that was “the God of my heart”, I learned that wisdom requires compassion that passive ignorance cannot endure.

    It is a choice to remain ignorant in this case, quite possibly a choice made through the same fear that drives bigotry.

    Ignorance is the pathway of the worst social crimes that we perpetrate on each other.

    I am truly sorry for the many times I have chosen it.
    And on behalf of my white race, I am sorry for past present and future racism that emanates from it.

    By billie davis

    From Seattle, WA, 10/18/2008

    If has ever admired or respected the Capitol building, the White House, Mt. Vernon, to name a few, buildings that are so a part of our history, all built with slave labor. Forgiveness for some might stem from having a lack of appreciation for what we have and where it came from. It's hard to really appreciation sometimes without making the trip through apology and forgiveness.

    By Tony Tartaglia

    From Glendale, CA, 10/18/2008

    Isn't forgiveness what it's all about? I was very moved by this piece. I think if more people would sit down and talk about the issues instead of avoiding the discussion altogether, we would be a better Country. I am always amazed that people never want to say words like: I'm sorry, I love you, and thank you. As if it would cost them a million dollars to utter the words. However, when said, they have the power to disarm a nation.

    By Ellen Jones

    From Balt, MD, 10/18/2008

    This was so deeply moving. Racism in this country is about the past and the present.It's about what continues on from the past into the now;and what doesn't.If an apology was never given in the past,how can it be passed on.If racism is suffered by a race (which is a group), then why shouldn't the people who are part of the group who perpetrated the injustice have to apologize as a group. And why is it still so hard to just see that it's not about you as an individual only.It's about healing a tremendosly deep horrible wound in our country.It was powerful to hear/feel the space created by an apology.

    By Christian S.

    From FL, 10/18/2008

    My family never owned slaves, never participated in slavery, and wasn't even in this country until the middle of the 20th Century. Does my skin color now make me culpable for the sins of others across the globe? Will African Americans ask forgiveness from me for the crime and mayhem visited on my family at their arrival in this country? Utter rubbish.

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