After use of racial slur, apology felt like affront
When Brandt Jean offered forgiveness, then a hug, to the former police officer who walked into his brother’s apartment and fatally shot him, the gesture revealed a societal split.
Some saw it as a powerful show of grace. Others saw it as a disappointing display of yet another person of colour too ready to absolve a white person who harmed them.
Ryan Williams, a 40-year-old man in Gaithersburg, Maryland, saw both sides. He understood that Botham Jean’s brother, for his own sake, may have needed to embrace Amber Guyger that day she received a ten-year sentence. He also felt strongly that comforting a white woman who killed an unarmed black accountant in his own apartment wasn’t going to move society in the direction it needed to go.
“I think this whole act of forgiveness has gotten black people where they are in this country right now,” he says on a recent evening. “We’re expected to forgive someone.”
That courtroom hug, no matter how you view it, forced an important conversation on the greyness of black-to-white forgiveness. It encouraged people to think, some perhaps for the first time, about how something seemingly healthy could also prove harmful. But on the day of the sentencing, Williams didn’t have to think about where he stood on the issue. A week earlier, he had made his opinion known in a very personal and public way. He wrote a Medium piece about an encounter with a white man in his Maryland neighbourhood.
In that piece, Williams did not hold back. He named the man, described him as saying “dumb n*****” during a parking garage encounter and characterised the man and his adult daughter as wanting “forgiveness for using the worst racial slur in the English language, even if their apology was not sincere”.
“He and his daughter apologised for the sake of apologising, but couldn’t understand why I was upset,” Williams wrote. “They used a vile racial slur and expected me to roll over and say ‘yessir massa’ when they offered an apology.”
Medium has taken the post down, but I saw it shortly after it was published. So did many other people. Several media outlets ran stories about the incident and linked to a video that Williams took when he later saw the man and his daughter talking to a Montgomery County police officer. In the video, when Williams questions them about the slur, they seem to acknowledge it.
Williams’s decision to publicly write about the incident, as you might expect, has drawn both praise and condemnation. Some people have applauded him for standing up to racism. Others have sent him messages filled with racist epithets and angry words for identifying the man and, as a result, exposing him to public scrutiny.
Because the Medium post is no longer up, it would be easy for us to pretend it never existed. We could talk instead about incidents that have happened elsewhere in the past that feel more comfortable to scrutinise because they are farther from us in distance and time. But Williams’s recent decision to write about a man who shares his neighbourhood, and the responses it evoked, hit on an important question that warrants discomfort: When it comes to racism, is forgiveness ever appropriate, or is that gift a blood diamond that benefits too few at the cost of too many?
I spoke to Williams recently because I wanted to understand what went into his decision to publicly share his experience. I also tried to interview the man who was named in the Medium piece, but I was unable to reach him. For that reason, I’m not identifying him here.
Williams, whose father is white and whose mother is black, spends a lot of time thinking about race. He is working towards a doctorate from Walden University in social psychology, with a focus on racism and prejudice.
Even so, he says, he had never heard a white person call someone the n-word up close — until September 21.
On that day, as he tells it, he and his wife, who is black and Muslim, were in her SUV waiting to exit a garage when the man, who was carrying his grandson, walked in front of them. Williams says the gate had gone up, but his wife was waiting for a mechanical arm to lift and had her foot on the brake when he heard the man say, “Dumb n*****.” Any other word and Williams believes he would have flipped him off and not done anything more.
Instead, he got out of the passenger side and confronted him. Williams says the man then called him “garbage” and “trash”. During their confrontation, Williams took a photo of the man, which he later used to track him down on LinkedIn. In his anger, he says, he sent the man a message through that platform, warning him that the next time he calls someone that slur, he should “make sure they can’t find you or know where you live”.
Williams says when he returned home that night on his motorcycle after picking up medical supplies for his one-year-old daughter, who was born premature, he saw the man and his daughter talking to a police officer. That’s when he pulled out his phone and started recording.
A few days after that, he wrote the Medium piece.
“When does it stop?” Williams says. “We’re not in the Jim Crow South any more. We’re supposed to be in post-racial times, but that is not where we’re at.”
People of colour are expected to just take these insults and move on, he says, but they carry long-term consequences. They cause stress and high blood pressure. After the incident, he says, his wife was experiencing daily panic and anxiety attacks, and she no longer wanted to stay in Gaithersburg, fearing the man would recognise her car or face.
“Sometimes I would find her crying,” Williams says. “Other times it manifested in her not going to sleep or eating.”
Williams also points to broader societal problems that come with the automatic expectation of forgiveness. In his piece, he highlighted several authors who have written on the issue, including Stacey Patton, who wrote “Black America should stop forgiving white racists” for The Washington Post.
“When black forgiveness is the means for white atonement, it enables white denial about the harms that racist violence creates,” Patton wrote. “When black redemption of white America is prioritised over justice and accountability, there is no chance of truth and reconciliation. It trivialises real black suffering, grief, and the heavy lifting required for any possibility of societal progress.”
Williams says he believes in holding people accountable for racist actions and hopes more people will speak up, instead of just moving on. At the same time, he doesn’t want to see the man lose his job. He also doesn’t want to spend any more time focusing on the ordeal. He has four children and says he has lost moments with them because of it.
“It’s not like I went through this whole thing unscathed,” he says. “I really wish I wouldn’t have had to go through this at all.”
He recently changed his name on his social media accounts because so many hateful messages kept finding him. He shared many with me. They are filled with unprintable insults. They also show why that courtroom hug, and the even more controversial one that followed it from the judge, a black woman, should give us pause. They should spark uncomfortable conversations.
“I think you overreacted,” reads one message sent to Williams. “Someone called you a n*****, so what?”
“You are very weak and despicable,” reads another. “Grow up ... nobody owes you any respect and you decide to do this, you total loser.”
“It’s a word,” reads a third one, “shouldn’t be said, but then there was an apology.”
• Theresa Vargas is a columnist for The Washington Post
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