As Americans witness the rapidly unfolding events involving Virginia’s Governor Ralph Northam being called out as a racist, demands for his resignation are mounting up. How did this occur?
A disturbing racist photo from the Eastern Virginia Medical School 1984 yearbook has surfaced, showing two people, one dressed in a Klu Klux Klansman robe and the other in black face. Governor Northam is identified on the page as being in the photo.
In a nationally televised interview Governor Northam denied being either person standing in the photo, stating “I am telling you the truth that was not my picture.” He suggested that the yearbook erroneously placed the photo on his medical school yearbook page, adding “I am horrified and sick it was there.” He admits to making mistakes in his life, recalling dressing up in black face to imitate Michael Jackson for a 1984 dance contest in San Antonio. He said he now understands how such behavior is hurtful to others and wrong.
For this, Governor Northam asks for forgiveness.
Should Northam be forgiven? Forgiveness is a personal choice. It is not about letting bygones be bygones, and cannot be offered because it is expected of us by others. The image of hate and intolerance conveyed in the offensive photo, the insensitivity in dressing up in black face, and possibly even accepting a racial nickname will be experienced differently based on the amount of hurt and the perspective of each individual. Old hurts related to being victimized by discrimination of any kind reside deep in our memory. When faced with a new racially demeaning event, feelings of vulnerability and emotional pain will re-emerge. As a result, we are likely to experience a range of uncomfortable emotions, including anger.
Anger can serve a purpose for a short while. Much like a coat offers us protection against a bitter wind, anger helps us feel snug and safe from being hurt again. But this anger can also be difficult to relinquish because it gives those of us who feel susceptible to social injustice a sense of personal power.
The downside of anger is that it hurts us, not the offender. It uses up our emotional energy and we often find ourselves dwelling on feelings of bitterness, blame, and victimization. We are at risk of viewing others in a similar and negative way, developing unfair judgments and conclusions about them. This causes misunderstandings and hurt feelings, creating barriers between people. We may opt for forgiveness because we realize these toxic feelings of anger isolate us from others who could bring value to our lives.
If we choose to forgive, we should realize that forgiveness is not about trust. Trust must be earned. Governor Northam states that while he cannot undue the harm he has caused, he wants to fight hard against hatred and bigotry. He spoke on television of viewing this current situation as an opportunity to use his position in government to talk about access to voting, health care and the justice system. In time, his actions, rather than his spoken words, will indicate if his trust can be earned again.
If he remains in office, it is possible that he will discover what psychologists call “post-traumatic growth.” It has been determined that negative and disruptive events in our lives don’t always have to be simply that; negative and disruptive. Sometimes these events trigger a greater clarity of one’s values, a different meaning and sense of purpose, and stronger commitments to pursuing specific goals. In other words, just as the beautiful lotus flower grows from mud, people can experience personal growth from unimaginable adversity.
The past cannot be undone. The pain that was created cannot be eliminated. Today Governor Northam’s future is uncertain. If he remains in office, the opportunity exists for the governor to use this disruptive period of time to restore a common goal of respect and equity for all and push for ways to work against discrimination of all kinds.
Regardless of what happens in the Governor’s mansion, the opportunity lies within all of us to avoid the downward spiral of negative thoughts and feelings that accompany unforgiveness, and instead seek the comfort and healing that comes from seeking forgiveness.