Once, many years ago, I brought a book about race to a family gathering.
I was making lunch, talking to a stranger — an older friend of a relative — and the book was sitting nearby. We were talking about my job teaching public high school when he interrupted to read the title out loud: Why Are All the Black Children Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Tatum. “What’s this about?” he asked.
I was brand new to reading about race in the public schools and excited about the book, and so I went on for a minute about how racism affects children in the classroom and about Tatum’s desire to foster racial identity while also combatting stereotypes and prejudice. When I finished, he crossed the kitchen to square up in front of me and said, “I’m over racism. People just use it as an excuse for why they can’t succeed.”
He waited for a moment, maybe hoping I would agree, maybe hoping I would come back with something that could start an argument. I balked. Words flew through my mind, but, completely flustered, I couldn’t think of which ones to say. He was confident, brash, and I was green about it all. And so, to my shame, I stayed silent. He shrugged and walked away, probably didn’t think twice. I went over the scene beat by beat for weeks, replaying what I wished I had said.
Much later I read a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, “Legend.” Cain and Abel meet in the desert some time after Abel’s death and sit down to a meal together. When Cain notices a scar on Abel’s forehead he begs forgiveness from his brother. Abel replies, “Was it you that killed me, or did I kill you? I don’t remember anymore.” Cain, relieved, notes, “Now I know that you have truly forgiven me, because forgetting is forgiving.”
There is something beautiful here, the thought that forgiveness can muddle the memory of an offense, blur the line between perpetrator and victim, bring about a complete forgetting. This type of forgiveness, however, is not always to be desired — just ask the victim of sexual or domestic violence whether coming to peace with an abuser should require forgetting. There is something beautiful in Abel’s reaction, yes. There is also something dangerous.
Many white Americans want racial reconciliation to be like Borges’s legend. Like my relative’s friend, they want race and racism to be “over.” They think that Black and Indigenous populations should forget that we stole their land and their bodies, made ourselves rich off their goods and their labor. After all, most white people have forgotten these facts. Slavery and manifest destiny are in the past, they protest; the civil rights movement has guaranteed equality for all — it even led to a black president. Instead of listening and entering into dialogue — the true beginning of reconciliation — they square up in the kitchen and declare racism “an excuse.”
Christians might argue that anything less than the forgetting offered by Abel is a sin, an insult to the life of Jesus; they will quote Bible verses at me and demand grace. Others, like my relative’s friend, will skip the moral arguments. They will find some example of what they believe to be the danger posed by continued talk of race — perhaps affirmative action policies or Jordan Peele and his desire to cast black actors in his films. They will insist that the real threat is to be found in those of us who believe that race still matters.
Cheap grace, Dietrich Bonhoeffer might call these, demands to forget. After all, it seems likely that Cain is already dead before Borges’s story begins, that this legend takes place in an afterlife following long years spent wandering in the desert. Forgiveness is one thing, restoration another. Perhaps Abel allowed himself to forget only because Cain had spent considerable time expiating his sin.
Any forgetting about our original sins here in America necessarily will involve some period of desert wandering — a time of penance that probably will mean a loss of place and power for white people accustomed to privilege. Jordan Peele wants to make movies with black actors because for far too long black artists were marginalized — this move may result in fewer roles for white actors, just like proactive college admissions might result in fewer spots for white students. This is the start of a desert wandering; this is a corrective to cheap grace.
White people want to rush this process, but we don’t get to decide when the concept of race is “over,” when the time is right for Abel to forget what Cain did. Some get frustrated by talk of structural racism, implicit bias, white supremacy — but these are real things, with measureable effects. We are in too much of a hurry to have the past forgotten. We should try to spend a little more time in the desert first.
I wish I had said this to that stranger all those years ago. Better late than never.