Forgiveness and compassion have been at the center of some decidedly hostile debates of late. In an America that has never known equality, charitable attitudes become moral manipulation used to absolve those in influential positions. It’s a way to cast off the responsibility to those under the boot of persecution, making those unaffected feel a little less guilty about the fact that their associations make them culpable.
Judge Tammy Kemp drew the ire of many observers last week when the Dallas County judge and former prosecutor hugged convicted murder Amber Guyger after the former Dallas police officer was found guilty of murdering Botham Jean in his home on September 6, 2018. Judge Kemp also gave the sobbing Guyger a bible. In the wake of widespread criticism, Kemp has been making media appearances to explain why she did what she did.
“The act that she committed was horrific—she murdered Mr. Jean,” Judge Kemp said. “But none of us are one thing that we’ve done.”
“Our pastor had said: ‘If we’re going to attract the one, we’ve got to show love and compassion.’ And then I also thought, God says my job is to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly,” Judge Kemp explained. “So how can you refuse this woman a hug?”
“Frankly, I don’t think I would be getting this criticism if Miss Guyger were a Black woman. I hate that we limit our compassion to one race.”
Judge Kemp is right: we do limit our compassion to one race. It’s often the reason why victims such as Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner don’t get justice in American judicial systems. It’s the reason Cyntoia Brown was sentenced to 51 years to life as a teenage sex-trafficking victim who shot a rapist. It’s the reason this culture has all but commodified the names of Nicole Brown-Simpson and Caylee Anthony but quickly forgot those like Nia Wilson and Shaniya Davis.
America treats whiteness as a default, and much of the world follows suit. Our culture and society bombards us with imagery and rhetoric that conditions us to see the humanity in even the most heinous white people. In watching awful behavior onscreen, we’re supposed to come away believing that the humanity in these heinous white people reveals something broader about the human experience itself. We cry for white characters in movies about how Harry met Sally and read about white pain in articles about white farmers or opioid addicts and pore over white history in epics about white cultural events.
But the pain of Black and brown folks has always been a niche genre. And because that pain is othered, compassion outside of Black and brown communities has always been conditional.
In case anyone had trouble remembering that, Ellen DeGeneres’s response to criticism of her palling around with former President George W. Bush at a Dallas Cowboys’ game reemphasized it. The beloved talk-show host found herself at the center of a backlash this week after the odd couple was seen laughing and taking in the game. Ellen decided to address the controversy on her show, explaining that she and her wife Portia de Rossi were invited to the game by Charlotte Jones, daughter of Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones.
“And we went because we wanted to keep up with the Joneses,” DeGeneres deadpanned on the show.” Ellen would go on to share that she wanted the public to embrace kindness.
“Here’s the thing: I’m friends with George Bush. In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have,” she said.
“When I say, ‘Be kind to one another,’ I don’t only mean the people that think the same way that you do. I mean be kind to everyone.”
Kindness wasn’t a priority when Bush galvanized the American public in support of an unjust war, nor was it present when war crimes were being committed in his name or when civil liberties were being trampled by his decree. Accountability takes a backseat to comfort when left to liberals—especially the rich and high profile. When the shift comes, it won’t be led by the smiling personalities on TV. They’ll just be the ones who capitalize on the blood and sweat of those who forced the change in the first place.
The invading militaries and the trigger-happy police are granted a tremendous amount of kindness and compassion in American culture. We’re taught to respect the troops and salute the “boys in blue.” But when those institutions have been wielded as weapons against whole communities, tools of oppression and corruption for those in power, we can’t be blinded by niceties or preoccupied with polite camaraderie. There must be some sense of accountability. But that requires the kind of understanding people like Tammy Kemp and Ellen DeGeneres want you to believe they don’t grasp. They benefit from everyone clasping onto their supposed benevolence. But the truth is, they just don’t want to jeopardize their respective positions. And when comfort is king, kindness is just a mask for cowardice.