The Forgiveness Trap: Botham Jean’s family’s response to Amber Guyger triggers debate

Botham Jean's family has been very forgiving towards their son's killer. Blue Telusma explores how their choices became a national conversation.


This week former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger was convicted of murder in the killing of Botham Jean after a headline making trial that incited the country to examine the complexities of race relations and police misconduct.

Tuesday, a jury decided in less than 24 hours to convict the 31-year-old after prosecutors convinced them that the Sept. 6, 2018 shooting was not accidental, but instead an avoidable tragedy sparked by Guyger’s poor judgment. By Wednesday, it was announced that she had only been sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Usually in high profile cases such as this one, this is the point where people speculate over if the sentence is fit for the crime. But over the last 24 hours the public has been less concerned with Guyger’s punishment, and more so curious about the delicate way she’s been treated by the judge, court officers and even the victim’s own family.

All of whom, are Black.

Choosing forgiveness

Tuesday, before anyone could even really rejoice in the sound of the word “guilty,” a disturbing video started making the rounds of a Black deputy stroking Amber Guyger’s hair after the verdict. Viewers said it was jarring to see Guyger being handled so adoringly by a person of color immediately after she was convicted of killing an unarmed Black man.

That same day, Botham Jean’s younger brother, Brandt Jean, took the stand for his victim statement, and tearfully said to her brother’s killer, “I don’t want to say twice or for the 100th time how much you have taken from us. I think you know that, but I just.. I hope you go to God with all the guilt and all the bad things you have done in the past. Each and every one of us may have done something that we have not supposed to do if you truly are sorry, I know I can speak for myself, I forgive you.”

Then, Wednesday, during evening service at Dallas West Church of Christ, while speaking about his 18-year-old son’s inclination to hug Guyger during the sentencing, Bertram Jean told his congregation, “I’m not really surprised because we know how we raised him… The Holy Spirit was working,” and then, as if speaking to his son’s murderer declared, “I’d like to become your friend at some point… I think I have the ability to do it and I would like to be a friend despite my loss. That’s why we are Christians.”

Understandably the same public that had so vehemently supported the Jean family during their ordeal, was taken aback by this rush to forgiveness; with many even stating that they felt betrayed by the family’s stunning response.

READ MORE: Botham Jean’s father says he could befriend the woman who killed his son

Our ancestors knew better and yet…

It’s poetic justice that Jean’s father made his forgiveness statements in church given how Black Christians were systemically taught by slave owners to “turn the other cheek” when it comes to any facet of white misbehavior or even blatant white supremacy.

Our ancestors had Bibles shoved into their bloody hands while being told that Jesus would want them to spend less time seeking freedom, joy, or even civil rights in this life, and instead rather they focus on earning the glory of the afterlife. They were spoon fed for generations this idea that they needed to resolve themselves to upholding ideals like humility, complicity and overzealous heaps of forgiveness.

“Be a good little Christian and white Jesus will surely reward you for it after you’ve died and your massa has built a million dollar cotton industry off your back!” That’s what we were taught. Over and over and over again, till our grandparents believed it to be true. And as evolved, woke and revolutionary as we would love to think we’ve collectively become, there are still whole sects of our community who revere these martyr like romanticizations of playing possum.

This propaganda cloaked in Christ is not only dangerous (due to what it asks us to give up of via our dignity), but also deeply ironic, given the African religions our people practiced prior to being enslaved all told us to be warriors, and strike down our enemies with no apology or forgiveness in sight.

Another win for white fragility

The innate need to protect racist white people from actually being called out and treated as such is deeply ingrained into the fabric of this country. If a Black boy gets shot to death while holding nothing more than iced tea and a bag of Skittles, the first question we hear in the media is, “Well what did he do? What kind of young man was he?” – A question that implies a Black persons access to humanity is directly proportionate to how perfect they can pretend to be.

But if a Nazi sympathizer in a terrible haircut shoots up innocent parishioners at a church, he – in all his violent white mediocrity – still gets gently arrested and taken to lunch before heading to the police station.

What happened in the courtroom with Guyger this week was no different that how we’ve seen other forgiven white attackers get treated. Which is why so many people immediately thought of Dylann Roof while viewing the video of the deputy fixing her blonde hair and consoling her like a child.

The disparity between how everyone – Black people included – view the accused along the lines of race, sends a clear message: Black people will always have to live to a higher standard, while fragile “white feelings” (even those of murderers) must be protected at all costs.

The debate rages on

The Jean family’s choice to pivot towards forgiveness has undoubtedly caused a lot of debate over the last few days, and from what I’ve written above I believe it’s clear how ill it makes me feel when I see our people jumping off the witness stand to hug their literal oppressors.

And this isn’t just about race, no part of me will ever find comfort in watching this dynamic unfold and believe its incredibly toxic to enable violators to feel like sympathetic characters during moments when their actual punishment is supposed to be the priority.

But writer Damon Young makes a great point, stating on his Facebook page, “families and friends of the recently murdered are gonna grieve and process however they need to. and sometimes that involves an accelerated forgiveness. sometimes it don’t. whether it’s performative or not ain’t our call to make. people do what they need to do to get through trauma, and just cause it don’t look like how you think you’d react don’t mean they’re wrong. they’re just people trying to make sense of senselessness. doing what they feel they need to do to move through that pain. to maybe just see tomorrow. to maybe just want to see tomorrow. and if they chose to be like “f**k her forever” well that’s fine too.”

When I take my initial flash of anger out of this, I have to admit he’s right. There is no one way (or even right way) to grieve. And even if some of us do think the optics of what the Jean family is doing harken back to unresolved dynamics in our community that need to be addressed, its unfair to put the weight of all that “stuff” on the shoulders of a family that is clearly still in a great deal of pain.

Still, it must be nice to have the whole system designed to give you the benefit of the doubt even when you don’t deserve it.

Follow writer Blue Telusma on Instagram at @bluecentric