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Liam Neeson, Ralph Northam, and when confession causes more harm than good

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White people are doing a lot of soul-searching these days.

Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who recently admitted to wearing blackface in a Michael Jackson impersonation competition, just announced that he’s going on a “listening tour” to learn about racism. Actor Liam Neeson admitted to wanting to commit a racist murder in his youth, saying, “It was horrible, horrible, when I think back, that I did that.”

I’ve been thinking about the complexities around confession and forgiveness. As a psychotherapist for 25 years who has worked immersed in issues of race and racism, I believe it is important for white people to find spaces where we can name our past racist failures and identify the ways we have been both contaminated by racist systems and have perpetrated racist acts.

But it is important to remember that to inflict such confessions on people of color without their consent is a kind of psychological violence. We have to think about the settings we speak into, and how they may inflict further injury.

I was taught this lesson many years ago as a social work intern working in a clinic for kids in Brooklyn that served a diverse community. The frontline staff was almost as diverse as our clients. A newly hired supervisor gathered the team together and announced that we were having a workshop to talk about race and racism. She asked us all to think of the first moment that we felt racism and awoke to the effect it would have in our lives. She then asked people to share.

An overeager intern, I was the first to go. I told a story from preschool, about visiting a friend’s house. I was surprised to see that she had a white mom and a black dad, when I had expected both of her parents to be black. Excited by this discovery, I shared it with my parents at dinner. My father chewed his food in silence and stared at his plate. I saw his jaw clenching, and I felt in my bones I would never get to play with my friend again. I didn’t know if this was because my classmate was black or because of her parents’ interracial marriage. I was filled with a nauseating shame realizing that there was something very wrong inside my father.

After a few minutes of silence, another volunteer spoke — a white man who had discovered his grandfather was a Klansman — when a black woman across the circle from me stood up saying:

“NO. NO. This is not happening. I am not doing this. This is not okay.” And she walked out.

The air was frozen. We sat stunned and silent for a moment, before the supervisor dismissed us. Once I shut my office door behind me, I inhaled — and thought about what just occurred. Her voice saying, “I am not doing this. This is not okay,” rang in my ears. It seemed to be filled with deep exhaustion. There was no way for this “sharing” to be equal. It would be a kind of violence to force her to sit there and listen to the dehumanizing racism that had been an everyday part of our white lives, the language we were taught to speak at home.

Yes, the suffering of perpetrators matters in the process of healing and reparation. But it is not more important than nor is it equal to the suffering of those who have been victimized.

I’ll illustrate with another work story involving criminal acts. A few years later, I worked with former offenders who had been incarcerated for violent crimes including assault and murder, and who struggled with psychosis. A few of my clients were participating in a restorative justice program designed to support and heal victims while offering perpetrators a chance to participate in repairing the harms they had inflicted. My job in those cases was to assess if my client could participate constructively in the program.

My clients, the ex-offenders, said yes quickly and reflexively. They wanted to be forgiven. I had to remind them: “This can’t be only — or even primarily — about what you need to feel better.” They first had to understand that the victims may need to release anger at them, or tell them all the damage that stemmed from their crimes. The victims might need to make the perpetrator feel more guilt and pain, not less, in conceiving of the long-lasting impacts their offense had generated.

There was a crucial step that had to happen before forgiveness — which might not come at all — could even be possible. My clients had to first assume and withstand responsibility for their actions to their victim’s satisfaction. When they understood the realities of the process, some couldn’t face it. It was too much. One man said: “It will take me years to get that strong. I’m gonna try but tell them it might take me years.”

Forgiveness is powerful and cleansing and is often a deep desire of those struggling with the painful guilt. But forgiveness can’t be requested prematurely. Perpetrators of harm can’t ask to be unburdened while their victims are still carrying the painful weight of past and present injuries. There is a great deal of work to be done on the long road toward forgiveness. It is far more important to get to work repairing what we have damaged or broken, than to be released from the tension of guilt with the magic wand of forgiveness.

Too often white people rush toward these hard conversations seeking the relief of confession or forgiveness. But the restoration of those who have been harmed is more important than the relief of those who have perpetrated harm.

Perhaps our task, when we feel the impulse to confess, is to be certain others aren’t injured by our admission, and to wait until we are strong enough to assume responsibility for who we are and all that we have inherited, whether we are forgiven or not.

Martha M. Crawford is a writer and a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City, and the author of the blog What a Shrink Thinks.


First Person is Vox’s home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstperson@vox.com.

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Oakland teachers strike: Union calls strike for pay, smaller classes

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Teacher frustration keeps spreading.

Public school teachers in Oakland, California, said they will strike on Thursday, following 18 months of tense negotiations with district officials over pay raises and classroom sizes.

“We have had it. Enough is enough, bargaining with our school district has not worked,” said Keith Brown, a middle school teacher and president of the Oakland Education Association, during a press conference on Saturday. “Our schools have been starved of resources for years.”

If they don’t reach a deal before Thursday, about 3,000 teachers won’t show up to work in one of the state’s largest school districts, which has struggled from years of budget cuts and poor student performance.

Teachers say the lack of investment in city schools is hurting student performance. The cost of living in Oakland has also skyrocketed in recent years, due to an influx of high-skilled workers unable to afford housing across the bay in San Francisco, making it impossible for teachers to live there on their current salaries, Keith said. Teachers want a pay raise, smaller class sizes, and more counselors and nurses.

The strike in Oakland would come a month after teachers in Los Angeles walked off the job with similar demands — and ended up getting a lot of what they wanted. At the time, LA officials said the same thing Oakland officials are now saying: We just don’t have the money.

Oakland schools are facing a $56 million budget deficit in the next two years, so the school board wants to cut school spending, not increase it. School officials are trying to get more money from the state, but teachers are ready to walk out. And they know they have leverage.

It’s just the latest strike in what’s becoming a national trend. More than 100,000 public school teachers in six states have walked out of class in the past year, rebelling from years of stagnant wages, crumbling infrastructure, and deep budget cuts to education. The strikes in Arizona, West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, California, and Colorado had broad public support, forcing state lawmakers to raise pay and fueling a national movement to boost investment in public education.

So far, that momentum shows no signs of slowing down.

Funding for public schools in California is a mess

Oakland teachers share a lot of the same frustrations that led LA teachers to walk out of class in January. They say school districts are spending too much money on privately run charter schools that have little public oversight. They also believe they are paid too little working in a state with much wealth.

California is among states spending the least on each student (adjusted for the cost of living), largely because of the state’s strict limits on property tax rates.

The Oakland Education Association, a labor union representing 3,000 educators, has been trying to negotiate a new contract since the last one expired in 2017. Teachers want a 12 percent pay raise over three years, smaller classes, and more support staff. One school counselor for every 600 students is not conducive to a student’s success, says Keith Brown, the group’s president.

The district has offered a 5 percent raise over three years.

Teachers rejected the offer.

“Unless there are dramatic changes to the district’s approach, including spending more money on students and for nurses and counselors, lower class size, and a living wage that will keep Oakland teachers in the classrooms, we will strike,” Brown said.

The school district has said it is willing to keep negotiating for a better deal to avert the strike, and would consider some recommendations from an independent panel, which found that low teacher pay, large class sizes, and school privatization were hurting Oakland schools. The report also acknowledges the state’s “complicated, flawed” system for funding public education.

“Despite our challenges, we are prepared with a comprehensive proposal to reach an agreement. If both sides are committed to settling the contract before a strike occurs —and we are — an agreement can certainly be reached without disrupting the educational experience for students, families and staff,” Oakland Schools Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell said in a statement Saturday.

They have three days to try and reach a deal.

Teachers are leading a national workers revolt

A record number of US workers went on strike or stopped working in 2018 because of labor disputes with employers, according to new data released last week by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. A total of 485,000 employees were involved in major work stoppages last year — the highest number since 1986, when flight attendants, garbage collectors, and steelworkers walked off the job.

Frustrated public school teachers were behind the year’s largest walkouts, but hotel housekeepers and steelworkers also organized strikes that lasted for days.

There are no signs that worker angst has subsided. So far, in 2019, teachers in two major cities have launched their own strikes. And in January, the Los Angeles teachers strike shut down the nation’s second-largest school district for more than a week.

As part of their deal with city officials, teachers agreed to a 6 percent raise and slightly fewer students in each classroom, according to Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, a labor union that represents about 34,000 public school teachers, nurses, librarians, and support staff in the city.

Last week, more than 2,000 teachers in Denver went on strike for three days. The school district ended up giving educators and extra $23 million in pay and agreed to overhaul the compensation system, which relied heavily on annual bonuses.

Now Oakland teachers are prepared to walk out, and Sacramento teachers may follow.

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Kamala Harris’s 2020 presidential campaign: news and updates

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