Reparations and the Power of an Apology
Why should somebody whose ancestor seven or eight generations ago, long before they were born, apologise for what their ancestors did, in the context of the Transatlantic Slave Trade? Why should any descendant of perpetrators still carry that burden?
On September 20, 2023, as I listened to the hosts of Good Morning Britain interview the President of Guyana on what was titled by the network Slavery Payout to Right ‘Wrongs’ , I found myself suddenly nauseous—as if I’d taken a punch to the gut. The topic was reparation for slavery.
The interview was positioned as a stand-off. On the one side, two polite, but persistent and mildly irritated white hosts—Richard Madeley and Susanna Reid. On the other hand, Dr. Mohamed Irfan Ali, a black man from Guyana, its president, who was, at the time, in New York preparing to speak before the UN. As the standoff unfolded with Ali describing the centuries-long repercussion of the slave trade, Madeley continued to press him hard on two blunt questions:
How much do you want?
And why should we pay?
These questions hit me hard. I could not believe the host was being so defensive to the point of being rude, knowing that the consequences of slavery persist to this day. Isn’t the objective of such TV shows to educate the public on a variety of topics?! The TV hosts certainly did not appear to have an open mind to want to learn about this topic.
As someone who is a descendant of enslaved people, born in Curaçao, raised in The Netherlands, and now living in Singapore, I can (while difficult) overlook the ignorance of the questions being asked. However, the tone of voice and body language truly was triggering for me. This did not seem to be someone who wanted to make an effort to better understand where Ali was coming from. It seemed this section was more about refuting how ridiculous the thought of having to pay is for something that happened generations ago. Were the TV hosts conscious of how they were coming across in that particular moment? Did they even care? How much of their bodily cues were fed by their subconscious?
Collective traumas such as slavery have left a lasting impact for descendants of the victims. The perpetrator group, however, also suffers consequences from the historical trauma. Lickel et al. (2011) suggest that the perpetrator's way of dealing with the gruelling past is defending the group’s morality which may manifest in total denial. This in turn may result in perceived moral loss that cannot be restored and therefore any attempt to repair broken relations with the victim group may cause feelings of collective shame that result in distancing. Might this be what was going on for the TV hosts on September 20th without them even realising it?
Why should reparations be made?
Millions of Africans were forcibly taken from their homes and subjected to slavery spanning roughly from the 16th to the 19th century. The exact number is difficult to determine due to the lack of precise records, but estimates suggest that over the course of 400 years, around 12.5 million Africans were forcibly transported across the Atlantic Ocean under brutal conditions. About 12 percent of those who embarked did not survive the so-called ‘middle passage’.
The impact of this inhumane system is immeasurable, causing profound suffering, loss of life, and long-lasting social, economic, and cultural ramifications. The abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade Act, signed in 1807 by the United Kingdom, marked the beginning of the end for legalized slave trading, but its consequences continued to reverberate to date. Would it not seem fair to attempt to repair this wrongdoing — even if, in reality, I do not believe there would ever be enough money that could make this horrific past go away?
My visceral reaction to this Good Morning Britain interview stood in stark contrast to my reaction when the Prime Minister of The Netherlands Mark Rutte offered a formal apology on 19 December 2022. The Dutch King followed with a formal apology on 1st July 2023 on Keti Koti (meaning: broken chains in Surinamese), the day that commemorates abolition of Dutch transatlantic slave trade in July 1873. As I boarded a short flight from London to Amsterdam, I read the entire apology. I remember feeling tingling sensations all over my entire body. Tears rolled down my face as I sat in the window seat looking outside at the rain. I had no idea what was coming over me and why I was feeling these emotions on such a deep and profound level.
The significance of receiving an apology
Receiving an apology with an open heart is about acknowledging the other person’s effort to make amends. It doesn't erase the past, but signifies a willingness to move forward, a key aspect in healing and reconciliation processes according to Beverly Engel in her book The Power of Apology (2011). She explains in her book that taking responsibility by apologising can help reduce feelings of remorse and shame. The very thing that Lickel et al. (2011) suggest stands in the way of making amends. The act of apologising will humble any individual and hopefully acts as a reminder not to repeat these gruelling mistakes again.
So when the tears rolled down my face many centuries after the slave trade ended, I experienced a deep sense of connection on a human level to the Dutch Prime Minister who issued this apology. To me, he represented the descendants of perpetrators who committed these crimes many centuries ago who are no longer alive to apologise. It felt like my entire body was able to relax a little more since receiving this apology.
There have been various collective traumas around the globe since the beginning of humanity, and some are still ongoing. My hope is that those who are descendants of a collective trauma are afforded the opportunity and grace of a formal apology. It does not make the pain go away, but will help in the ongoing process of healing from the past. That’s what an apology signifies on a symbolic level. Don't we owe it to ourselves to heal from the past and, as much as possible, avoid repeating the same mistakes? If not for ourselves, for the generations to come.
Engel, B. (2007). The Power of Apology: Healing steps to transform all your relationships. https://ci.nii.ac.jp/ncid/BA86219854
Lickel, B., Steele, R. R., & Schmader, T. (2011). Group‐Based Shame and Guilt: Emerging directions in research. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 5(3), 153–163. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-9004.2010.00340.x