Overcoming inherited guilt and collective trauma: How can there be reconciliation after slavery?

Slavery during colonial rule stands as one of the most egregious crimes against humanity. Millions were forced into slavery, shaping the economic success of the former European empires as well as the U.S.. Yet, the abolition of slavery in the 19th century was not met with apologies or reparations for the enduring horrors endured by former slaves. With this paper, I argue for the need for more apologies from descendants of slave-holding and trading families to finally start the reconciliation process between descendants of slaves and slaveholders/slave traders. 


When Laura Trevelyan, a former Guardian journalist and descendant of a family that owned over 1,000 slaves, publicly apologized for her family’s involvement in slavery and donated £100,000 to the Grenadian educational system, reactions were mixed. While some people felt like “[a] burden that [they] didn’t even know [they were] carrying has been lifted” (Trevelyan 2023), others felt like the sum of reparations was ridiculously low. Trevelyan acknowledged that this was only “a first step” to a long road to reconciliation (ibid.), hoping it sets an example for other families and governments to address their historical roles. This example not only highlights the intricate challenges surrounding the acknowledgment of a seemingly distant past, questioning who should apologize to whom and what constitutes a sincere apology, but also indicates the emotionality of the topic at hand.

Racial inequality as the legacy of slavery

During colonial rule, innumerable atrocities took place. One of the biggest was the African Slave trading system. While reconciliation in post-atrocity situations today receives much attention in the international community and academia, atrocities that occurred under colonial rule and their reconciliation processes remain in the shadows. Despite widespread acceptance of racial inequality in the U.S. today, opinions on the necessity of a reconciliation process regarding slavery vary. One explanation is that while racial inequality is accepted, it is controversial whether slavery is the root cause of that (Reichelmann et al. 2022: 548). Especially white Americans tend to oppose possible apologies or reparation payments for descendants of slaves. This can be explained by Social Identity Theory. “If white Americans believed Black Americans to be deserving of reparations, then they must acknowledge the role of white America in its perpetration” (ibid.: 569). This perception clashes with the pride white Americans feel and want to continue to feel about themselves. However, the need to feel good about oneself does not legitimize one to ignore the responsibility of one’s social group in a former atrocity.

Different studies show that there is a legacy of slavery that puts Black Americans at a disadvantage even today. These links are most visible through the local lens. One example is an analysis of poverty in the contemporary U.S. South which shows that in places rich in history of slavery, Black Americans are at a greater disadvantage compared to non-Hispanic white Americans than in places with a weaker connection to slavery (O’Connell 2012: 728). Another study shows how the legacy of slavery contributes to black-white educational disparities with the establishment of private schools and threat processes related to local racial composition (Reece & O’Connell 2016: 53f).

While recognizing responsibility is not solely dependent on ongoing disadvantages faced by descendants, it can serve as a moral impetus for descendants of perpetrators to confront their past.

The long way to reconciliation

After an atrocity occurs, there is a need for reconciliation to heal the rifts in society. Rebuilding peace after a conflict is always difficult, but atrocities leave a special legacy of “deeply broken social trust and high levels of trauma” behind (Strauß 2016: 188). To rebuild that trust, the perpetrators must acknowledge accountability for their wrongdoings. The first step to do so is offering an apology to the (former) victims. And not just any apology suffices; it must be an apology from the heart to the heart (Brook 2006: 228). With that apology, which most likely must be repeated to be met with forgiveness, the perpetrator must emphasize the following characteristics: The apology must be honest and with integrity, it must contain the desire to re-establish the victim’s honour and dignity, and a change of behaviour of the perpetrator towards the victim must be noticeable (Hatch 2006: 191). For an apology to be heartfelt, it does not only display personal regret, a plea for forgiveness and hope for a restored relationship, but rather than redeeming oneself and defending oneself for one’s condemned actions, the apology centres on the people harmed by one’s behaviour (ibid.: 202). At the same time, the perpetrator does not only need to apologize to someone, but it is just as important that they apologize for something, namely for the atrocity they committed (Brook 2006: 225). 

But, how does one apologize for an atrocity like slavery? And who should apologize? While Trevelyan’s apology for her family’s involvement in slavery is noteworthy and should be viewed as a role model for other families who accumulated wealth by having slaves, acknowledging guilt by heritage can prove difficult because it can shake up the very sense of one’s identity if one must acknowledge the horrors one’s ancestors did. Some U.S.-American families still go that way and document their ancestors’ involvement in the slave trading (cf. DeWolf 2008). Even within the families, it is controversial whether an apology is needed. One of the main reasons is that there was no personal involvement (ibid.: 121f, 222). But as a German, I argue that descendants still have a moral obligation to right the wrongs of their ancestors. Even more so if there had not been any attempts of reconciliation at an earlier point. To say that any moral obligations fade as soon as the perpetrators and victims die is an excuse to make life easier and more comfortable and usually is only possible when you belong to the descendants of the perpetrator group, as the descendants of the victim group still suffer from the aftermath of the atrocity.

I also argue that institutions like the state must form apologies, which has already happened in some parts (cf. Hatch 2006). Issuing a representative apology comes with specific difficulties. Hatch (ibid.: 204) even calls the tension ratio between speaking officially and speaking personally a “rhetorical tightrope”. Not only is it difficult to balance the contradiction between expressing personal regret and speaking in an official capacity, but state representatives must think of the difficulties involved in speaking for a collective and the question of inherited quilt or responsibility for ancestor’s wrongs, too (ibid.: 192). Issuing an apology can easily backfire if members of the perpetrator group – or rather their descendants – feel as if guilt is being put on them unjustly which can lead to hate towards the group of the victims – the descendants of slaves. On the other hand, if the apology does not encompass the necessary depth of contrition, the victim group might feel ridiculed. 

Even if one manages to walk the tightrope, it is imperative that to realize reconciliation, apologies for former atrocities do not stand alone but are combined with other mechanisms to rebuild trust and relations between perpetrator and victim group. Whether punitive (e.g. criminal trials) or non-punitive mechanisms (e.g. reparations or truth commissions) are best suited always depends on the (local) context of the atrocity (Strauß 2016: 212f). In the case of dealing with slavery, non-punitive mechanisms seem to be the wiser choice as the directly involved perpetrators have long passed away. Reparations could be direct payments to descendants of slaves or – like in the case of Trevelyan’s family – symbolic reparations in the form of payments for education, scholarships etc. 


Contrary to some prevailing political group-thinking strategies, there is no expiry date on issuing apologies, especially when the atrocity’s shadow persists over the victim group. The healing progress of descendants of slaves must begin now. While this is easy for me to say – a white German with no known connections to slaveholding or trading in my family tree – I am aware that as a somewhat ‘uninvolved’ person it can be easy for me to judge others involved. But maybe uninvolved people are needed to push descendants of slaveholders and traders to start dealing with their past. It can be uncomfortable to deal with one’s ugly (family) past. I do not want to downplay that difficulty. However, in most states with a white majority we believe in the importance of human rights and the equality of all. So it is important, that we act according to our believes. And that is why unconditional apologies from states and families connected to slave trading or holding past are urgently required. These apologies must be unfiltered, honest, and raw. If there is apprehension about potential backlash, we need increased education and awareness for those who believe that an apology for this atrocity is unnecessary. It is time to shift the focus away from the feelings of the perpetrator group and centre on those who were wronged.

We cannot ignore that racism, stemming from the legacy of the (African) slave trading system, persists. The rise of right-wing parties and politicians expressing overtly racist views in Europe and North America, even occupying significant offices, should serve as a wake-up call for those who firmly believe in the equality of all individuals. To initiate the reconciliation process, we must begin with sincere apologies and take concrete actions to address structural racism by reforming the system.


  • Baptist, E. E. (2014) The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. Basic Books.
  • Brooks, R. L. (2006) The New Patriotism and Apology for Slavery. In: Barkan, E. & Karn, A. (eds.) Taking Wrongs Seriously: Apologies and Reconciliation. Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 213-233.
  • DeWolf, T. N. (2008) Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Hatch, J. B. (2006) Beyond Apologia: Racial Reconciliation and Apologies for Slavery. Western Journal of Communication, Vol. 70(3), pp. 186-211.
  • O’Connell, H. A. (2012) The Impact of Slavery on Racial Inequality in Poverty in the Contemporary U.S. South. Social Forces, Vol. 90(3), pp. 713-734).
  • Reece, R. L. & O’Connel, H. A. (2016) How the Legacy of Slavery and Racial Composition Shape Public School Enrollment in the American South. Sociology of Race and Ethics, Vol. 2(1), pp. 42-57.
  • Reichelmann, A. V., Roos, J. M., Hughes, M (2022) Racial Identity, Reparations, and Modern Views of Justice Concerning Slavery, Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 86(1), pp 547-575.
  • Straus, S. (2016) Fundamentals of Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention. Washington, D.C.: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
  • Trevelyan, L. (2023) My family owned 1,000 slaves and profited from the trade: this is how I am trying to make amends. The Guardian, March 25. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/mar/25/slaves-trade-amends-grenada-laura-trevelyan.

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