I’ve spent a lot of time processing my thoughts and feelings on the violent storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6th. In the aftermath, the politicians have been throwing a lot of words around. “This is not who we are.” “Those responsible, must be held accountable.” “This was an assault on democracy.” While I agree wholeheartedly with the statements. The simple act of the words being spoken is not nearly enough for me to believe that this will not be like so many other times in recent years when bad behavior, and violation of norms have no only been permitted but also enabled. And the word of this week is ‘healing.’ Under continued threat of violence by domestic terrorists, there are calls for healing the divisions of the country. Let’s be clear, you cannot even start to heal anything if you don’t stand up against those things you know are wrong. [Transition] But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ve put together a short list of steps I believe we need to take in order to put us on a true path to healing.
1. We need Real Talk: Last month I attended the #Real People, #Real Talk roundtable where guests from all different backgrounds and industries come together to have honest, informal conversations about diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB). December’s topic was dismantling systemic racism. It was one of the few of these events that I’ve been to, especially this last year, where I was engaged and left feeling inspired. So often when it comes to programming, we are so busy and concerned about having speakers say the right thing, or not offending funders as being “too political,” that we end up not saying anything nor making any progress. I recognize that creating spaces and opportunities for real talk is hard. It is something that I do with great care when teaching my course, How Race Shapes American Life, and running workshops or trainings at Global Equity Forward. We need to have the real conversations. They are going to be uncomfortable and messy. We need to name the things that are problems. We need to be honest about what the problems and challenges are. We need all perspectives represented and included in the discussion. This is not about blame or guilt. It’s being honest in acknowledging the situation so we can move forward. And we must move forward, but with intention and eyes wide open.
2. STOP making excuses for bad behavior, hate, and white supremacy in all forms and places. I worked as a nanny as one of my many jobs during graduate school. I often tell people stories of the kids I took care of throwing all sorts of crying fits and tantrums at some point because I said no or they didn’t get their way. I made it clear to the child in a calm and caring voice that the crying or tantrum wasn’t going to change my mind. I’ve even had to do the same with adult college students who would come to argue with me during office hours. Tears, yelling fits, appeals from parents to change grades (thank goodness for FERPA!) and threats of bad course evaluations were all thrown at me by young people who were not used to being told ‘no.’ This basic lesson of putting your foot down, taking a stand in the face of noise, anger or threat is never more urgent than in the aftermath of last week’s violence at the U.S. Capitol. Emboldened by their success last week, hate, anarchist and white supremacists groups from across this nation have threatened to hold armed “protests” in Washington, DC and the state capitols in all 50 states. And there are leaders who are crying out to forgo immediate accountability actions for the January 6th insurrection in order to “heal” and lessen tensions. However, one thing we know as Americans and anyone who watched the show 24, is that you do not negotiate with terrorists. This is not about party affiliation, but about organizations that seek to overthrow the government, reject the rule of law and use violence to advance their agendas. We must call a spade a spade and stop trying to avoid the uncomfortable truths for political expediency. Hate cannot be tolerated. White supremacy must be called out and not excused. We must acknowledge the differential treatment between the overwhelming show of force toward and actual tear gassing by police of Black Lives Matter protesters last summer and that the lack of organization, preparation, and slow response of law enforcement to the unfolding events at the Capitol on January 6th means something. We cannot keep giving free passes to those who threaten the foundation of our nation because it might be easier in the short-term or because they look like you, your family and friends. Because these groups and actions, left unchecked are bad for the nation in the long-term. We must stop making excuses if we are to heal.
3. We must know and reckon with our nation’s history. The average person does not understand the complexity of or even fully know much about U.S. History. What is included, omitted, or featured in textbooks and classrooms varies across states, local school districts and even teachers. As a result, what you know about our nation’s history is a reflection of where you spent your K-12 school years. But most people don’t really think about what is missing from their history lessons. This is not a phenomenon unique to America. When I was teaching in Japan, events from WWII and other war time activities of the nation were often missing from the textbooks. Students were often surprised when I would bring them up for discussion. What we need to understand is that history is written for and taught in support of a national narrative about who we imagine ourselves to be. And the narrative that we are to glean from American history is that we are a beacon of democracy and freedom on a hill to which other nations and peoples are to aspire. We have overcome our struggles and blemishes of the past to ascend to the position of leading nation of the world. Unfortunately, this narrative is primarily shaped by and for white Americans. It glosses over the depth of black and marginalized groups’ struggles and ignores the fact that so many non-white groups continue to be victimized by unjust and unequal systems across American life. We must acknowledge that institutions and historical events have a lasting impact on the fortunes of all Americans even now in 2021. First and foremost, we have to be honest about the ‘original sin’ of American history, slavery. We must accept that slavery is a foundational institution of America. And although it was abolished in it’s original form following the Civil War, it has since transformed and infiltrated virtually all institutions. As a result, the rights, dignity, and prospects of black people continue to be denied and curtailed. This is not about blame or guilt. It’s about honesty and finding a way to acknowledge this truth and move forward. Of course it is not easy, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.
I know it is easy for me to write a list of bullet points as a prescription to our problems. Healing is not going to spontaneously happen with a single piece of legislation or because of a political process. Healing has to be something we actually want. It can’t just be rhetoric used to advance a political agenda. Each of us must be responsible for our role in healing becoming a reality. And if we are honest, the divisions exist because they have benefited those in positions of economic and political power. America has always been fractured and conflicted. It’s not something that happened recently, within the last few months or years. It has been since the founding of our nation. As the illustration at the top of the page shows, healing is about bringing together the ragged and ugly parts of the divisions. It’s not about making the ragged parts look pretty or hiding them. Even if we can bring the divided parts of our nation together, the final product is not going to look like the country it was before. And perhaps that is a good thing. It will be something new. The scars will be there as a reminder of what was. But we can be proud of the new thing we have created. And the American flag will continue to fly. We are not perfect. We don’t have it all figured out. But we can and must try to be better than we have been .