Inclusive Excellence Summit on “Truth and Reconciliation”
Sponsored by: The Department of Inclusion and Belonging, The Presidential Advisors on Diversity and Equity, and the Division of Human Resources
Dr. Jacque Tara Washington, LCSWR
“Radical Reconciliation: Shifting Power While Honoring Truth”
Running Time: One Hour
29 April 2022
SONG (a cappella): Strange Fruit (vocalist, Dr. Jacque Tara Washington)
Lyrics (Lewis Allan):
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the roots
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze
Strange Fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouths
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather
For the wind to suck
For the sun to rot
For the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
I am grateful and honored to have been invited here today to address Truth and Reconciliation for this 2022 Inclusive Excellence Summit. I thank God so much for this opportunity and for every moment of my life.
[Additional sentiments of thanks are excluded from this version]
I want to make sure we are all using the same glossary with the words I choose to use today. There are problems with categorization because it tries to fit us into boxes and has the possibility to exclude. So, for today, when I refer to Black people and you self-identify as Black in whatever ethnicity you belong, that means you. When I refer to White people and you self-identify as White in whatever ethnicity you belong, that means you. When I refer to people of Color and ethnicities within that group and you identify in that group or you may prefer the term BIPOC, that means you. Underrepresented refers to any and all populations whose representation is disproportionately low in the general population, and includes race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, gender, gender-neutral, non-gendered, genderless, socioeconomic status, people with disabilities, people from disadvantaged backgrounds, non-dominant religions, and retirees.
It is also important to state that racism is not a Black and White issue, nor is it only an individual issue, but also a systemic one, as well. Having said that, a lot of my discussion today is about Black and White populations, and some populations of Color as we consider radical ways to reconcile the historic racial trauma in this country.
I brought quite a few people here with me today. I am referring to those who have shared their wisdom through quotes. I love quotes because they make me feel I am in that person’s presence, sharing those moments that prompted the quote, gleaning from their wisdom. So, I brought these very special people here with me today in the form of their thoughts, insights, and words.
As I was preparing this presentation, I recalled an incident that occurred when I was rehearsing for a theatre production many years ago. My fellow actor, who was a White man, was supposed to hand me a prop, which would then motivate me to move on to the next blocking moment. For some reason, he consistently had to be told either by the director or by me, under my breath, to hand it to me. By him not giving me the prop on time, it slowed down my action in the scene and he knew that. This was professional theatre, so he knew. Finally, one time, I just took it, and he became irate and said, “don’t just snatch it from me” and I stated, very firmly, “then just give it to me!” After that interaction, he gave me the prop on time every time, although there were things we had to work through for that handoff and our relationship to be sincere.
I remember thinking that he seemed to feel he had some kind of power and I also remember wondering why he was intentionally interfering with the progress of the entire show by this one deliberate refusal to give me the prop. He held the power until I took it from him and was able to move forward with my purpose. And like that situation, those in power know they are withholding it from the underrepresented and they refuse to give it to us or share it with us because they fear we will excel and move forward in powerful ways. American author and social activist bell hooks stated, “Sometimes people try to destroy you, precisely because they recognize your power – not because they don’t see it, but because they see it and they don’t want it to exist.” And like that situation, the underrepresented populations will need to take the power because it will not be relinquished willingly. African American Muslim minister and human rights activist Malcolm X stated, “Any time you beg another man to set you free, you will never be free. Freedom is something that you have to do for yourselves.”
To wrap up that theatre example, we did not go on being upset with each other; we both were able to move forward in harmony for the better good of the production. He was able to recognize and admit to me and to the cast that he was negligent in not giving me the prop. He did so without excuse, but with humility. It was easier for me to forgive him because he admitted his wrongdoing and I was able to trust he would not exhibit that behavior towards me again. Also, he knew that if he did, I would not hesitate to advocate for myself. We were able to work together in harmony. We had incentive: the show had to move forward, and it would move forward most effectively without conflict.
I use this example to introduce truth and reconciliation. As I sang “Strange Fruit,” I gave you an example of the truth of the horrendous behavior of the White race and their horrific and appalling treatment of the Black race in this country. This song encapsulates some of the worst racist atrocities in this country’s history . . . some . . . and it continues to this day. My research discusses the history of racism in housing, healthcare, and the financial system, and we know that racism permeates every aspect of the Black experience including mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual wellness, and a plethora of daily encounters. According to my research, there is a “new racism,” described as “the ways in which racism has adapted over time so that modern norms, policies, and practices result in similar racial outcomes as those in the past, while not appearing to be explicitly racist.” The “new racism” includes disparities that Black populations and other people of Color face in areas including income, housing, healthcare, employment, politics, and education, and points to institutional racism and negative media depictions and stereotypes that are more sophisticated and more subtle than Jim Crow and yet as effective as the old in maintaining the racial status quo.
For example, my research indicates the following:
In healthcare: Historically, medicine has used Black bodies, without consent, for its own advancement. For example: the 40-year Tuskegee syphilis experiment by the United States Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on a group of about 400 poor sharecroppers with syphilis. While the men were not informed of the nature of the study, the purpose was to observe the effects of the disease when untreated. By the end of the study the antibiotic, penicillin, had become the standard treatment for syphilis and was widely used to treat the disease, but none of the infected men were treated and over 100 died as a result. In other situations, Black people were forced to participate in dissections and medical examinations; dead Black bodies were continuously robbed from their graves for surgical and anatomical experimentation; the psychiatric diagnosis of drapetomania, or “runaway slave syndrome,” considered a disease and created to diagnose and pathologize African slaves who fled their vicious slave owners (with the so-called treatment often being amputation of extremities); and the purchase of female slaves by a famous gynecologist in the 1800s for the purpose of using those women as guinea pigs for untested surgical experiments and performing genital surgery without anesthesia, with the delusion that African American women do not feel pain.
In 1899, sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, in his publication The Philadelphia Negro, was the first to name structural issues, specifically the “condition of living” and the “peculiar indifference” of the nation against Black Americans, as the root cause of racial inequities in this country.
Fast forward to present age racism or the “new racism” in the healthcare system:
A CNN report on CDC data for this month, indicates that since the start of the pandemic, the risk of dying from COVID-19 has been nearly twice as high for Black and Hispanic people in the United States than for White people. Black and Hispanic people also faced a higher risk of coronavirus infection and were more than twice as likely to be hospitalized. Black Americans experienced the highest rate of hospitalization of any racial and ethnic group since the inception of the pandemic. Black Americans are infected with COVID-19 at nearly three times the rate of White Americans, according to a new document from the National Urban League.
According to a report from the Center of Infectious Disease Research and Policy, Black people are less likely to have health insurance, and more likely to work in jobs that do not accommodate remote work. Both Black and Latino Americans are also more likely to live in multigenerational housing, which places older, at-risk adults in close contact with younger people who may not know they have the virus. Structural racism in health care advantages the White racial group in power and disadvantages the Black populations and people of Color. Structural racism operates through laws and policies that allocate resources in ways that disempower and devalue members of racial and ethnic minority groups, resulting in inequitable access to high-quality care. Inadequate health insurance coverage is one of the largest barriers to health care access, and the unequal distribution of coverage contributes to disparities in health.
Research has consistently documented that health care providers, with all levels of experience and across a wide range of specialties, have implicit racial bias, with most exhibiting implicit preference for Whites over Blacks; African Americans report that they are less valued by health care providers, that providers consider their illnesses as less deserving of treatment, and that a lower standard of health care is routinely provided to them. Black Americans with mental health diagnoses are less likely to receive certain medicine for their conditions compared to White Americans with the same conditions; Black people are less likely to be prescribed newer, better-tolerated medicine; after long wait times, when minority patients are finally able to even see a physician, several studies have shown that physicians spend less time with Black patients when compared to White patients, and are less likely to perceive the patient as being honest regarding their symptoms.
There is not enough time today to detail all the realities of blatant racism throughout history past and present, and I only touched on one reality, but racism permeates every existing system in America. It is from these truths of historic racism that I now turn my attention to reconciliation since these racist realities are the reasons for reconciliation. Also, it’s about social justice and at the heart of social justice is truth and reconciliation.
The racially underrepresented (the Black population and other people of Color) are the ones who seek reconciliation or restorative justice because these groups have been traumatized. The hope is that the oppressor will take responsibility for their own actions, understand the harm they have caused, genuinely seek forgiveness, and commit to causing no further harm. I want to share a few examples of what truth and reconciliation looks like, starting with South Africa.
Between 1948 and 1990, Apartheid was the racist institutionalized system of government in South Africa that denied Blacks their civil and political rights, and enforced inferior segregated education, health care, and all other public services. Opposition groups, such as the African National Congress and other movements, were banned and were violently repressed. And, of course, any resistance was met with police brutality, torture, and death.
After a long and tedious series of international sanctions, and negotiations between the government party and the African National Congress, Democratic elections were held, the African National Congress won a 63% share of the vote, and an interim constitution was passed. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up by the newly elected parliament and was endorsed by the country’s first Black president, Nelson Mandela, and other prominent South African figures, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu as Chairman of the Committee.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was tasked with investigating human rights abuses and their circumstances, committed from 1960 to 1994, allowing victims the opportunity to tell their stories. More than 22,000 statements from victims were heard during public hearings as they gave testimonies about gross violations of human rights, including torture, killings, disappearances and abductions, and severe ill treatment suffered at the hands of the Apartheid state. The public hearings ensured that South Africans became aware of the atrocities that had been committed during the Apartheid years.
The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was hailed, globally, as an innovative model for building peace and justice and for holding perpetrators accountable for human rights violations, and it was the first Commission to hold public hearings in which both victims and perpetrators were heard.
Fast forward to America when, in 2004, the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the USA began in Greensboro, North Carolina. This effort focused on the 1979 “Greensboro massacre” in which racist members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party shot and killed five participants of a march that was organized to support for, mostly, Black textile industry workers in the area.
Twenty-five years after the murders, a private organization formed the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, modeling after Commissions in South Africa and Canada. The private organization failed to secure authority because the mayor and most of the city council voted against endorsing the undertaking. When it issued its Final Report, the Commission concluded that the Klan and Nazi party members had intended to inflict injury on protesters, and the police department had colluded with the Klan by allowing anticipated violence to take place. Years later, the Greensboro City Council formally apologized for the massacre, and passed a resolution expressing regret for the deaths in the massacre.
Now on to Maine where The Maine Wabanaki State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission led a truth-seeking process from 2013 to 2015 to uncover the truth about child-welfare practice with Maine’s Native people. In its Final Report, the Commission stated that Native children in Maine entered foster care at more than five times the rate of non-Native children, and evidenced underlying racism and continued cultural genocide. The Commission established 14 action items for reconciliation.
On to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was active from 2008 to 2015, and organized by the parties of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, with the purpose of documenting the history and lasting impacts of the Canadian Indian Residential School System on Indigenous students and their families, and afforded residential school survivors the opportunity to share their horrendous experiences.
A little background: The colonial history of Canadian boarding schools started in the late 1800’s. Between 1871 and 1921 the British crown entered into treaties with some First Nations, a name broadly given to 634 distinct communities, giving European settlers access to natural resources, and rights of settlement. The First Nations were promised farming tools and financial compensation for land in many of the treaties, but many of those promises were broken or never honored. Five years after entering into the treaties, parliament passed the Indian Act, legislation that imposed strict control over the lives of Indigenous peoples. They were made to live on reservations and could not leave without permission; children were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to live in institutions with the specific goal of stripping away the children’s culture, identity, and language, which was called the devil’s tongue. For most of the 20th century, at least 139 residential schools, as well as many other schools that operated independently outside the federal government, were run by Catholic, Anglican, and United churches, with financial support from the federal government, and an estimated 150,000 Indigenous children attended. In addition to being prohibited from speaking their native languages and forced to adopt their school’s religious denomination, they were beaten, verbally and sexually abused, and thousands died from disease, neglect, and suicide. The latest discoveries suggest an estimated 6-thousand children died while in the schools and more than 4-thousand have been identified so far. Unmarked graves of hundreds of children have been discovered on the grounds of some of the schools in recent years. Part of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s 94 call to action items was to have an apology from the Pope, due to the involvement of the Catholic Church. The Committee ended in 2015; the apology finally came on April 1, 2022. The work continues outside of the Commission to develop and implement a national reconciliation framework.
While the traumatized populations are different with these examples in South Africa, America, and Canada, the perpetrators are very similar: racist people in power.
Fast forward to Ithaca, NY, 2022 Cornell University. Today I sang “Strange Fruit.” I stood before you and gave the truth about the horrendous and traumatic treatment of the Black populations by racist White people. I humbly, yet proudly, represented my ancestors in the truth-telling part of truth and reconciliation as just described.
The truth about racism, discrimination, biases, microaggressions, unfair treatment, denial of human and social rights, as well as economic rights (and rights across the spectrum) has been experienced, opposed, and supported throughout history, and continues to be realized as I stand before you today. It will continue until individuals and systems are changed; I mean radically changed, not white-washed. There can be no more concealing or ignoring the unpleasant facts about historic racism that continues to exist today.
So, what about this thing called reconciliation?
John de Gruchy, in the book Radical Reconciliation, writes, “When we are reconciled, we exchange places with the other and are in solidarity with, rather than against the other; making peace and restoring relationships.” In the same book, James Earl Massey writes that reconciliation is about “putting down and setting aside: attitude, grievance, a position, a deed, a distance, a result, in order to bring about change for the better. A new disposition is exhibited, a new stance is assumed, a new framework is established granting a rich togetherness where hatred, hostility, and distance previously were the order.” This reminds me of author Stephen Covey who speaks of how sincere empathy towards the other person can promote change by allowing oneself to experience the realities, the thinking, and behavior from the other person’s perspective . . . not sympathy, feeling sorry for, rather empathy – embracing the world through the other person’s perspective and reality.
And therein lies one of the major issues/concerns:
Brazilian educator, sociologist, and philosopher, Paulo Friere, stated that even when people cease to be exploiters in any fashion, and move to the side of the exploited, they almost always carry with them their prejudices and their “deformed thinking” of needing to be the ones to control the transformations, because they lack confidence in the exploited people’s ability to want, to think, and to know. Basically, the oppressors tell the oppressed what is best for them, instead of trusting those who have lived under oppression to know what’s best for themselves. This, even when the oppressors seem to be on the side of the oppressed.
How many times do those in power make offers for care to the underrepresented populations and do so without asking those populations what they need and how they can truly help from the perspectives and realities of underrepresented populations? Instead, those in power set meetings, form aid, make decisions based on what they think the underrepresented populations need . . . and then state: “see, we offered help, but they did not accept it.”
Reconciliation means those in power must relinquish that power and live in the realities of the oppressed. Now, why would someone offer to relinquish power and the benefits, to become somewhat powerless with little to no benefits; to live the lives of the very ones they have been oppressing? In Where Do We Go From Here, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: “White Americans must recognize that justice for Black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society.” One of the indigenous survivors of the genocide in the Canadian schools stated, “There is no reconciliation without truth.”
Change and transformation in a racist society come about through evolution, never giving up, ignoring naysayers, and welcoming all people genuinely committed to that purpose and those goals. It is important to note that throughout history some White people stood where they needed to be to help make those transformations happen. Some White citizens were murdered alongside Black citizens, all fighting for human rights. They didn’t say, “that’s not my struggle” or make excuses from their places of Whiteness. Rather, they stayed in it, listened, and learned. They used their Whiteness to advocate for the Black race, for human and civil rights, for social justice. People like:
American civil rights activist, journalist, and educator Anne Braden who was dedicated to the cause of racial equality. She wrote and organized for the southern civil rights movement.
The song you heard me sing, “Strange Fruit,” was written by Jewish-American poet and songwriter Abel Meeropol who published under his pseudonym, Lewis Allan. He originally published it as a poem, “Bitter Fruit” and later added music to create “Strange Fruit.” It was recorded by many African American vocalists including Billie Holiday and Nina Simone.
John Brown, at the age of 12, witnessed an enslaved African American boy being beaten, which haunted him for years, and he became an abolitionist. Of the many ways he fought for the rights of the slaves, was his leadership in inspiring the slave insurrection and the raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 in which his two sons were killed, and he was captured and executed.
Prudence Crandall was a White American schoolteacher and activist who decided to admit an African American female to her school in 1832. The White parents withdrew their children, and Crandall decided to teach Black girls. She was arrested and spent a night in jail. The violence of the townspeople forced her to close the school and leave the area.
Jane Eliot, anti-racist activist and diversity educator, devised the Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes exercise in response to the assassination of Dr. King in 1968. This exercise labels participants as inferior or superior based solely upon the color of their eyes and exposes them to the experience of being a minority. She still holds the exercise and gives lectures about its effects all over this country.
William Lloyd Garrison was a prominent American abolitionist, journalist, suffragist, and social reformer. He published an anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, in Boston until slavery in the USA was abolished.
Matt Hawn, a Tennessee school teacher, still awaits his most recent appeal to get his job back after being fired by the school district for teaching his students about systemic racism in America.
And, of course, there are more names and situations of support for this on-going fight for human justice. To all the non-Black people who sincerely joined in the battle I say thank you.
I say thank you to my Black ancestors who lived it and had insurmountable obstacles to overcome; to my Black ancestors, some who did not live to see the transformations they were fighting for; to my beautiful Black and Brown comrades who continue to struggle in every walk of life, every reality of living in this racist world and refusing to be victims, refusing to accept the racist status quo, determined to be who they are created to be, to live as they were created to live, to be unapologetic about our existence, to present our pride and gratitude for our Blackness, our Brownness, our cultures, our identities, our beauty, our intelligence, our visions, our abilities . . . going against all odds, developing new ideas for change, ones that have not yet been done but are awaiting new minds combined with the wisdom of their elders, as long as the elders are not trying to suggest old ways that have not worked, yet are able to offer wisdom from the ways that have been successful and now need new energy to continue the flow of progress. Oh yes, there has been progress. We all can recognize it and embrace it, honoring all before us whose determination brought us to where we are today.
The fight continues. When I say fight I mean battle, to combat racism, discrimination, uneven power dynamics. The battleground consists of the hearts, minds, spirits and emotions of the racially wounded; the loved ones of those who were murdered due to racism; the battleground consists of injustice and the deliberate and blatant disregard for human rights and dignity; here at Cornell University, the battleground for Black and other students of Color consists of these populations being enticed to come to this university with promises and expectations that any college student has – the excitement and anticipation of what lies ahead, only, for some, to be met with deliberate discrimination, unresolved microaggressions, dismissal and disregard of cultural needs; expectations to educate their White counterparts and some employees about their culture; not being seen, invisible, like they do not matter; ridiculed, misunderstood; suffering with stereotype threat; seeing themselves as not good enough or not able to engage in classroom dialogue, therefore silencing themselves; knowing they are intelligent but living with inner conflict because of messages that contradict their beliefs that they are, indeed, intelligent; suffering through not getting the help they need to adequately complete assignments; being ignored by some professors, advisors, and others who are given the responsibility to guide them; hoping for support from employees in experiences of racism, yet not receiving even an acknowledgement that it is, indeed, racism; and the list goes on. What happens to these students? Many run away, literally and figuratively; they suffer with racially motivated anxiety and depression; some walk through their college experience with low self-worth; a few end their lives; many grow bitter and disillusioned; they suffer through, just to graduate and get out as I have heard some students state, “I just want to graduate and get out of this place” . . . this is not the American Dream reality for these populations.
So, indeed, it is a fight. Dr. King, in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, stated: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
What does that look like?
Black American political activist Fred Hampton, who was deputy chairman of the national Black Panther Party before he was assassinated, in 1969, upon orders from the Federal Bureau of Investigation that considered him a radical threat, stated, “We’ve got to face the fact that some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity.” That doesn’t sound like a radical threat, except to people in power.
It is important to note that the fight, the battle, looks different for different people. Some are on the front lines like Fred Hampton; Dr. King; like Black political activist and educator, Angela Davis; like Black American abolitionist and women’s rights activist, Sojourner Truth; like the first Black president of the USA and his lawyer wife, Barack and Michelle Obama; like academic, writer, and lecturer, Rachel Cargle; like Black, queer feminist community organizer and writer, Charlene Carruthers; like Lee Merritt, one of the foremost civil rights lawyers in the US; like activist, Indya Moore, who is a staunch advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, anti-racism, and international solidarity; like politician and civil rights activist, John Lewis, who dedicated his life to civil rights and nonviolence until his death in July 2020 . . .
I could go on and on with this list, just as I can go on, indefinitely, with the names and offerings of those behind the scenes, like the millions of people who organized and participated in various protests and boycotts throughout history to urge companies and corporations, structures and systems to change policies or pay attention to the needs of the underrepresented.
Those in every field, including medicine, law, education, the arts, students, and religions across the spectrum are presently doing behind the scenes advocacy for human rights and social justice.
Some in the Black populations fight the battle with boldness and are willing to risk jobs, life, and serenity.
Some are afraid to be too vocal for fear of repercussions of any kind.
Some speak of love as the answer, while others are not willing to demonstrate love until they see some love coming toward them for an extended period, allowing them time to trust the genuineness of those behaviors.
Some vocally and adamantly remind the people in power of their racist and political behavior, demanding change, while others use psychological tactics to try to win over the oppressors.
Some support others in the battle by praying for them; the Bible states that the effective fervent prayer of the righteous avails much, and many in the movement for social justice know how powerful prayer can be.
Some support by caring for the children of those doing the activist work, by cooking meals, or tending to their homes.
There are so many ways to embrace solidarity. The interesting aspect of all these variables and others is that they can all be powerful when combined and strategized.
When we respect one another with how we need to address this battle, we have the propensity to move forward with more peace and less anxiety, individually and collectively, within the Black, Brown, and White populations. When we join together and decide the roles and strategies necessary to make the most impact, and then plan the most effective ways to move forward, and how to utilize and support everyone’s strengths with respect, appreciation, and open-ness, with willingness to compromise and use any means necessary to achieve the goals of dismantling existing racist powers and making sure we know what to do once that happens, we can have the most effective outcomes. Black activist and lawyer Florynce Kennedy remarked, “Don’t agonize, organize. Freedom is like taking a bath: You got to keep doing it every day.”
This important effort must occur in the micro, mezzo, and macro levels of social work and social justice. Anti-Apartheid and human rights activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu declared, “Social justice must be in every reconciliation effort.”
Abolitionist Frederick Douglass remarked, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to, and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them.”
Fannie Lou Hamer was adamant about solidarity. She was an American voting and women’s rights activist, community organizer, and a leader in the civil rights movement. She stated, “When I liberate myself, I liberate others. If you don’t speak out ain’t nobody going to speak out for you.”
We know that speaking out makes many people uncomfortable.
Today, I am here in love and compassion, however, I am not here to make people comfortable. Reconciliation and facing the truth is not a comfortable experience. Giving up power is not comfortable to those who have it. Demanding a shift in power is not comfortable to those who fight for it. It’s not comfortable to see the photographs of my murdered ancestors . . . photographs . . . images of the murders . . . taken by Whites to be used as postcards, and for whatever other reasons they took them. What helps in that regard, is that we have them now; there is the proof long after our beloved ancestors were murdered. We have photographs of the truth: the truth of murders of children, murders of adults, the truth of hatred from one race toward another race, the truth of power at its worst, the truth about racism. How is this reconcilable?
It’s not up to Black people to fix the racism problem, however it is up to us to refute it at every turn in the ways we know how, standing in solidarity. We, as Black people have to continue to step outside what is comfortable to challenge racism every time it rears its ugly head. We do not have to “race-plain,” [RACE-plane] a term I coined to describe when Black people explain to non-Black people the detrimental effects of racism and discrimination on Black populations, with intentions to prove the truth about the adverse realities of racism, and with the goal of shifting erroneous ideologies of non-Black people who deny the existence and traumatic outcomes of racism. So, no, we do not have to race-plain, we simply have to remind the other races of people to go learn, do the research, fix the problem. Research will describe the problem; Black people don’t have to. Dr. King stated, “It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the White people of America believe they have so little to learn.”
Another vital component of embracing antiracism is about self-reflection and individual self-awareness about how one perpetuates racism; about each person making an active commitment to interrupt the system of racism. Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks stated, “To bring about change, you must not be afraid to take the first step. We will fail when we fail to try.”
If it’s something you did or tried before, then it’s not a first step. It’s important to go outside of what is comfortable. It’s time for non-Black people to learn every day and every moment what they must do to shift the power, and they must decide it is worth it to do so. Archbishop Desmond Tutu stated, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
English television and radio presenter and voice-over artist, Clara Amfo, addressing the White population, remarked, “You really want that utopian ideal of what our world could be? You want to be proudly and actively anti-racist more than fearing being called a racist? If so, then do the work, educate yourself and others, stand by us loudly, consistently, forever.” Dr. King, in Where Do We Go From Here wrote, “Whites are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance.” Malcolm X suggested, “Let sincere White individuals find all other White people they can, who feel as they do, and let them form their own all-White groups, to work trying to convert other White people who are thinking and acting so racist. Let sincere Whites go and teach non-violence to White people!”
While that education is happening, the Black population must continue to move forward without hesitation and with clear purpose. We can’t wait for others to educate themselves and we can’t wait for others to give us anything. If I say to someone that I just can’t go on until you give me something, then I give that person the power. Or if I infer that even though I am moving forward, there is something hovering that is causing me dis-ease because I am waiting for something that has to come from someone or some entity, I give them power over my peace.
Let us use the power we do have and have had throughout history, to empower ourselves toward freedom from enslavement, as our ancestors have demonstrated to us in every profession, in every area. We are still achieving, and we will not stop. It makes me wince sometimes when I hear, the first Black to . . . achieve something, in this present age. Wince, because a part of me believes we would have made these “firsts” long ago if we didn’t have the racist knee on our existence; on the same token it makes me proud because it reminds me that throughout history, even with the knee, in the form of nooses, burnings, murders and the like . . . in the face of it all we accomplished great things, we survived, we overcame, we excelled.
If you really take a moment to reflect on the start of slavery in this country and the way Black people evolved, it is phenomenal: the capture and historical imprisonment of the Black race and how that race of people overcame all odds, all the things mentioned in this message and so very much more, and evolved throughout American history to become doctors, nurses, lawyers, educators, ministers and bishops, entrepreneurs, heads of corporations, social workers, therapists, scientists, the President of the United States, the Vice President of the United States, the Black female Justice of the United States Supreme Court, and the list goes on and on and on. And there are many more “firsts” to still make happen, and we will continue to celebrate. The celebration is so joyful because in the face of racism and discrimination, in the face of a history of denial and refusal to share the power, we, the Black people and people of Color, excel anyway because we have a radical refusal of our own: we refuse to allow the refusals of racist systems and individuals to stop us.
The word radical comes from the Latin, radix, meaning root. The roots of racism in this country are compiled of hatred, capitalism, political gain, and greed, and it was radical. It was fierce, constant, unrelenting, and from the root it grew into a mighty and sickening, suffocating entity. To reconcile that entity, it will take every person in this room, those tuned in virtually, every one of us on this campus, this community, the country and globally, to be radical in shifting our thinking from what it has been to what it must be. The work is exhausting; it’s been going on for a very, very long time, and it can seem like it will never end. The world is fatigued with the racism battle. I acknowledge that and know it is a fact. However, we cannot leave it for others to do. Each and every one of us must do the work.
I know, for many, it is important to have action steps for how to do this. The action steps I will give in a few minutes are to promote those initial conversations, but in a different way. I encourage White people to work together because your perspective is different than people of Color so your work must be different. It’s vital to learn all the facts; do your research; talk to one another; plan and implement how to change yourselves and your historical suppression of a people, without referring to your purported privilege, but recognizing it is your Whiteness, and that any unjust systemic benefit of Whiteness is rooted in racism. Black and other people of Color, make the commitment to live in solidarity in the ways that produce your own power, to know what that means and to make a plan to own your power and strengthen it internally. Angela Davis stated, “It’s really important to have life strategies and part of that is knowing where you want to go so you can have a map that helps you to get there . . . the traditional way often does not work for African Americans . . . because what works for the dominant culture often does not work for us.”
You see, when all of us try to come together, without our own ethnic group work, there develops a them-versus-us mentality; there is crying by White people, who feel guilt and shame; and there is passive aggressive tolerance by people of Color, who are tired of the same behaviors and statements. It is also frustrating to think we try to address racism with the same-approach-for-all, even though we have different realities. Within each ethnic group the participants can discuss, freely and openly, thoughts and feelings as they plan for their approaches to dismantle the racist systems and they do not have to be aware of the other ethnic groups and how their reflections might be landing; there is a reality of freedom to “be.” When all the groups, then, come together as a unit they have had the opportunity for deeper reflection, processing, and planning, and they come together offering their work to the whole.
I invite you to close your eyes and imagine, if you will, the Black populations, the White populations, and the populations of people of Color doing their own work in solidarity with one another, within their own ethnic groups . . . coming together with all that power and strength, wisdom and the possibilities with the goal to shake up the racist systems in this country with specific outcomes, with determination, with the commitment to never stop until those goals are realized, until they come to fruition . . . and then imagine all the groups uniting with one another with that combined goal. Imagine you woke up one morning and that was the world you lived in. Now imagine your part in making that a reality. Connect with your responsibility in this vision, see yourself in action. Be in that moment. Explore being there. Notice where you feel this in your body. Breathe. Realize this is the beginning of transformation. Staying in these moments, notice those around you. See yourselves in an interconnected experience. Embrace the energy of others as you notice where you feel that in your body. Consider the possibilities of these interactions . . . yes, consider the possibilities of these interactions. You may open your eyes.
Within each ethnic group and within the overall group when all the ethnic groups come together, I offer these steps for engaging in rational discourse as developed by American sociologist Jack Mezirow in transformative learning, with my related comment immediately following each step. To commit to:
- reaching reasonable agreement by building trust, security, empathy, and solidarity; [this takes time together, listening, sharing, staying in each moment, working through the difficult feelings and thoughts]
- welcoming differences; [your way is not the only way and sometimes not the most effective way, so listen to other perspectives with empathy, i.e., to be in that person’s world; notice any inner feelings of competition or power struggle]
- being open to others’ perspectives/ alternate perspectives; [allow yourself to put your perspective aside for the moments it takes to really be with that other perspective; notice what gets in the way of you committing to that]
- being able to identify commonalities; [be determined to find at least one, but as many as possible]
- reframing; [checking in with yourself to recognize any part that you want to change as you connect with your senses, feelings, willingness; separating your feelings from the commitment to receive what is being said by another person; and determine to create a new positive approach with how to connect with whatever it was that caused you to feel uncomfortable]
- being able to tolerate anxiety in provocative or paradoxical experiences; [make sure you are nourished, well-rested, hydrated, and mindful with intent to be emotionally safe, willing, and open; know the first indication of discomfort within yourself, and have a plan to address it with kindness and understanding; be compassionate of others as they struggle to express themselves or to gain clarity]
- to communicate effectively by having accurate and complete information; [do your homework, research, look beyond your own perspective with willingness to research varied approaches]
- to be free from coercion and distorting self-deception; [refrain from being forceful in your delivery and when sharing ideas, listen more than talk; to thine own self be true, i.e., know your truth and make needed adjustments that lead to open and active listening]
- to be able to weigh evidence and assess arguments objectively; [be prepared with knowledge as well as open-ness; not taking sides, rather looking for commonalities]
- to be able to become critically reflective upon presuppositions and their consequences; [be aware of your body language, facial expressions and non-verbal communication that could promote discord; be aware when you are making assumptions]
- to have equal opportunity to participate (including the chance to challenge, question, refute, and reflect and to hear others do the same); [show the same attention to whoever is speaking and notice if you are pontificating; share the air; be aware of your tone of voice and behaviors that could be perceived as threatening or condescending]
- to be able to accept an informed, objective, and rational consensus as a legitimate test of validity. [be willing to consider the outcomes of the group dynamics, if it is based on knowledge, objectivity, free from coercion, and based on trust and honest reflection; no cliques]
When we decide each day that we have work to do, every day, until we meet our goal of total human rights and social justice, it becomes like an erosion: drip, drip, drip, step by step, bit by bit, we erode the racist behavior of systemic racist power. We are persistent, we will not go away, we will use varied ways to wear them down, bringing ourselves individually and collectively. And while we are being consistent and non-stop with our energy and tactics and fighting the battle, we continue to practice self-care; we alternate our energies and commit to showing up so the energy within the groups is balanced; we trust one another and the varied ways of being in solidarity; we do our homework, research, and come to our groups prepared, knowledgeable, and well-equipped in every way; we respect that our way is not the only way and that others might use their energy in the fight differently than we do, but that it all works together to erode the oppressive systems; we commit to heeding the wisdom, experiences, and insights of one another; we are deliberate and consistent until racist individuals and systems admit their wrong-doings and commit to and implement change towards social justice and human rights. Let us start in our own communities, and for many we have several communities. Let us begin with self- and other-awareness in every moment. Sound like a lot of work? It is work, no doubt. How important is it to you? Remember the words of Nobel Prize winner Desmond Tutu that I mentioned earlier, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” And so, with all of this . . . all of this, I encourage us all to embrace and enhance our amazing selves, recognizing, developing, and living in our power.
Thank you so much for listening. Take a few deep breaths as we transition to discussion. This is not about Q &A, rather your thoughts and commitments to this task I spoke of today. I acknowledge that the short time we set aside today for discussion is not enough time, and I encourage you all to form those groups and begin the work. For now, let’s share some reflection.
“Radical Reconciliation: Shifting Power While Honoring Truth”
Dr. Jacque Tara Washington, 4.29.22