Prior to the displays of hatred and the tragic loss of Heather Heyer, a young woman who seemingly embraced the virtues of healing, a transformation was taking place in Charlottesville, Virginia. This college town, where roughly 80 percent of the residents are white, culminated a lawful process in February when its City Council voted to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee from a city park.
Passionate acts came from opposing sides, as opponents filed suit to stop the removal and the city changed the name of Lee Park to Emancipation Park. But there was honest dialogue and truth-telling, the ingredients for healing. Neighbors learned more about one another, their culture and motivations. But the progress was derailed.
The protesters who converged in Charlottesville were largely white men often perceived as privileged in our society, and among their slogans was “We will not be replaced” by immigrants, blacks, Jews, or homosexuals. Instead of feeling empowered, they were threatened and seemed in pain. Their hearts and minds needed healing.
However, racial healing doesn’t begin until you intentionally, respectfully and patiently uncover shared truths, as Charlottesville residents had begun to do before the violence and turmoil. Shared truths are not simply the removal of physical symbols, like monuments.
While it may begin to change narratives, it doesn’t reach the level of healing that jettisons racism from the land or creates equitable communities. Racism has persevered because remedies ranging from public accommodation laws to Supreme Court rulings are limited in scope and reach: They fail to change hearts and minds.
A new approach is needed that penetrates the full consciousness of our society, draws in all communities and focuses on racial healing and truth-telling.
Racial healing can facilitate trust and authentic relationships that bridge vast divides created by race, religion, ethnicity and economic status. Once the truths are shared, racism is acknowledged and hearts begin to mend, only then will communities begin to heal the wounds of the past and together move forward to address the bias in employment, education, housing and health that causes widespread disparities, and denies opportunities to our children.
To be sure, racial healing is predicated not just on an emotional encounter, such as saying, ’you’re sorry,’ rather it’s predicated on a truth-telling— but whose truth? We all have our own truth and we need collective conversations to help us in reaching a common truth and a vision for the future, based on what we decide together.
And while sharing each of our individual truths requires sharing stories, reaching a common truth is more than a blending of stories. It’s about co-creating a common set of morals, principles, wisdom and guidance that is written on our hearts, captured in our faith and in how we treat each other as human beings. It is developed by all of us in the courtyard, in town halls, in living rooms with family and neighbors, all in the crucible of human goodness. That’s where we develop “the” truth.
At the W. K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF), we promote racial healing because it moves people to act from their hearts. Real change happens when people work together and build relationships. Rarely does it occur when it is forced upon communities by laws and rulings. Last January, WKKF coordinated an annual National Day of Racial Healing, which inspired civic, religious, community and philanthropic organizations to collaborate on activities to facilitate racial healing. But we can’t wait until next January to embrace racial healing.