Opinion: Confronting our country’s racist past will help us heal

Stephany Rose Spaulding has helped launch a nationwide project to address the history of racism in this country.

During quarantine, a friend of mine taught herself to sew by making masks with her sons, using fabric printed with African women in traditional wear. As the sewing team got better, they started to share their masks.

My friend put in a call to her church to see if others would help sew masks if she provided the fabric and pattern. A few volunteered, but one white woman sent her a message saying that, after seeing the fabric, she no longer felt comfortable making the masks. Her rationale: The Black Lives Matter movement is divisive and she wanted to promote unity. My friend was shocked — nowhere on the fabric did it say “Black Lives Matter” or “BLM.” It was simply fabric with Black people on it.

Racist actions like this are part of a larger problem: institutionalized and ubiquitous bias against Black, Indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC). This bias can manifest in small ways, like the example above. At its worst, bias allows for scenarios where white people have the power to enact state violence (often in the name of “unity”) on people of color, to placate white systems.

The common adage “you can’t change what you’re unwilling to confront,” is often used for those trying to overcome addiction; but it also applies to America’s racism.

Many countries have established national truth and reconciliation commissions to confront widespread human rights violations. Civil rights activist Rev. Dr. Stephany Rose Spaulding, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church and associate professor of Women’s and Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, is working with Mark Charles, an independent presidential candidate and dual citizen of the United States and the Navajo Nation, to establish the first National Truth and Conciliation Commission.

Spaulding, who has championed this commission since the May death of George Floyd in police custody, says, “The United States as a nation has never done any kind of truth commission to talk about the mass human rights violations… beginning with the genocide of Indigenous people and the enslavement of African people and their descendants, and then codifying through the law racism in our nation.”

In addition to acknowledging this history, Charles and Spaulding advocate for the commission to host an open forum for citizens to articulate their stories of oppression as a form of reckoning. Their use of language is very intentional: to create a collective understanding of the effects of racism. This is why they chose the term ”conciliation” instead of ”reconciliation” for the commission.

[pullquote-1] “‘Reconciliation’ presupposes that there is a place we want to go back to. … There is no moment that we want to go back to. … It has never existed where human rights have not been violated in this country,” she says.

In 1493, the Doctrine of Discovery established a spiritual, political and legal rationalization for colonization and seizure of land not inhabited by Christians. It was used to justify genocide. We have never reconciled this. A history of empty apologies includes a note in the 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Act. Charles says: “Buried on page 45… after pages on the maintenance and operation of the U.S. military, is an official apology to Native American people.” It’s this foundation and these symbolic Band-Aids that have kept racism alive.

If we want to foster an environment that will heal our country from the evils of racism, we need a federal commission to lead it. Spaulding says, “We have to design moving forward — after telling the truth to ourselves — what it is that we want to become and will commit ourselves to becoming in a shared, equitable, inclusive and sacred way.”

Spaulding has launched a website, truthandconciliation.org, where people can take a pledge to commit to dismantling racism and share their stories. If we don’t make this effort, we will never deal with white supremacy. We will just move resources from one white supremacist institution to another, continuing the perpetuation of racialized violence without ever dealing with the ideology that built these racist systems in the first place.