There are times in our lives when we are called to remember the “better angels of our nature.” Those times include our relationships with each other and our conduct as a culture and as a nation. When Abraham Lincoln issued such a call, deep social wounds roiled the nation – as they do now.
The current feeding frenzy surrounding Virginia’s political leadership is caused by two open wounds, racism and sexism. They must be attended to. If we are to listen to our better angels, we will explore how the pain of this moment can be healed and transformed. As Gov. Ralph Northum offers to launch that process we share the following perceptions:
First, sexual assault and racism have much in common. In both cases, insensitivity and an often-unconscious perception of power and privilege are the culprits. Because of their privileged position, offenders anticipate and experience no negative consequences.
Second, racial insensitivity and sexual assault both grow out of unchallenged assumptions – “black men are dangerous,” “women and girls are sexually provocative and available.” In both cases, the perpetrators have been indifferent to the pain they cause.
Finally, open wounds fester and will not heal until attended to. Through the #metoo movement women have openly shared the ongoing trauma they experience from sexual abuse. The Black Lives Matter movement has forced us to look at the deep anguish of mothers and wives whose beloved sons and husbands have been killed by police. Their open pain is affecting all of us.
Gov. Northum has announced that he will not resign, in spite of the calls to do so by many Democrats. Instead, he plans to work with black friends and advisers in developing a statewide educational and consciousness- raising effort to expose and advance the healing of the history of racism in Virginia. As Gov. Northum pursues this as an opportunity for healing and greater understanding, the experience of South Africa serves as a guide. Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu knew that healing from the generations of violence against blacks required those who have caused the pain to exhibit a willingness to truly listen and understand. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has become a global model.
Gov. Northum can also learn from Germany, which went through a similar examination in the late 1970s. Leaders there supported the airing of an American television mini-series focusing on the Holocaust. A panel discussion and call-in comments followed each episode. It was as if a societal lightbulb had gone on, and an entire nation was forced to confront its role in one of the greatest tragedies of human history.
In the early 80s, the U.S. Army and Air Force addressed sexism and racism within its ranks by mandating sensitivity training for all civilian and military members. We both were involved as facilitators in the training and were well aware that this kind of work is highly charged and must be done with compassion and care.
We commend Gov. Northam for not resigning but rather launching a statewide conversation to raise awareness regarding racism and its history in Virginia. There are many groups and individuals who can advise and be engaged in this process, most especially the Come To The Table CTTT group, which just published “The Little Book of Racial Healing.” CTTT is an offshoot of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding in Harrisonburg, which has played a major role in developing and offering healing programs for trauma and racism around the world.
As he begins, we encourage him to remember that there are two deeply painful wounds that have surfaced at this moment: racial insensitivity and sexual abuse. Both can be addressed at this moment.
Finally, we hope that the efforts to transform the pain and chaos in Virginia into a healing moment will serve as a positive example for other states to follow.