What Does Healing in America Look Like?

Published on September 2, 2020

The 2020 Democratic National Convention featured prominent speakers promoting ideas of equality, liberty and justice.

Vice Presidential nominee Kamala Harris described the U.S. as “a country where we look out for one another, where we rise and fall as one.” She continued on by declaring, “there is no vaccine for racism, but instead work has to be done, as none of us are free until all of us are free.”

But with yet another police shooting of a Black man in Wisconsin making national headlines, the interruption of protests in Portland federal agents, and lingering wait on the arrest of Breonna Taylor’s killers, many are still wondering what it will take to live in the ideal country that its leaders are describing.

In a country divided, many are seeking the answers on how to reconcile differences. The challenge is working through conflicting experiences and ideas on how to bridge the divide growing between citizens.

A Nation to Look Toward

The United States has a history of racial inequality that spans back hundreds of years, but does not end there. From slavery, to the Trail of Tears, to the Chinese Exclusion Act, and now with mass incarceration disproportionately imprisoning Black and Brown people, it is difficult for Americans to envision a country that does not include oppression. While the United States certainly has a unique history, there is another country that had to work through its own sullied past with racism: South Africa.

The South African apartheid was a period of segregation that had lasting effects. Ending in the 1990s, the apartheid’s recent nature has even millennials working through the challenges it presented.

While South African people are still feeling the effects of the apartheid they faced, they have developed some of the tools to help them heal over time.

By utilizing the power of the government to facilitate conversations that encouraged the truths of South Africans, the country has been able to facilitate changes that will improve lives impacted by history. One tool South Africa used to work through the past was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995. This tool placed empathy and leadership at the heart of action.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or TRC, was established by the new government of South Africa to record the stories of atrocities committed during apartheid in order to help the government create actions tailored toward the victims of apartheid to, in-part, offset those injustices.

Addressing the Past

The segregation laws passed in South Africa during apartheid led to a lack of opportunites that drastically impacted South Africans of colour. Generations of Black South Africans are now attempting to reverse the effects of decades of discrimination and poverty that positively benefited white people.

The end of apartheid brought about changes for everyone in the country. White people may have experienced fear that with new opportunities for people of color, their own opportunities may begin to dwindle. People of color in South Africa may have been excited to gain more access to resources, but may not have had in reality access to those resources as they were still dealing with the impacts of long held discrimination.

Although some white South Africans have preferred to wipe their hands of the past and escape the constant conversations around race, initiatives such as the TRC had created a global model that building empathy through listening to stories is a strong method to address present behaviors that are rooted in the past.

Without expending empathy to South African citizens by listening to their realities, and encouraging healing at a micro-level, creating tools for healing at a macro-level would have been impossible.

The Power of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

South Africa created several tools to help bring in a new age after apartheid ended in the 1990s. While the Truth and Reconciliation process was not without its flaws, it was a very important intervention at the time of South Africa’s early democracy.

Created by Nelson Mandela’s administration, the TRC allowed for open communication about the past atrocities. The TRC was open to both victims and perpetrators to provide a forum where people could share details that typically would not be accepted in spaces like a court system.

Because victims were able to air feelings to people in power and to their perpetrators in an unprecedented way, healing became a priority. President Nelson Mandela said that the TRC, “helped us move on from the past to concentrate on the present and the future.”

Often, healing from the wounds of the past is regarded as an individual responsibility. With support from the TRC process, people obtained the opportunity to find proper channels to talk about the past in ways that helped them move on from their anger or sadness.

Creating Justice For All:

The United States can take these lessons from Africa and apply them. Many Americans are carrying pain and resentment with roots from the past that are affecting the quality of life for people of color in the present.

In many ways, America has improved. Americans are living in unprecedented times where people like Kamala Harris are breaking new boundaries. However, the reality for many Black Americans and Americans of color is that this country has not done the work to change on a structural level.

In order to move on from its past, America should use tools like the TRC to address its past and find ways to help its communities heal. Healing through empathy may be its best chance to finally begin the process of correcting racial injustice.

Jesmane Boggenpoel is a Columnist at Grit Daily. She is an author and former Head of Business Engagement for Africa at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. She has served on the boards of various South African and international organizations. She is a Chartered Accountant and holds a Master’s degree from Harvard University’s JFK School of Government. Jesmane is also the author of My Blood Divides and Unites.

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