On racism, dialogue, and healing

by: Mathilda Nassar, Syeda (Fiana) Arbab, Micaiah Palmer, Belén Carriedo

“​History is now. What are you doing​?” – Unknown

This past summer, the four of us, representing all three concentrations within the Master of Global Affairs program, gathered to brainstorm answers to the question “what can we do?”; a question that plagued the United States following the murder of George Floyd. Oftentimes, we look back at significant historical moments such as the Civil Rights Era or other social movements and ask ourselves what we would have done. We believe we would have been at the frontlines of those movements, and we didn’t want to look back on this moment and wish we had done something meaningful. This impetus is what brought us together, with diverse perspectives and approaches, to address this moment and beyond.

In our own words

George Floyd’s murder was traumatic for us on individual and collective levels. This trauma was compounded by COVID-19 and the heightened isolation we all experienced. We came up with the idea of having a healing circle, an idea that came from our recognition of our own need to heal, and out of concern for peers who more recently started grappling with the realities of racial injustice since moving to the United States. We were also deeply concerned about our Black classmates. We did not want them to grieve and navigate the moment alone. Although we previously engaged in theoretical conversations in classes such as Integral Human Development, we felt that we had not only the responsibility, but also the opportunity, to go further.

“We didn’t want to look back on this moment and wish we had done something more meaningful.”

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder we saw our group chat, once a place for silly memes, assignment deadlines, and birthday celebrations, evolve into a space for support, healing, and solidarity. We noticed glimmers of healing, and decided we needed a more organized space to digest our experiences and place in this moment. Thus, the idea for a healing circle was born.

As women of color we experience different faces of marginalization and oppression, particularly through anti-Blackness, racism and colonialism. We were, and continue to be, vulnerable in this moment and sought to strengthen solidarity with our friends. Many of our friends who seek to be allies are also impacted by these structures of oppression. We believe that friendship is most authentic when informed by a knowing and recognition of shared experiences with racism and dehumanization. Through the healing circle, we sought to digest the moment and our experiences of and relationships with racism in a safe and accountable space. We wanted to understand these experiences together and reach a shared understanding. We sought to overcome feelings of powerlessness by reaching out to others, to show radical care for them and ourselves. We also hoped this circle would create momentum for further action.

Creating the circle

Hailing from different countries and backgrounds and each with our own unique experience with racism and colonization, the four of us embodied the intersectional and interdisciplinary approach that we took towards processing these issues in solidarity with each other.

Initially we envisioned this effort as a healing conversation among our peers that would give all participants the opportunity to share thoughts, feelings, and responses to the longstanding and current situation in the US regarding race and police brutality. We hoped that every member of our cohort would join us, as we believed (and still believe) that we would all benefit from this conversation as scholars and as practitioners. In order to ensure maximum participation, we sent a poll to our cohort to find out which day and time would work best for the majority of people.

“As women of color we experience marginalization and oppression. We were, and continue to be, vulnerable in this moment and sought to strengthen solidarity with our friends.”

In determining the strategy for the event, through countless meetings and discussions among the four of us, we decided to rename our healing circle as a “talking circle.” Our rationale was that this conversation was only the beginning of a longer journey through which aspects of healing would be explored individually and collectively.

However, we knew that we did not want this space merely to be a venting session. Rather, we envisioned it as the development of a healing practice, one whose participants understood that racial justice is their problem too. Thus, we sought the help of other scholars, practitioners, and experts, such as Professor Laurie Nathan, Professor Justin DeLeon, Professor Clemens Sedmak, and others. Using their guidance, we constructed the circle as a series of open-ended questions and opportunities for sharing. We considered requesting the Keough School to sanction this circle and mandate participation. We eventually decided against taking this route because we agreed that people are in different phases of engagement with racial justice. We wanted to meet people where they are.

Inside the talking circle

The virtual talking circle began like most Zoom calls. There was the brief silence followed by warm reunions as we virtually reunited with friends after months of isolation. As facilitators, we also felt the quiet relief of seeing more participants trickle onto the call. Our conversation began with a short explanation of the talking circle. We discussed our hopes for the conversation to serve as a collective space for processing the summer, which would ultimately move us towards pursuing racial justice as individuals and as a collective. We asked a series of introductory questions such as “what do you hope to receive from the conversation and what do you hope to bring into the space?”. Some came ready to participate; many came to listen and to learn.

“Our conversation turned towards taking action, and we wrestled with the paradox of valuing both safety and solidarity.”

When the moment was right we dove into our first question: “what was your first experience with race, and how did it make you feel?”. We knew this question was complicated given the diversity of our cohort and our assumption that race was a fairly new concept for many of our international colleagues. As our friends shared their experiences we saw the nuances and complexities of race unfold. Peers discussed experiences ranging from colorism and privilege in the Middle East to sanctioned racial discrimination in the US. These conversations showed us how our awareness of race, privilege, and oppression begins early. Irrespective of our national origin, we are all conditioned to remain silent and accept the status quo. Inequality is reproduced as we are socialized to dehumanize through blind acceptance of wrongs reinforced by our families, our peers, and even our educational institutions.

Our conversation turned towards taking action, and we wrestled with the paradox of valuing both safety and solidarity. One colleague mentioned that true solidarity may require the privileged to willingly sacrifice their safety to stand with the marginalized so that one day we all can experience safety equally. The energy of our conversation transcended the virtual barriers as the comment resonated in the virtual space. Our conversation on safety and solidary revealed the significance of the moment as feelings of community and solidarity materialized in our bodies. Our individual stories became bridges for deepening our connections and commitment to each other. Thus, talking became healing.

Moving forward

To help continue this collaborative endeavor of racial justice, we sought answers from our colleagues who attended the talking circle. A survey afterward indicated that our colleagues were interested in maintaining these conversations. Some suggested different themes of how education can be used to foster or fight against racism, disability rights awareness and promotion, and even learning how to be an effective ally and the essential facts to back up our arguments with naysayers.

Wrapping up the talking circle was difficult for us. We wanted this racial justice initiative to continue, and we wanted this to be more than just dialogue. We knew that we needed to do more than just  continue to “talk” about these things. We need situations to change, improve, transform.

One of the limitations that we know we are up against is that graduate student life is short-lived. Graduate students only remain at Notre Dame for a couple of years. We began brainstorming how we are to embed and sustain this initiative of racial justice. Who is supposed to maintain racial justice movement within the Keough School and the broader Notre Dame system? Most importantly, should the responsibility solely remain with the students?

Diversity, inclusion, and representation are great. But how can we go even further in facilitating change to transform structures that maintain the status quo? We would welcome the implementation of permanent structures or programs on our campus that would ensure continued engagement with transforming racism and systemic dehumanization for students, faculty, and staff. We believe this can best be achieved through spaces where students, staff, and faculty can collectively build a vision for a shared future.