By Luke Anderson
Alexandria residents are setting aside their differences to discuss racism’s impact on American lives, from microaggressions to mass shootings.
More than 30 people assembled at Alexandria’s Black History Museum on Sept. 5 to take part in “Meaningful Conversations About Racism.” The meeting, hosted by the Bahá’í community of Alexandria, was the first in a series of monthly round table discussions designed to explore the causes of racism and how to end it.
The Sept. 5 meeting’s central question, “What can we learn from El Paso?,” referenced the racially charged shooting that took place at a Texas Walmart in August.
The two-hour discussion was moderated by Selena Orona, secretary of the governing board of the Alexandria Bahá’í Community, and the Rev. Quardricos Driskell, pastor of Beulah Baptist Church in Alexandria and a professor at George Washington University. Although they align with different faiths, both have previously participated in discussion groups interested in eliminating racism.
Orona and Driskell said that it is essential to work together to challenge racism and make Alexandria a more diverse and welcoming place, especially as it struggles to overcome a historically racist past, having been the site of sit-ins and lynchings in the early 1900s. Participants in this month’s discussion agreed that “domestic racial terrorism” is not new to the United States, but rather deeply rooted in its history.
According to Orona, conversations like this are necessary to achieve a “oneness of humanity,” a core principle of the Bahá’í faith. Nearly a year ago, she and a few others started meeting at a local coffee shop once a month for informal talks on racism. At the same time, Driskell and members of his congregation were having similar conversations in the basement of their church. When the two groups became aware of their shared concerns, they decided to merge together and open the discussion up to the community.
The meetings were designed to create a dialogue, but they also offer an opportunity to strategize solutions.
Orona urged the community to consider all viewpoints regarding the “epidemic of racism that is deep in our country and in our psyche.” She stressed the importance of “going with an open heart,” rather than trying to change others’ perspectives.
“We don’t just want mere conversations,” Orona said. “We want to start putting these conversations into action.”
Mayor Justin Wilson was present during the discussion to listen in on the concerns and ideas being voiced. A D.C. native, he is the son of a black father and white mother. Even in the ‘70s and ‘80s, he said, interracial marriage was considered taboo, and his biraciality set him apart from his peers.
Eradicating racism is something Wilson said he is actively striving for as a policy maker. Five days after “Meaningful Conversations About Racism,” city council voted in favor of renaming Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
When asked if the conversation on racism had any role in this decision, Wilson said, “I was always inclined to support that change. I do think that is one small, but symbolic way of breaking [racism] down.”
The renaming came about a year after council’s unanimous vote to change Jefferson Davis Highway, named after the Confederate president, to Richmond Highway. City council is also having conversations on what to do about the Appomattox statue at the intersection of Washington and Prince streets, Wilson said.
One participant at the Sept. 5 discussion expressed disappointment in the educational system’s one-sided teachings and its failure to properly acknowledge the shameful parts of American history. She said she was particularly frustrated with how the story of Christopher Columbus is handled and that lesson plans turn his exploration into a celebration, ignoring the traumatic effects it had on Native Americans.
“Monochromatic history has always been a struggle for us,” Wilson said.
Wilson added that he intends to focus on addressing institutional racism, such as the wealth gap and housing challenges for people of color.
“What we are experiencing in this country is fear, whether it is grounded in reality or myth, this fear of the other,” Driskell said. “Whoever the other might be, we are often apprehensive about getting to know someone who’s different. We often unconsciously – sometimes consciously – harbor these biases and prejudices that we are not aware of.”
The discussion leaders challenged participants to recognize prejudices within themselves and initiate conversations about racism with family, friends and neighbors. In this way, organizers hope that change will be activated on an interpersonal level, they said.
The “Meaningful Conversations About Racism” discussion series is open to the public, including those who missed the first session. Each month’s session targets a different aspect of racism and can be experienced independently from the others. The next meeting will take place on Oct. 10 at 7 p.m. and will focus on stereotypes and microaggressions.
Luke Anderson is a freelance writer in Alexandria. He can be reached at [email protected]