By Bob Gibson
What happens when a city that has lost some ownership and meaning of its own name tries to get it back?
That’s what is happening in Charlottesville these days with groups of residents getting together to reclaim the name and better understand generations of racial history that we share and that divide us.
Charlottesville, the city that became synonymous with modern American racial strife during a white supremacist rally two summers ago, is slowly peeling away layers of silent baggage that hide a common history.
Neighborhood and church groups and small collections of local residents are examining one-sided historical lore to explore social justice and see how well neighbors can listen to each other and build on shared conversations.
What does it mean to be white? What does it mean to be black?
What is white privilege and how does it affect those of us who do not have to think about how our perceived race defines and divides us?
Sometimes tough questions take a while to truthfully answer and require patience and understanding to listen and hear what neighbors are really saying.
Small groups of a dozen or more residents are tackling subjects surrounding racial dominance and subordination, and systemic and internalized racism.
Black residents know far more about white history than white residents do about black history, thanks to popular culture and what is taught in schools.
“I don’t think the average white person knows a lot of black history apart from the civil rights era,” said Toni Barskile, a black woman who moved to Charlottesville from New Jersey in 1979 and runs a local web design/development company.
“Perhaps if they knew more about the contributions made by blacks since slavery, they’d stop looking at blacks as inferior,” said Barskile, one of a dozen members of a citizens group that came out of the city’s Dialogue on Race and is studying how media portrays minority communities.
Some residents are cautiously optimistic about what can be accomplished through local dialogues about race two years after the city gained its current national reputation.
The new meaning of the city’s name was accomplished by violent white supremacist torch bearers in the city and at UVA August 2017 when they chanted anti-Semitic slogans, such as “Jews will not replace us,” terrified black residents and brought death to Heather Heyer and injury to dozens.
“I think local citizen dialogues can help reduce fear and mistrust of the ‘other’ as residents gain more insight into the lives and experiences of people of different cultures, nationalities and classes,” said Barskile, president of ToniBDesign.
“I want local white folks to see themselves as white people instead of just the norm, or the baseline,” she said.
“I want them to understand that if everyone else is a color, that white is a color, too, and not just ‘normal.’ That way if they will associate their lives with their skin color vs. people of color, they might understand why people of color are so pissed off about being treated as ‘less than, ‘different,’ and/or ‘undeserving.’ “
Mixed race dialogues have the potential to build connections between people who might not otherwise talk. These connections can help people of different races see that our history and our current issues can have very different impacts depending on one’s race, said Beverly Wann, who facilitates racial dialogues across the city.
Race very much still matters, said Charlene Green, Charlottesville’s director of the Office of Human Rights. “That’s the part that I think as a society we don’t want to come to grips with, because if we have to admit that it still matters, we have to do something about it, and we all want to say to ourselves, ‘Aren’t we beyond that?’ And we are not. We are not as post-racial as people would have us believe.”
Green is from Cincinnati and sees connections to Charlottesville. Freed slaves were better treated in Ohio than in Virginia before and after the Civil War, including families that lived at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. She thinks Charlottesville will uncover more shared experiences and younger generations can learn to live together with dignity.
“I just want to be heard and respected,” she said. “I try very hard to do that for other people, and I’m greatly appreciative when people do that for me. And I want that for my son. He’s 13, and he’s biracial.”
Green, who is a black woman, and Wann, who is white, both lead these discussions and see more and more white people taking on the responsibility to educate themselves about the truth of America’s, and Charlottesville’s, history.
“When it comes to race, this history is tragic and devastating and difficult to fully face,” Wann said. “I think we as a community and as a nation need to continue to uncover and share about the trauma blacks especially, and natives as well, have experienced over the past 400 years. What happened in 2017 was not new and did not come out of the blue.”
Pam Perugia Marraccini, who has owned small businesses downtown for 20 years, said the only way to understanding and healing is through inclusivity. “Let’s begin that process by telling all the stories of all the people.”
“The period right after the Civil War has been glossed over and needs to be clarified from all perspectives, not from just the white perspective,” Marraccini said.
On a personal note, I was asked several weeks ago to join the city group studying how media portrays minority communities. As a veteran of the news business, I believe that public awareness and discussion of media coverage of communities can help eliminate systemic racism.
Gibson is communications director and senior researcher at the University of Virginia’s Cooper Center for Public Service. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the Cooper Center.