The daughter of the man who led South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission says facing harsh truths and recognizing the humanity of those who are different could help heal racial divides in St. Louis.
Naomi Tutu, who now lives in Nashville, Tenn., led a discussion about reconciliation and racial justice Sunday at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown St. Louis.
Tutu said she started out thinking South Africa’s post-apartheid reconciliation process let people off the hook too easily by offering a clean slate to anyone who fully confessed their crimes.
But as she watched the amnesty hearings, she discovered that telling the truth was more difficult than it seemed.
Naomi Tutu's father is Desmond Tutu, a retired Anglican bishop who was a leading opponent of apartheid, the South African government-sanctioned practice of racial discrimination and segregation that was in effect from 1948 to 1994. The word "apartheid", in the Afrikaans language, means "separateness."
“We saw over and over people coming to apply for amnesty and being unable or unwilling to tell the truth,” Tutu said. “What became very clear for many people who testified was that their families had no idea what their jobs actually were. Their families knew they were police officers but they didn’t know that they were part of death squads.”
“Maybe even more importantly, people had to claim that truth for themselves,” Tutu said, adding that people often excused their actions by saying they were doing what the government told them to do.
“We heard the extent of evil, and the fact that that evil could reside in each and any of us, but we also saw people who were regular people who if you described them now as a hero they would look at you as if ‘what are you talking about?’” Tutu said, describing a mother who forgave the man who killed her son.
“That for me is the lesson of hope from the (Truth and Reconciliation Commission),” Tutu said. “If we can recognize the potential for darkness in each of us and also recognize the potential for light in each of us, then we move through the world in a very different way. We are not so much in a hurry to find scapegoats for what goes wrong in our communities, and more about what is it that we as a community can do to change how we interact with one another, how our community is structured.”
As someone who has lived in South Africa and the United States, Tutu said one lesson from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that can be applied to America is that countries must claim both the good and bad parts of their history.
“As a nation we can’t choose which history we’re going to highlight,” Tutu said, adding that when she taught a class about the black experience at a university in Connecticut she discovered that American students knew very little about slavery.
“I think that often the mistake that is made is to think of history as simply being something that is to make us proud. And if we look at history that is something meant to make us proud than we cannot learn from history,” Tutu said. “We can’t learn from the mistakes of dehumanizing of whole groups of people. We don’t learn from the genocide of Native Americans, forcing Native Americans onto reservations, of slavery, of Jim Crow, of the Japanese internment. If we ignore those things in history then there’s nothing that they can teach us.”
Tutu said that she thinks white Americans sometimes avoid talking about the dark side of history out of guilt and fear.
“I’m not even sure exactly what they expect people of color to do, but I think there is a fear of admitting that racism played a huge historic role and continues to play a role in what happens in our schools, in our justice system, in all manner of places in our society,” Tutu said.
Tutu’s focus on confronting history resonated with audience member Patricia Altemueller of St. Louis. She said she thinks it’s important for her children to fully learn about slavery and other unjust parts of the American experience.
“They know nothing about that separation and that hardship. And now they will grow up into it and whether we’re going to tell them the truth or not is really important to see where they came from and where they’re going,” said Altemueller, who’s African American. “I think we can’t continue to cover up the wound.”
When asked by a white audience member what he can do to further conversation other than acknowledge his white privilege, Tutu said he could talk about injustices when he sees them with people in his social group, and speak up when he sees people being treated unfairly in public.
As an example, Tutu said she would like it if a white shopper backed her up if she questioned why a security guard was following her in a store.
Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.