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Confronting racism and racist symbols in Virginia and beyond

March 5, 2020   /   by Anna Stolley Persky

Richmond Mayor Levar M. Stoney said Monday that communities with Confederate monuments need to have blunt conversations about racism.

“Every community has to find their voice in this conversation,” Stoney said. He said communities with Confederate monuments have options in facing their racist history, including providing context, removing them and enacting monuments to African American heroes.

Stoney, Richmond community activist Martha Rollins and former Charlottesville Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy talked about the role that historical symbols, especially Confederate monuments, play as Virginia attempts to engage with its history, address the wounds of racism and construct an accurate narrative of the past. They spoke to a crowd of about 50 people at George Mason University’s Freedom and Learning Forum, which was moderated by Wendi N. Manuel-Scott, associate professor in Mason’s School of Integrative Studies.

Rollins stressed the importance of waking up her fellow white people to the lies they’d been taught growing up.

“I was taught [the Civil War] was the War of Northern Aggression,” said Rollins.

The speakers discussed how Confederate statues were erected to assert white supremacy. Attendees asked about how best to fight racism, ask painful questions and avoid burnout.

Interim President Anne Holton said in opening remarks, “We like to say here at Mason that diversity is our strength. I think we really mean it.”

Holton went on to say that Mason has the opportunity, the need and the responsibility to discuss our differences.

The question of whether to remove Confederate monuments is particularly relevant. Virginia lawmakers in February approved legislation giving cities and counties the autonomy to remove, relocate or alter controversial monuments in public spaces. Both Charlottesville and Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War, have found themselves in the center of debates over what to do with Confederate monuments.

The Freedom and Learning Forum is an interactive dialogue series. The forum was hosted by Mason’s  University Life, Office of the President, and Leadership Education and Development, along with Virginians for Reconciliation.

The speakers also discussed how to stay strong in the face of backlash while forcing discussions about Virginia’s history of racism.

Bellamy said that systemic racism must be confronted, no matter how difficult it can be to do so.

“People will always have something negative to say when you try to make change,” said Bellamy. “You have to develop a thick skin…and a level of resilience.”

Bellamy added: “Just because it is hard, does not mean it is wrong.”