America’s Identity Crisis

Race and reconciliation lessons from a Black international peace builder

Demonstrators hold signs as they take part in a Juneteenth march and rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on June 19.
Demonstrators hold signs as they take part in a Juneteenth march and rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on June 19. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

“Perhaps you were made for such a time as this,” Mordecai appeals to Esther, the Jewish queen who would save her people from genocide, in the Book of Esther. Perhaps we all are.

I’m a Black international peace builder living in southern Oregon—the “Bible Belt” of one of the whitest states in the United States. I was born here, a Black biracial child to a single mom. I was raised by a loving white family, attended a white school and a white church in a white town. But back then, it wasn’t called “white”— it was called “American.”

There’s pride in this identity. To me, it meant strong and free. “America’s the greatest country on earth,” I heard so many times. And I believed it wholeheartedly. At the time, the slogan didn’t feel like supremacy—it felt like regard, the type you feel when someone in your family, a parent or even a child, accomplishes something spectacular and you get to claim it by proximity. It is a protective pride.

At the same time, though, the world saw me as Black, and I got the sense that there was something bad about that. My mom got more looks of scorn than normally reserved for single moms. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized how hard I tried to fit into “white America”—to be the best at everything to prove I belonged. I learned pieces of history that were left out of my history classes, including Black codes, redlining, lynchings, and Jim Crow.

Eventually, the dissonance between my values and an identity I’ve always held dear forced an evolution—a painful one rife with resistance and mistakes, but a necessary one.

The United States is now having an identity crisis of its own. There are skeletons in the closets of every room in the American house—every aspect of the country’s history, culture, governance, wealth, education, and power. The problem is systemwide, but to talk of racism in “the system” is to let individuals off the hook. The system is made up of people, individuals who make choices based on their values and feelings—on whom they believe themselves to be.

That question of identity—both personal and cultural—is not unique to the United States.

For the past seven years, I have worked for Search for Common Ground, the world’s largest peace-building organization. Their local peace builders tackle everything from reconciliation after genocide to countering violent extremism to the prevention of mass atrocities. It is the idea from Zechariah made real: “For they will sow in peace: the vine will yield its fruit, the land will yield its produce, the sky will yield its dew.”

 Instead of branding—which is top-down, where the brander inscribes an identity on the recipient—social change communication is more like tattooing.

Peace building is all about the process of dealing with conflict—about attacking the problem instead of the person and empowering opposing groups to focus on shared goals and interests instead of their separate positions. The first thing people do in conflict is demonize the “other,” so we start by helping each side identify the other’s common humanity. To that end, in travels to Armenia, Burundi, Colombia, Indonesia, Jordan, Myanmar, Nigeria, and Thailand, training in storytelling and strategic messaging has been invaluable for shifting people’s attitudes and behaviors.

Over the years, I’ve developed a methodology for this training I call the “tattoo method,” which is about tapping into your audience’s identity. Instead of branding—which is top-down, where the brander inscribes an identity on the recipient—social change communication is more like tattooing. The recipient sees something they identify with and claims it as their own. The tattoo artist doesn’t sit down and say: “I’m going to give you a dove today.” It is a collaborative process with the artist and customer. After that, the customer shows off “my tattoo” to friends and family. They own it. It represents them. And that is how we should make powerful messages and stories around social issues.

To that end, in 2016, I walked the streets of Yangon, Myanmar, looking at makeshift homes carved out of a dilapidated colonial building. The country had just dissolved its military rule five years prior, and its citizens felt an optimistic freedom.

For the first time, they could choose who they wanted to be—but it’s not that easy. There are 135 different ethnicities in Myanmar. Who belongs? Who doesn’t? It isn’t a trivial question, as the ongoing genocide of the Rohingya shows. Being rejected from a society based on your identity could mean life or death.

The Search Myanmar office was launching a TV soap opera, The Team, about a soccer team with players of all different ethnicities, including the first-ever Muslim character portrayed positively in a national broadcast. The staff kept talking about the importance of social cohesion. But people don’t watch a soap opera to learn about “social cohesion”—they’re there for the drama. So instead, we came up with taglines such as: “It’s their last chance for greatness. Will they put aside their differences or will it destroy them?” and “There’s more than a game on the line.” We needed the audience to feel like this was their show.

A few years later, I was in Colombia doing “tattoo” training for some government officers, media, and community organizers. I was there to help them with the post-reconciliation process. They were trying to sell “reconciliation” to the population in the same way some Americans are trying to sell “racial justice” and fix “systemic racism.”

The people weren’t buying it. After five decades of violent conflict, they were promised a say in the final peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in the form of a referendum on the deal. But to the surprise of then-President Juan Manuel Santos, the vote did not pass. The government made some changes to the agreement and passed it unilaterally in 2016. Many in the public resented it, causing tensions to once again rise.

I led an exercise with the group to move them away from using the then-politicized words “reconciliation” and “peace.” They created and interviewed imaginary—but realistic—citizens. One profile, named “Mercy,” was an Afro-Colombian single mom, age 18, who worked at a fruit stand. I asked the officials what Mercy cared about most. After some in-depth thought and conversation, they agreed that it was power; Mercy felt very powerless in her situation. I then asked them what represents “power” to Mercy. They debated, throwing around symbols like money and cars, until someone said, “I think eye contact represents power to Mercy. She goes through her days feeling invisible. No one even looks her in the eye.”

They had their campaign: “Mirame a los ojos” or “Look me in the eyes.” Eye contact was a symbol of respect in Colombian culture. But after years of conflict, it was missing from everyday interactions. This campaign didn’t accuse or shame; it was a call for dignity.

The campaign spoke to a shared Colombian cultural identity. It spoke to what reconciliation would truly mean—rebuilding trust and being seen.

I can relate to that. I believe most of us can.

Fast forward to 2020, and I’m trying to apply my peace-building experience to an innovative project for empowering American youth to handle conflict constructively.

I’m once again living in my very white hometown with my Black husband and Black kids when George Floyd is killed.

The first few days, all I felt was my own sorrow and rage. I did not feel peaceful. Like many in the Black community, I was grieving. I had long known that reconciliation requires the acknowledgment of pain and wrongdoing. But now I felt it.

We—I, the Black community, America—cannot move forward until post-slavery oppression is acknowledged, until our peers can say that Black lives matter just as much as anyone else’s. To give credit where credit is due, so many people across the country have done just that. But why does it seem so hard for other Americans to do the same?

It comes down to identity.

What they hear does not match up with the America they know, the one they associate so closely with. All these attacks on the “racist system,” “white privilege,” “white power,” and police, who are supposed to be respected, feel personal.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been meeting with white conservatives in my town. Some I know well; some I don’t know at all. But I share a common value with them: my faith. In that way, I’m made for this. I’m a southern Oregon girl, I go to church, and I’m Black.

When I’m sitting across from them, my goal is not to debate or defeat them. I need them to see me. To see my family and what my kids face if things do not change. I need them as an ally, and attacking their identity won’t get me there. There are beautiful parts of their identity and an understanding of the Christian teaching to “give justice to the poor and the orphan; uphold the rights of the oppressed.” That’s what I lean into. For the Marine, it was the desire to protect others. For the elder at church, it was the belief that we’re all children of God. For the mother, it was maternal love.

All the information in the world might not change their minds and behavior. But new experiences and connections with those they once believed were too different from them could. I can’t have coffee with everyone, of course, which is why I’m making an interactive story game, where young people can practice what to do in conflict situations. It’s designed to build confidence and reframe them as a hero in the narrative—someone who stands up for others and attacks the problem, not the person.

The United States needs heroes. Heroes who see themselves as protectors and champions of the vulnerable and unrepresented. It needs fewer zero-sum games and more win-win strategies, more collaboration and constructive dialogue. In other words, more peace building.

The United States can still be the land of the free and brave. Freedom is the opportunity to discover what’s right by yourself instead of being told what to believe. Bravery is standing up for the oppressed even if it puts a target on your back. The United States of the free and the brave can be our America, and we can hold pride in the values that bind us.

Jessica Murrey is CEO/co-founder of W!CKED SAiNTS Studios. She is the creator behind W!CKED SAiNTS’ “Pathways,” the interactive story game where youth can play a hero and then become a hero. It’s now live on Kickstarter. Jessica often still acts as a social change communication consultant for Search for Common Ground. Twitter: @jessicamurrey

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