A Question from Vietnam

A young friend in Vietnam, who is reading Trustbuilding, emailed me this question: “Why is reconciliation and trustbuilding important for a ‘superior’ (by this he means dominant) community?’”

My friend’s important question arose from observing the peacebuilding process between Cambodia and Vietnam. He says young Vietnamese “do not have a complete picture of the interrelationship in terms of historical and social context and do not feel reconciliation or peacebuilding is needed.

Instead, the focus is on economic growth. He notes a similar pattern in the relationship between the dominant Kinh ethnic group which represents approximately 85 percent of Vietnamese belong and the other ethnic communities who feel threatened on cultural and social issues: “As a Kinh, I was not aware of this until I could hear the stories. In fact, what happens does not affect my life at all.

Here are my initial thoughts: Across the globe, we see that the generational transfer of trauma caused by unacknowledged and unhealed pain, humiliation, and injustice can become sources of unending conflict and destruction.

 Also, in every broken relationship where there is a superior/dominant group and a minority/victimized group, both sides suffer. Both the dominant group and the minority group are wounded, although the wound is much more obvious to the injured party.

Margaret Smith writes in Reckoning with the Past, that the way memory is handled in society will always be an indicator of power relationships. Since history (e.g. the way history is taught is schools) is generally controlled by the dominant group, an honest, critical, and inclusive telling of past events is fundamental to any process of community reconciliation.

Following America’s 1845 annexation of Texas, U.S. troops conquered the Mexican territories of New Mexico and California and captured Mexico City, forcing the sale of Mexico’s northern territories. Americans refer to this conflict as the Mexican-American War or Mexican War. In Mexico it is known as (primera) intervención estadounidense en México ((first) American intervention in Mexico), or invasión estadounidense de México (American invasion of Mexico). The average American’s lack of full historical appreciation continues to impact our relationship with Mexico and distorts how we respond to such important current issues as immigration.

A dominant group may carry conscious or unconscious guilt or fear. There is denial in the dominant group because it fears blame or retribution. One of the reasons why white Americans avoid conversation about race relations and particularly the question of a formal apology for slavery is the fear that apology will lead to a demand for reparations.

Our society is structured so that many white Americans can live their lives insulated from making decisions based on conscious racial feelings. We have built economic, intellectual, and emotional walls to protect us from our deepest fears.

But the very separateness of our lives is deeply damaging to the national psyche. In 2001, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran two full-page editorials, calling for a national conversation on reparations and a “three-step process of acknowledgment, atonement, and reconciliation.” Such a process, said the editors, would help America address a long-delayed moral task and would be spiritually satisfying.

We are still waiting for that conversation.

My Vietnamese friend is right: We need to hear each other’s stories. The work of reconciliation and trustbuilding is important for both sides. I will return to this question in my next bog. And I welcome insights and comments from readers.