Restorative practices and restorative justice centers honor, vulnerability and relationships. Through the process, participants learn the importance of relationships, communication, empathy and self-awareness. Restorative practices and restorative justice have been around for centuries, despite what Western culture says.
Restorative practices can be traced back to the people of First Nations and indigenous Africans. The Nguni people spend days in a circle speaking life into a person who has done harm until they are whole (without shame) again.
Restorative practices have been a way of life for many communities of color before its introduction to the U.S. criminal justice system. It has benefits that our current criminal justice system does not, including giving voice to those who have been harmed and those who have done harm.
One thing that must be clear to those eager to use the practice to reform the U.S. criminal justice system: It will not work. Restorative practices can stand without the interference of a punitive culture such as ours in the U.S. The belief that it must be tied to a total institution to provide “fairness” and reduce harm shows how we (the U.S.) have once again failed to listen and see indigenous, black, and brown people.
There has been an enthusiastic push from practitioners, educators and some lawmakers for laws that acknowledge this practice as a way to resolve conflict and hold people accountable without also using a racially just lens. Western society has co-opted this practice without looking at its core, specifically around how we look at black and brown children.
This push is geared toward using the practice to control children and young adults. Much of this desire to control is rooted in anti-blackness and directed toward black children without understanding the conditions that need to exist to keep this practice intact and provide cultural affirmation.
In my time as a practitioner and student of this beautiful process, I see a common mindset: Adults believing this is a tool to teach children “prosocial” (actions deemed acceptable based on white culture) behavior, communication and accountability. Eager to sell a solution to a “problem,” and a promise to deliver a generation of black and brown children with “prosocial” behavior, we have created a culture that does not take the time to explore the circle process and what it actually addresses.
White systemic harm must be repaired first
The circle process meets people where they are, including black and brown children. At the core of this way of being is re-establishing power. This means in the circle (and even outside it), black and brown children are honored and hold the same power as adults. This practice requires a mindset that centers investment in self and others, including care and commitment to all.
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This cannot exist if we are not willing to relinquish power to black and brown children so that they can share their stories. This process must remain intact so that black and brown children can tell us what they need to show up as their best selves. They cannot do that in environments that call on “code-switching” to be deemed human and to be taken into consideration. This process is necessary to save the lives of black and brown children and to provide the change needed.
What should be understood is that this process is not about isolated harm. Those interested in this practice must take a look at their social groups and see what, if any, contribution they have made to institutional and systemic harms and be prepared for how they can show up in and out of circle.
Explicitly speaking, white practitioners, lawmakers and judges must understand and accept that racism, sexism, misogyny, misogynoir (anti-black racist misogyny), ableism, xenophobia, linguistic oppression, curriculum violence, all perpetuate white supremacy. Without discussion or acknowledgement of these oppressive frameworks, they reinforce the harm and negate the true values and character of this practice. When your relationship to a black or brown child is defined by any of these oppressive frameworks, there can be no trust or security, only unchecked violence, leaving black and brown children in pieces.
We cannot continue inserting a practice into total institutions (a closed social system that organizes life with schedules, strict norms and rules such as prisons) without acknowledging the historical violence that has been inflicted upon black and brown families and children, who will be forced into our criminal justice system. And we cannot claim any sort of victory in presenting a false choice between one part of the process (responsive circle/conference) or serving time. When you utilize this process, derived from the cultures of people of color, without providing a counteraction to systems of whiteness it becomes an extension of those systems.
We owe it to our black and brown children and future generations to stop, address our historical harms (the genocide of the people of First Nations, chattel slavery, Jim Crow, the war on drugs, etc.) and implement ways that repair the harm caused. This is the first step to becoming a society that is invested in restoration.
The third step is redefining the use and definition of the words “justice” and “accountability.” White America, regardless of individual political affiliation, has clung to these two words when it comes to people of color, especially African Americans. Justice and accountability from white culture is coded to justify the hypervigilant policing, surveillance and execution of people of color.
White justice is death sentence
Those words have been used to justify the murders of African American children (Aiyana Jones, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown), Native children (Jason Pero, Paul Castaway) and the imprisonment of Hispanic and Latinx children, all of which are direct results of a system designed to exert power, control and deploy other dehumanizing practices on black and brown communities.
To put it quite simply, white America’s version of accountability and justice means a death sentence for black and brown communities, including our children. Restorative practitioners that implement with a racially just lens understand that justice and accountability are more complex because the U.S. criminal justice system is rooted in racism.
With “good” intentions folks have supported this idea of the two without exploring the impact of white culture’s versions of justice and accountability, which has senselessly killed millions of indigenous, black and brown children for generations. It is time we look at the ways communities of color have built relationships and resolved conflict by relying on established relationships, communication, responsibility to one another, honor and sense of belonging before and during the intervention from systems of white supremacy.
White America’s justice and accountability has imprisoned (mentally and physically) our children before they reach an age where impulsive decisions are minor, and can become whole (emotionally intelligent, secure and healthy) adults. We must use our imagination to see this practice beyond its use as a tool of diversion from our criminal justice system, as this only elongates our journey to liberation for all (this includes black girls and women with trans experience).
If we want this practice to survive and become our way of life, we must respect its truth, to redistribute power and provide space for all, including black and brown children, to be seen and heard. We must separate the deed from the doer, understand children are not coming from our homes (we don’t take into consideration their home life and how that can clash with the values, rules and norms of the school or other total institutions) and honor that they have autonomy over themselves in the close if not same manner as adults.
This process invites self-reflection, not the exertion of power and control over those who can be oppressed based on our privileged identities. The process is not just about the circle, it is about the way in which we live our truths and how they connect with our larger communities. To provide better for our black and brown children and forthcoming generations, we must honor this practice for its truth.
We must respect that this process is strong enough to stand on its own, trust that people of color can model justice and be accountable to one another and our youth without the inference of whiteness. We owe black and brown children the honor of being seen and heard. We owe it to the indigenous Africans and other indigenous peoples to honor and follow this process without any addendums rooted in white culture. Because without them, we would not have this practice to decentralize whiteness and provide a holistic way of life for ourselves and our black and brown youth.
Writer’s note: Black, brown and indigenous are lowercase throughout this column in adherence to Associated Press style, which the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange follows. While the column is about the importance of approaching restorative work with a racially just lens, I want to note how white supremacy shows up in journalism. Journalism is neither neutral or exempt from using rules that were created in whiteness without people of color considered.
Barbara Sherrod is a restorative practices specialist with Restorative Response Baltimore and an education consultant specializing in racial justice. She is a first-year doctoral student at Morgan State University studying urban educational leadership.