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Singing for our lives


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An old country song by Dan Hicks has been running through my head: "How Can I Miss You When You Won't Go Away." I have an inverse problem: How can I be a racial justice ally when there are so few people of color in SLO?

A lot of well-intentioned people might ask, "Why is racial justice your problem?"

Look, this is all our problem. Racial divide is baked into our country, into our laws, into our justice and educational systems, into housing opportunities and job discrimination, into voting rights, and into opportunities to generate and accumulate wealth going back centuries. Racism is an illness that affects us all emotionally, psychologically, culturally, socially, and economically. It generates resentment, fear, violence, and hate. Who wants to live with that?

How do we heal, and how can we actively promote inclusion, diversity, and fairness into our community and ourselves? Happily, there are healers, opportunities, and resources available right here.

Essayist James Baldwin wrote, "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced." The first place to confront the legacy of racism is in ourselves. Often, we are unaware of how we're affected by unconscious bias. Rod Richards, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Fellowship of San Luis Obispo, explained that because racism is "in the air we breathe," we often don't recognize how our own actions and words may be biased.

For most of us, self-examination of unconscious bias is a discomfiting process that requires us to be vulnerable and brutally honest. Jozi De Leon, Cal Poly's vice president for diversity and inclusion, wrote:

"The most important racial justice work that we can do is to understand our biases; those aspects that keep us separate from others; and how our own upbringing, fears, discomfort, and baggage keep us from connecting with others. ... In getting to the truth and understanding about ourselves, we can better stand up for others."

"No one is born 'woke,'" noted Kimberly McLaughlin-Smith, diversity specialist at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, who presented an "allyship" workshop at Cal Poly on Nov. 8. Becoming aware of, woke, to systemic injustices and prejudice—even in ourselves—is a process of inquiry and discovery.

"But our lives are intertwined; we need each other," McLaughlin-Smith said, "so it's incumbent on white people, especially, to unpack whiteness and white privilege. Observe yourself, lend knowledge of self to this issue with humility and grace."

DeLeon offered several guides: Blindspot by Mahzarin R. Banaji; Benign Bigotry: The Psychology of Subtle Prejudice by Kristin J. Anderson; Racism without Racists by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva; The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege by Robert Jensen; and Understanding White Privilege: Creating Pathways to Authentic Relationships Across Race by Frances E. Kendall.

To evolve from self-awareness to becoming an ally takes commitment and patience. You've got to be in it "for the long haul," McLaughlin-Smith said, "because it's an army of dragons we're slaying." And that means opening the conversation to include family, friends, neighbors, the community. And you thought you were uncomfortable just confronting yourself!

The UU Fellowship near Broad and South streets encouraged the conversation by raising a Black Lives Matter banner in 2016. It was torn down. They put it up again. It was torn down. So they hired a professional sign maker to permanently attach the banner to their church.

"Some feared the banner would invite anger and perhaps pose a threat," Rev. Richards told me, "but the weight of our times and the legacy of racism made us realize that it was time to reflect, learn, grow.

"To do so, means being willing to let go of defensiveness and denial, and move into a place of discomfort."

UU Fellowship leaders, including Gina Whitaker, Courtney Haile, and board President Jim Woolf, worked in committee to offer space for nonjudgmental reflection, sharing, and empathetic listening. They partnered with R.A.C.E. Matters SLO, which offers workshops, community conversations, POC-centered events, and rapid response to racial and social injustice (see racemattersslo.org).

The UU has also opened racial justice classes to all of SLO. Last year, the year-long theme was "Understanding Whiteness." Starting on Feb. 2, they are offering "Beloved Conversations," a curriculum for exploring the role of race and ethnicity in individual and congregational lives.

Going beyond dinner table conversations, what can we do to promote inclusion and diversify our institutions, and, hopefully, our community? Mayor Heidi Harmon noted at the Cal Poly workshop that San Luis Obispo is the second least diverse city in California. "We actually lose people of color because they don't feel welcome here," she said. "We need to develop actionable items that are meaningful and not just performative."

The SLO City Council is collaborating with the Central Coast Diversity Coalition to generate ideas, such as measures to support businesses that serve a diverse clientele. "We also need to invite people of color to take leadership roles," Harmon said. Newly elected Councilmember Erika Stewart said to Good Morning SLO, "See who's not part of your team, and bring someone else to the table."

Our work and conversations on race in SLO and the nation are far from over. But we can face this issue together. In the words of songwriter Holly Near:

"We are a land of many colors, and we are singing, singing for our lives." Δ

Amy Hewes is actively involved in grassroots political action. Send comments through the editor atclanham@newtimesslo.com.


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