Photo Caption: Arnela Ten Meer, Amanda Kemp, Sonja Ahuja and Janet Luongo at the Unitarian Church in Westport, 2017.
A professional, dignified, wealthy and elderly Black friend revealed that when she entered an upscale shop, clerks followed her. Sonja Ahuja had decades of experience building diversity in corporations and she volunteered to co-lead a group, Eliminating Racism, for our largely White congregation of Unitarian Universalists. We met monthly in Westport, Connecticut, where she and a White activist, Dan Iacovella, encouraged our group to discuss our personal experience regarding race and discrimination.
Sonja recommended a Black presenter, Dr. Amanda Kemp, author of Say the Wrong Thing to lead a fascinating workshop at our church. Amanda urged people of diverse backgrounds to talk about difficult things in an honest way. She told us, “To learn, you have to be vulnerable.” Meaning, basically, you have to risk “putting your foot in your mouth.”
Surely the kind-hearted people of our church started out with good intentions, Sonja assured us in her gentle voice. But she educated us about the difference between intention and impact. Many of us, hearing a person speak with an accent, might cheerfully ask, “Where are you from?” We learned that, to our surprise, that question often offends People of Color. She said, “I know your intention is to learn more about other cultures. But, the impact of that question could make Black and Brown folks feel like they didn’t belong in America.” Aha!
We learned we could avoid an unintended impact. We began to understand the class hierarchy in America, and that questions such as, “What do you do?” or “Where do you live?” are often subconscious attempts to uncover socio-economic status. Instead, we learned to ask a new person something pertinent to the present moment, such as, “How is the day going for you?”
Here’s an example of me saying the wrong thing: At a drama produced at our church, Arnela Ten Meer played the only Black role. I was taking tickets, and a Black family appeared. I asked them, in a welcoming way, “Are you here to see Arnela?” They said, no, they were there to see their neighbor, a White man. We laughed at my mistake, an assumption based on race. My question, though, actually did raise an uncomfortable truth, that most neighborhoods in Connecticut are segregated by race.
With Sonja and Dan, our group talked about assumptions we’d picked up from our culture — family, teachers, school, religions, and media. The White clerks in the fancy shops who suspiciously followed Sonja had been taught to believe that Black people are criminal. We were invited to honestly tell our stories, listen in a nonjudgmental way, and free ourselves of false beliefs.
Our ongoing process involves Excavation, Examination and Elimination. First, deep excavation, acknowledging our unconscious biases and beliefs. Second, examination, questioning if our biases are true; if not, we gladly let them go. That brings us to the third step, elimination, freeing our hearts and minds of prejudice and false racist beliefs. In that way, person by person, we aim to eliminate racism, a pernicious cancer in our country.
Our beloved Sonja died of cancer in early May. Dan, though bereft, continued facilitating our group. Just weeks after Sonja’s death, the video went viral of a White policeman publicly choking a handcuffed Black man until he died. Officer Derek Chauvin’s public, blatant disregard for human life could not be excused as self-defense. George Floyd’s death sparked outrage over excessive use of force and protests erupted around the country through spring and summer, 2020. Frequently policemen are not held accountable, but Chauvin was charged with third degree murder and his trial began March 8, 2021. Many Unitarian Universalists joined in the call for police accountability and a bill passed in Connecticut.
I witnessed a police raid at a Memorial Day picnic in the East Village, New York City, and afterwards the Mayor apologized for the excessive use of force. I write about that in my memoir, Rebellion,1967. I write about the Black people I got to know in person: young men afraid of police, volunteering for Civil Rights in ghettos; working mothers glad for meals for their children in Headstart. I worked for Black people: a painter, an activist and a neurosurgeon, and I learned about Black culture from a jazz musician who took me to clubs. Interactions with my Black friends taught me about society and myself. Now, in addition to Eliminating Racism, I’m part of a group that educates White people, SURJ (Showing up for Racial Justice). Black, White and Brown friends and I continue doing the work of healing, by speaking honestly, and listening with compassion to one person at a time.