Rev. Samaya Oakley freely admits to bearing prejudice.
“I actually came out in my congregation and said, ‘I’m a racist,’” the South Fraser Unitarians minister said Friday (April 16), of a statement she made during a service in South Surrey about two years ago.
But in making the declaration, Oakley said, she wasn’t suggesting that her racism was blatant, or even intentional, for that matter. She was simply trying to raise awareness of its prevalence; to open her congregation’s eyes and minds to the fact that racism exists not just around them, but within the majority of people, whether they realize it or not. And, that more needs to be done to change that.
“I was raised that way, we are all raised that way, to look at the world in that filter,” Oakley explained. “We are swimming in a sea of racism and we often don’t see how it affects and informs our viewpoint and how we respond to the world.
“What we have to do is learn how to pull away those filters so that we can actually see things, and we do that by learning what the true history is.”
In an effort to support racial justice, Oakley spearheaded weekly demonstrations that motorists who frequent the 15600-block of 24 Avenue on Saturday afternoons may be familiar with.
Armed with signs that read ‘Black Lives Matter,’ It’s Time to Address Racism,’ ‘Justice for All’ – as well as one with the names of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Jacob Blake; three Black individuals whose deaths at the hands of police in the U.S. last year sparked the BLM movement – Oakley and a handful of congregants have been demonstrating along the busy thoroughfare for the past eight months.
“Last summer… there was one thing after the other,” Oakley said, referring to Taylor’s death in March, Floyd’s in May and Blake’s in August.
“One of the things I was thinking about (was) what can I do? The goal is to bring awareness to the fact that we need to begin to address racial justice, in whatever form it is.”
While response to the initial demonstrations has been largely positive, Oakley said there have been some passersby who have clearly disagreed or felt uncomfortable. Some have made a concerted effort to avoid eye contact, while more than one has given a distinct one-finger wave.
Oakley said the effort has hit home with some of her congregants, including one longtime member who she said described participating in the demonstrations as “the most important thing that he has done with our congregation.”
Smitty Miller, the church’s digital media co-ordinator, noted those who participate do so at their own comfort level.
“People decide what their signs are going to say, what they’re comfortable with, because that’s a big stretch, that’s a big risk to put yourself out there like that,” she said.
It’s not about trying to change the world, she added.
“I think we believe that we need to change ourselves first, because none of us come from a place of complete allyship,” Miller said. “We all have ingrained biases, either the way we were raised or just environment or whatever.
“Many of us would say we’re not racist at all, and yet we do have those ingrained biases, so when we start to look at it (we say), ‘Oooo, I can’t believe I thought of it that way.
“You have to change your way of thinking to be a good ally.”
Participation in the demonstrations is not limited to church members. Oakley and Miller said anyone interested is “absolutely” welcome to join in the hour-long demonstrations that take place, rain or shine, between 1 and 2 p.m.
There is no proselytizing, Miller added.
“You can come here and believe in this and meet us. If you want to know about our beliefs, we’ll be happy to share them with you, but it’s not about that,” she said.
“It’s about sharing in that particular social action.”
Other efforts underway by the faith group to “dismantle systems of white supremacy” and understand what that looks like, include book-club discussions of such titles as Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, and an eye to adopting an eighth guiding principle – Unitarian Universalists currently have seven – around building “a diverse multicultural beloved community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and in our institutions.”
“We’re kind of ahead of the curve ball in that regard,” Oakley noted.
Asked Friday if she still considers herself a racist, Oakley said she does, but “I mean that in the kindest way.”
“I’ve been raised in a culture that values white supremacy, where being white is the preferred norm,” she said.
“I’m on a board of religious educators and I am constantly, constantly learning ways which I tend to favour the dominant way of being, and I’m doing my very, very best to work on myself,” she continued. “It’s part of the reason why I do a lot of education around it, it helps me unlearn patterns within myself.
“That work never ends.”
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