The Seattle chapter of the national Japanese American Citizens League does not shy away from difficult issues, and one of JACL’s ongoing efforts is their Mixed Race Seattle series. In September, this series will feature a session on BIPOC Navigating Relationships with White Loved Ones, led by Gerry Ebalaroza-Tunnell, who is the executive director of Co3 Consulting: Co-Creating Cohesive Communities.
Ebalaroza-Tunnell is also the director of equity for the Mukilteo School District, as well as a doctoral candidate at the California Institute of Integral Studies. She identifies as a Mixed Race Hawaiian/Asian/Pacific Islander woman, married to a white man, and believes that this lived experience combines with professional and ancestral knowledge of AloHā to help her guide others.
Ebalaroza-Tunnell was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii. “AloHā is a way of life on the islands,” she said. “We breathe it. We share it. We inhabit it.”
That spirit has always been with her, she recalls, which led her to focus on the concept academically as well. “Many Hawaiians were not permitted to speak their language during the strict religious confinement of Hawaii’s colonization,” Ebalaroza-Tunnell said. “So, when the word Aloha was first written, the etymology of the word was lost.”
But that didn’t stop Hawaiians from resisting. “Since American colonialism first came to the island, there have been efforts to recapture and hold onto the language,” Ebalaroza-Tunnell reported. “I discovered that the traditional spelling of the word Aloha was hiding an ancient meaning.”
She believes this earlier understanding can help build greater connections today. “Aloha is directed from two words in the Hawaiian language,” she said. “Alo means forward-facing and Hā meaning breath of life.”
For Ebalaroza-Tunnell, AloHā is an active engagement. “When we sit face-to-face (Alo-forward facing or front) and engage in deep listening and sharing of our stories, we transfer knowledge to one another through our collective dialogue,” she described. “As we speak, we are ‘breathing’ (Hā breath) these words into existence and creating a new understanding of the world around us.”
As a proponent of equity, Ebalaroza-Tunnell is always seeking ways to build relationships, including her own with her spouse. “The tricky part of being a multi-ethnic couple is that we each experienced racism from two different sides,” she said. “For my husband and I, when we learned how to be courageously truthful with each other, we found that our differences helped broaden our perspective of the world and honored how we each navigate it.”
Through the practice of AloHā at home, Ebalaroza-Tunnell reports that both partners have made discoveries worth sharing with the broader community. “He understands that being a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual male, he will never have first-hand experience being discriminated against because of his race,” she said of her spouse. “I learned that communication, agreement, and true partnership are vital to ensuring that our racial and cultural differences would not cause our marriage to fail.”
Ebalaroza-Tunnell seeks especially to help Black, Indigenous and People of Color enjoy life-giving relationships with the white people in their lives. “In this evolutionary prescription, the word Alo Hā translates to mean ‘sharing the breath of life through face-to-face dialogue,’” she said. “This is Alo Hā, the philosophical foundation in which I engage ideas, resolve conflicts, debate with others, gather stories, and search for ways to live harmoniously.”
The two-hour online session will include a presentation, as well as small-group discussion. “Deep listening and sharing are, in essence, sharing of our breath,” Ebalaroza-Tunnell said. “This is the only authentic way for strangers and community members of different ethnicities, backgrounds, privileges to find a connection, through breath.”
This purposeful breath is intended to replace another more insidious air. “White supremacy is the social system that we all live and breathe,” she said. “It is designed to remove us from our humanity and see everyone else as ‘other.’”
Ebalaroza-Tunnell describes a kind of social suffocation that occurs in a racist society. “In the era of ‘I Can’t Breathe,’ COVID-19, systemic and individual racism, bias, systems of oppression, and the intolerance towards members of specific cultural groups that are different from the homogenous dominant culture in the U.S.,” she elaborated, “has led to exclusion, discrimination, and ‘othering’ all existing elements in our society that is literally taking our breath away.”
Or, she claims, promoting violence. “When we are upset, we begin to spew out words that we cannot take back,” she cautioned. “Taking a few minutes to become present through following the flow of breath is a simple practice that has been at the heart of meditation for centuries, which can be done anywhere at any moment, better this moment of centering self than numerous moments of regret and apology.”
Ebalaroza-Tunnell utilizes research showing that more than 90 percent of human communication is body language. “The framework of Alo Hā can create space to integrate philosophies from both Eurocentric and Indigenous cultures and develop shared humanity of practices for harmonious living,” she said. “When engaging in conversation with one another and observing ourselves and the body language of all parties with grace, acceptance and adaptability, the method of deep listening brings us to a clear understanding of just how much we are interconnected to one another.”
Her goal for the workshop is for participants to learn how to engage in dialogue through AloHā. “When we are in each other’s presence, we can experience each other’s reactions, see each other’s facial expressions, hear each other’s tone of voice and work towards fully understanding each other,” she said. “This could help us treat each other a little differently.”
BIPOC Navigating Relationships with White Loved Ones takes place on September 18, 10am, online via Zoom. Registration at https://bit.ly/2RQOcot.