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Pam Marino here. Today was a work day for my colleagues and me at the Weekly, but it was a holiday for some workers to honor Indigenous Peoples’ Day, once commonly celebrated as Columbus Day.

Switching to honoring the first residents of the Americas, and away from honoring a white man who led the way to bringing oppression and death to those first residents, is a small step toward healthy change for us as a society. 

It’s fitting on this day, then, that Pacific Grove’s new five-member Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force is meeting to discuss the recommendation of two potential major changes that meet the town’s racist past head on: A formal apology for the burning of a Chinese Village in 1906 and divesting from the Feast of Lanterns.

The burning of the village and the feast are inextricably linked and rightly so. The feast, which saw white townspeople appropriating aspects of different Asian cultures, began in 1905. (For more on the history of the Feast of Lanterns see this collection of stories from the Weekly from over the past 14 years.)

Cultural appropriation—key word, “appropriation,” to take what is not yours to take—is a way of a dominant culture marginalizing, exploiting and ultimately oppressing a minority culture. It can be done with the dominant culture unaware of the harm, sometimes labeling it a “cultural exchange.” And therein lies the danger: appropriating a minority’s culture creates an atmosphere where more ugly ideas may grow.

There were some very ugly ideas swirling in California in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Anti-Chinese racism was at its height after thousands of Chinese immigrants came to the U.S. as laborers after the Gold Rush, resulting in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. There were other cities in California—Antioch and San Jose are two; both cities recently made formal apologies—where Chinese homes and businesses were burned to the ground years ahead of the incident in P.G. It was a way for the white residents to drive out Chinese residents.

It was in this milieu that P.G.’s Feast of Lanterns was born. The festival took a break when World War I started, and began again in the 1950s. In recent years there’s been a growing sentiment that the Feast of Lanterns must come to an end. Tina Rau, the task force’s first chair, says when people learn about her serving on the task force, the first thing they say is “‘can you please get rid of the racist Feast of Lanterns?’ And it’s not just one or two people,” says Rau. 

Even those who once participated in the feast are ready to put it to rest: Former chair of the Feast of Lanterns board, Kaye Coleman—once a queen of the feast's royal court of princesses—issued a public apology for her participation ahead of tonight’s meeting. 

On the table tonight: A proposal to create an ad hoc committee to study the Feast of Lanterns and suggest possible changes. Rau believes there’s a way the town can keep some of the fun gathering activities in an inclusive atmosphere where everyone feels welcome. 

It’s going to be an extended process, one where everyone in P.G. feels heard, says Rau, who wants as much public participation as possible. “People have said for a long time, ‘I didn’t like it but there was nobody that was listening,’ and I think that’s what’s important for us as a task force, that the community has a place (they) can come talk about things that may not be comfortable.”

This is the right time to have these discussions, Rau says. That P.G. has only recently come through racist incidents by a white Pacific Grove High School student body president, followed by more racism displayed by Salinas High School students, only serves as a painful reminder of why it’s time to stop pushing racism into the shadows. By not talking about it openly we only continue the unhealthy atmosphere that allows hate to proliferate.

Tonight’s proposals also come on the heels of the death of Gerry Low-Sabado, a direct descendent of residents of the Chinese village. Low-Sabado dedicated her life to bringing to light what happened to that village. The task force suggests commemorating the village each March 16, the anniversary of its burning, as well as Low-Sabodo, perhaps combining the anniversary with the Walk of Remembrance that Low-Sabado founded. 

The meeting has a packed agenda and it’s open to the public today at 6pm. You can see the agenda here. The Zoom link is here.

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