Tell Me The Truth: Exploring The Heart of Cross-Racial Conversations with Shay Stewart-Bouley and Debby Irving

17 Feb

Presenters: Shay Stewart-Bouley and Debby Irving

Last Sunday, I attended Tell Me the Truth: Exploring The Heart of Cross-Racial Conversations at the Glastonbury MLK Community Initiative Center in Glastonbury, Connecticut.

I had been wanting to attend one of these talks for some time now, every time I see Shay Stewart-Bouley or Debby Irving post about them, and was so glad that I could finally make it to this one in Connecticut, while I was there visiting family. Shay Stewart-Bouley is Executive Director of the civil rights organization, Community Change, Inc. in Boston, and a writer, and author of the blog, Black Girl in Maine. Debby Irving, is a racial justice educator and author of the book, Waking Up White.

The talk was held at MLK Community Initiative Center in Glastonbury, a town just outside of Hartford, which I always saw–as a person who grew up in Waterbury, Connecticut, a diverse, industrial town– as one of the state’s wealthier, white suburbs. I looked around in the spacious, light and airy room during the pre-talk reception, while I snacked on delicious food–babaganoush, fatayer, sesame cookies–which Debby said was catered by a local refugee family from Syria.The expectation almost didn’t register on a conscious level, at first, and then did–that the room of what seemed like a few hundred people, was majority white, with probably just under a dozen, Black people, and people of color, in attendance.

But, I was glad that all these white people were willing to come to hear Shay and Debby speak, as I was glad that I was there, too. I had first heard the two women speak about five years ago, when Debby’s book, Waking Up White, her journey of waking up to realizing how the construct of race, racialized systems of oppression, and white privilege, informed her life, and the world around her, and how her journey led her to do racial justice work. When I mentioned my attendance to their past event to Debby and Shay before the talk began, Shay said that that was the very first talk they ever did, and that I would now have the chance to see how the conversation between she and Debby has evolved. I hadn’t thought of that fact, and with Shay’s insight, was even more inspired for what was to come that afternoon.

I was inspired, even though right before I left my sister’s house to go to the talk, I told her I felt a bit nervous about going. She asked me why, and I answered that I supposed it was because I always feel so awkward in social, face-to-face interactions, regardless of the topic, and put pressure on myself at public events to think I have to come up with something deep to say or ask the presenters, which then fills me with anxiety and self-doubt, and so I just stay silent. I added that I want to be doing more in terms of racial justice work and breaking down racism, and feel like I’m not doing enough.

All that ridiculous, loaded, negative self-talk had taken over my brain, which is probably born out of fear of being honest and deep, in the moment when it comes to doing the work of racial justice, and having cross-racial conversations, which was the whole purpose of the afternoon’s talk, and why I wanted to go to it in the first place. My sister, who wanted to go to the talk too, but couldn’t, told me, in so many words, to not be silly–that I’m doing the work, and it will be a good thing to go. I knew that, and so packed myself and my fear into my car, as I always do, and went.

Not having any “good” questions to ask Shay or Debby after our brief chat, I blankly stared and smiled, in all my don’t know what to say next awkwardness, and soon after, both women moved on to get ready for their talk.

I let what Shay said to me simmer as I settled into my seat in the back of the very full, white-walled, mostly white-peopled, space. I took note of how it was indeed pretty cool that I got to see their very first conversation. I made a mental note to pay attention to noticing how the conversation might differ from their first meeting.

What I remember from that first talk, that even though Shay shared about herself, growing up in Chicago in a working-class family, and her work in the non-profit world, this first talk seemed to be more centered and structured like an interview, or review, of Debby and her book, Waking Up White. …” I remember Shay, saying what she thought about the book–that it had the voice of a privileged, white woman, and that it was basic in its framing of understanding the racist systems of oppression, like, the GI Bill, redlining, and inequities in public education, and Debby’s own noticing of her “good white person, white saviorism” traits when working in the arts in what was called, under-served communities of color.

Shay opened up the MLK Center’s conversation, referring back to her first connection with Debby, recalling how, “when I first got a phone message from her, I thought, who is this white woman who had the audacity to reach out to me to read and review her book, and have a conversation with her about it?” Five years later, Shay repeated how she thought Waking Up White is a basic book, but that it is an important, good beginning book for white people to understand, and perhaps begin their journey in understanding the roots of systems of oppression and white privilege in this country.

The two women let us know, their talk is always unscripted–they simply talk about what is on their mind at the moment, and take it from there. Snippets of the conversation that stood out in my memory were Shay’s statement of how when she visits a local bar on the island off of Maine where she currently lives, she listens to people’s conversations, and it strikes her how superficial white people’s conversations can be, especially with all that is going on in the world right now—people talking about the weather, instead of immigration, climate change, or the administration’s racist policies.

This comment made me think of one of the blog posts I wrote several years ago when I noticed all the white people on my Facebook timeline talking about the amount of snow we got instead of the not-guilty verdict in the first trial of the Jordan Davis killing. This was the case where a white man shot into a car of young Black teenage boys at a gas station, killing Jordan, simply because Jordan would not turn down the music blasting from their car stereo when the man yelled at them to turn it down.

Shay also talked about white people having to do their own healing, find their humanity, and of the inhumanity we possess, because, well, how can we not hold inhumane qualities for all the harm and suffering we have inflicted over the centuries on Black and brown people? When I hear these words, I know I experience feelings of shame and guilt, that my white fragility peeks out, but also know the truth of these words, and accept them. That these words are necessary for us to hear, to wrestle with, to believe, so that we can work to recover our humanity. And to think white people came up with the term and its implication, “three-fifths of a man.”

As Shay and Debby talked about their experiences having these conversations, and their individual work and life experiences, Debby noted how she was raised in this Anglo, wasp, tradition to always be nice, to avoid conflict, which made it difficult for her in the beginning of her journey to have conversations about the tensions she was feeling around the construct of race. She and Shay had an honest back and forth about what that meant, and Debby continues to work on this, but knows there will still be missteps. She encouraged white people to not be afraid to have missteps when talking about race. And, jumping ahead here to note a related comment at the Q & A at the end of the conversation, Debby said, “ we don’t enter into relationships with our parents, siblings, aunts, cousins or partners saying, we are going to have this relationship and there will never be any kind of misstep. We wouldn’t do that, right? Well, in having cross racial conversations, we have to remember that, and allow for that. Like any relationship, there is going to be missteps, and having these honest conversations helps to develop trust, and deepens the relationship.”

Shay also talked about the challenges she faced with being a Black woman whose experience includes Executive Director leadership of several non-profit organizations, one in Maine, and as mentioned, presently, at Community Change in Boston. Shay spoke of how at meetings in Portland, Maine, when various non-profit leaders met together to discuss initiatives in the city, that, “whenever I brought up ideas, I was met with lukewarm nods, or ignored, but when a particular white male in the group mentioned the same idea, the group would enthusiastically support him.” Shay said, “But the good thing is, this man noticed this, and became a mentor, and a true ally, in that he worked with me on how to have my ideas heard and put into action with the group.”

After about an hour of dialogue between Shay and Debby, they asked the audience to break out into circles of about six people each and to introduce ourselves and talk about what stood out to us so far about the talk, and anything we wanted to share about our experiences with race. In our circle, which contained a majority of white woman of varying ages, I couldn’t help but notice that several of the women, to me, discounted Shay’s experience of being a Black women not having her voice heard or trusted as a leader in the non-profit management world. The discounting came in the form of sharing that the women thought this wasn’t about race, and was more about being a woman, and shared examples of sexism in the workplace they experienced themselves.

I saw this as dissonance, or a very typical thing that us white people do regarding conversations about race, which is to say something is not necessarily about race, and then give some example of something related to them. In these cases, I always think of someone saying in response to Black Lives Matter, that All Lives Matter. I thought to myself, I have to say something to speak to that, but how do I do it in a way that the women don’t feel called out?

When it was my turn to talk, I shared that I knew of Debby and Shay’s work, had read Debby’s book, and follow Shay’s blog, and am on a journey myself in regards to race, racism and cross-racial connection, which I blog about. I said, “… and in this journey one thing that I have learned is that when a Black person shares something about racism that they experienced, to believe them, and, simply listen, and to not try and think of a similar thing that I may have experienced, but to leave it at that, and so we validate, and don’t invalidate that experience, and/or try and make it about us.” I am not sure it came out exactly like that, and because, like Debby who talks about her wasp upbringing, as a Jewish girl growing up at the same time as Debby, I was taught to be nice, and not to say anything mean, and while my parents taught us that racism was wrong, and that we should “treat everyone equally,” my family did not have difficult, deep conversations about things going on in the world. I worried that I had said something in our circle, in a way that both was a “call-out” and perhaps even showed this air of superiority—that I, this white woman knew more than these two women, and was a better white person because of it, even though I know that I am not. But I knew I had to at least try, to challenge what was being said, even though I want to learn how to say things with grace, as I was also thinking about meeting people where they are at, and saying things in a way that can be heard, and where people will not be hurt. I wondered how Shay and Debby would have handled this.

In the Question and Answer that followed our circle talks, a few questions in, a white woman took the mic, and asked Shay, “Can we get to hear your Black voice?” I did a double-take, and looked at Shay, who seemed to take one, too, and quickly answered back. “Let me think about that,” and then moved on to the next question.

Shay had earlier in the conversation talked about how Black people often have to code switch, and assimilate into white culture and present themselves in such a way that is palatable to white people, especially in the work place, and then when in the presence of only other Black people can relax and truly be themselves. I knew I felt disturbed by this woman’s question, as it seemed like she was asking Shay to put on a show for us. I thought in that moment, that Shay or Debby might respond more fully to that woman’s question, but I, myself, did nothing outwardly to question the question.

A few questions later, though, a Black woman in the audience addressed it. She asked, with patience and grace, “I would like to know if the woman could elaborate on what she meant by that question of Shay sharing her Black voice, because I want to understand what this woman means, where she is coming from.”

The microphone was given back to the woman who asked the question. She seemed a bit nervous as she spoke, but answered, “what I meant was, you talked about always having to think about the way you have to say things at work and other places so that you will be heard, and not seen as the angry Black woman, or something else, and in a similar conversation circle I did recently, a friend of mine, a Black woman told these stories of how she has to worry about her Black son being pulled over by the police and all these things that I never knew about that she was experiencing and went through, and so I wondered about those things for you, what are the thoughts you are having that you don’t say in the company of white people?”

I cannot remember if this happened before the woman answered the other audience member, or after, but Shay said, when she first heard the question “I was taken aback, and wasn’t exactly sure what the woman meant, and wasn’t sure I wanted to answer in that moment, so I moved on.”

At this point, Debby asked to comment, and said that this was a learning moment. To the white woman in the audience, she said, “When we do this work, and we are having these conversations, we say there is this thing called ‘Intention vs. Impact.’ You may have intended to mean one thing, but regardless, the impact it has on the person who it is said to, is what matters, and asking this question may have been taken by Shay, as if she was being asked, as Black people often are, to perform, as in this kind of minstrely way…” I looked over in the direction of the woman who asked the question about intent, and she and several of the people sitting close to her, also people of color, were nodding their heads, and I could hear one of the young people say, “yes, that’s what it sounded like to us..”

Debby went on to say how when this happens we need to validate the experience of the person receiving the statement, and accept their feedback. She added, “ I want to point out that, see, you did a good job just now. You were able to receive my feedback, and not get defensive, and that is a good thing.” She said that she realized, too, that she should have spoken up when the question was asked, and pointing to the Black woman in the audience who asked the question, said, “see, it is always Black women who speak up at these times,” and said that “I have to realize that that’s one of my limitations when this happens.”

I was appreciative of the playing out live of how a situation where intention vs. impact can cause harm, and the responsibility of speaking up and addressing it when it happens in a way that it is honest, and constructive, and as Debby and Shay beckon us, with the very root of their Exploring The Heart of Cross-Racial Conversations–remembering the importance of creating spaces to have these authentic conversations.

In closing, Shay said, “Let’s be bold, let’s be brave. Let’s go deeper. When you’re at the bar, don’t ask about the weather. Let’s talk about racism, climate change…about what’s going on in your community..”
Debby added, “..sometimes people say, well, we need to work on the systems and policies, and, yes we need legislation, but we need this, too.”

They were right. We need this, too. I know I did, and do. It made me realize, too, that afternoon–because there is always so much we take for granted in our daily lives–I realized how Shay and Debby have been a constant in my journey of becoming a more conscious white person who strives to break down racism, most often on a personal level through my writing and conversations with other white people, and with Black people and people of color, too. I realize that while in my writing I can “speak” more fluidly about my feelings and thoughts about matters of race, that I need to practice and put myself out there more in my face-to-face conversations.

In following Shay’s blog, Black Girl In Maine, I get to learn about Shay’s lived experiences, about the perspectives and experiences of the writers featured on her blog, and current issues on matters of race in our country through shared articles from outside the blog. Shay also makes herself vulnerable in her writing, at times sharing about what is going on in her personal life with herself, and family members. She shares slices of life about what she described when once asked why she chose to be a Black woman living on an island off Maine, one of the whitest states of the union, as, “..I’m doing my version of Eat, Pray, Love, Black Woman Style.” While it is not Shay’s job to teach me about race, I am inspired by all that she does, and have deep gratitude for the learning and growth I experience as a result of all the work she does, and gives to me and the many others she reaches and teaches, through her blog, public speaking, and non-profit work to bring about racial justice.

I first met Debby when we were in a writing workshop session together in Boston, probably over ten years ago. There, we discovered that we were both passionate about working on understanding our place in the construct of race, and breaking down racism. Debby was just working on the outline of Waking Up White, and, I am inspired by all that she has done and continues to do with her work since then, as a racial justice educator, and public speaker. At last week’s talk with Shay, I noticed, perhaps a softer Debby. I remember Debby in her first talk, shared openly and confidently about how she initially, as white people tend to do, took up space in a group setting, took the lead, problem-solved, tried to fix things, even in Black spaces, and how during this most recent conversation with Shay, she, and I am not sure how to phrase this, but Debby read as someone who recognizes her privilege as a white woman, and all the other privileges she called out that day, like, cis-gendered, class, able-bodied, etc—and who listens, responds without taking over the conversation, owns her privileges and their historical and current impact, and does not give off the air that she knows everything, or claims status of “good white person,” which she would probably like to hear since one of Debby’s public talks centers on how white people can go from “well-meaning” to well-doing.”

I give major thanks to Shay and Debby for their tireless work in the world, to break down racism, and to build a just world, free of racial inequity. Shay, who noted her relief that she has raised her son to be a “free, Black man,” and Debby, are putting out the call for all of us white people to do the work to heal our inhumanity, to understand our place in the construct of race, for people of different races to come together to have honest cross-racial conversations, and to do the work for all Black people to be free, because in this 21st century, there is still much work to be done.

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