Tag Archives: white privilege

It’s Okay To Be Quiet, AND Keep “Doing the Work” Every Day Of Our Lives

27 Jan

Happy 2023!

I know I’ve been quiet here on the blog–very quiet in 2022. I only wrote two pieces, far fewer than the past ten years I’ve been writing entries on Wendy Jane’s Soul Shake.

Reflection

And there is a reason, well, there are many reasons why, and initially I wasn’t aware of all of them. At first, my conscious thoughts were things like, what else can I say that I haven’t already said, and, who needs to keep hearing from this white woman. There were thoughts I had about needing to overhaul the blog, tech-wise. The outdated, clunky theme doesn’t always work properly. There were thoughts about changing up the content. I figured if I was tired of hearing just myself talk about whiteness, I should bring in other voices. A friend, who is Black, suggested I be in conversation with other white people on the blog, to hear from others on how they experience their whiteness, and where they see themselves in the work of transforming white supremacy culture and systems of oppression into a future that is free, and equitable for all of us.

There was also the realization of how prevalent it was for me, and many white folks, especially in the last two years, to post on social media about our outrage about racism, about the fact that Black Lives Matter, and how we all urgently wanted to fight for what is right. And then there was the real feedback from some Black people, and Indigenous people, and people of color, who showed us how much of this is performative. It showed us how we post about our outrage, put a sign in our front yards, and still go about our day-to-day lives upholding our white privilege and power, and not changing a thing in terms of shifting that power in all areas of our lives–where we live, where our kids get to go to school, who gets what job, whose doctor believes their patients know their bodies, who gets sicker and dies during the pandemic, who dies more giving birth, who feels they belong in workplace culture, whose ideas matter, who gets to build wealth, and on and on.

Some of these reasons, I know, were ways for me to make excuses, deflect, and find ways to feel comfortable in my own discomfort around being a white woman who wants to be part of the collective “doing the work” of transmuting white supremacy culture. Transmuting, or changing in form, nature or substance, is a term that Diedra Barber and Maureen Benson, co-hosts of the podcast, Eyes on Whiteness, and co-directors of Transmuting White Supremacy Culture and Patriarchy use, to teach how through the cultivation of intersectional leadership, “a foundational (and daily) practice of introspection, self-awareness, intersectional inquiry, transparency, vulnerability, and invoking collectivism,” we can intentionally shift the culture from white supremacy and patriarchy, toward a collective way of being that reduces harm to all, and builds a just future that goes far beyond “diversity and inclusion” efforts.

My discomfort, I know, shows up in a number of ways. It can be the anxiety that still comes with speaking up about racism within a group, whether at my work at the hospital when a co-worker says something racist, or shows ignorance toward culturally responsive care, or, within my friends group. I know in my heart and my brain, that it is far more important to me to speak up and address racism, than to worry about the conflict that may arise, or the way other white people are going to see me. The majority of the time, I do say what I believe needs to be said. The anxiety is still there when I say it, and so is the good old tinge of white supremacy culture worry that the words coming out of my mouth won’t sound smooth and perfect. The other discomfort is worrying about whether I should step back. For example, I worry if I’m writing or talking about matters of race that should be said by Black people, and not me. And, like all “good, white people, ” I worry about slipping up and causing harm to Black people. Again, I know this is all part of the process, By the virtue of living as a white person, I am going to cause harm. I am going to say and do things that cause harm to Black people, and I have to acknowledge that, take responsibility for my actions, apologize, correct course, and move forward. I know I have messed up this year, and caused harm to Black people in this past year, either in word or deed, or in omission of word or deed.

On Being Quiet

The other reason, which I wasn’t initially aware of during this past year, is that it’s okay to be quiet–as long as I/we, are still being a part of the work to shift culture. I may not share my outrage as much on social media, or post all the events I’ve taken part in–all the things I’m doing behind the scenes, even though in a minute here, I am going to be letting you know what I’ve been up to! It’s okay to sit in reflection, allow your self-awareness to grow, to absorb life, and know “next-steps” will come to you, and you will still be a part of the work. The ‘being quiet’ part reminds me of a phone conversation I had last spring with community activist, youth leader, non-profit director, Pilar McCloud.

I was yet another white person reaching out to Pilar, a Black woman, to talk about racial justice–in this case, to inquire how the local Jewish Temple whose Racial Justice Committee I was involved with, could better connect with people in the Black community in Providence. I’ve known Pilar for a number of years now, since I moved to Providence, and admire her greatly for her passionate commitment to serving the Black community in Providence, and beyond. Pilar fights for what’s right in public education, housing, employment, public safety, and tells it like it is to us white folks who sure need, not only to hear it, but to do something about it. And yet, for so many Black women, we white folks will admire them, and talk about how strong, how brilliant, how resilient, how tireless they are, but not see them as human beings who deserve rest, who shouldn’t have to carry the burden of doing all this work, and who should be paid for their labor, whether being asked to speak at an event, or being invited “to connect” and share their knowledge of racism and the impact of white supremacy on the Black community, and then, still be asked to tell us what we can do to “help.”

In our phone conversation, Pilar, talked about how fighting for justice is not just showing up at the State House for a rally, holding up signs, and posting on social media. I remember her sharing, and I’m paraphrasing here, that it’s not just speaking up when a big event happens, like the George Floyd murder. Fighting for justice is the tireless, day-to-day, being in the community, being in community, and seeing what needs to be done to make things safe, make things better, make things fair and equitable, for Black and brown people who don’t have the same privilege and power as white people do, and then, doing it.

Pilar’s words resonated with me that day. It is my hope they resonate with other white people, too. To hear them means to keep working every day of our lives, on changing the power and privilege dynamics that keeps white people at the top of everything. It is not an event. For me, it is a way of showing up and moving through all the spaces I am in, striving to be in “right relationship”, as activist, and author, Sonya Renee Taylor says, with all of the people I interact with. That I retain my awareness of the lens I look through as a white, Jewish, middle-aged woman, middle-class, who grew up in the Northeast. That I stay aware of the way white supremacy culture permeates majority white spaces, and bring attention to that, and act in a way to be a part of shifting away from that, to a culture that is truly–though I hedge to use this word because of its ties to DEI work that often fails at it–inclusive, and just.

How Quiet Can Lead To Intuiting What You Need

Being quiet this year was good for me, necessary. I took more time to do internal reflection on how the traits of whiteness and internalized racism show up in me. In the spring/summer, I took part in a twelve-week, online Embodied Social Justice Program, led by the non-profit organization, Transformative Change, with lead co-facilitators, Rev. angel Kyodo williams, and Dr. Sara King. I learned so much, too much to try and concisely share here. I learned more about the critical element of somatic, body conditioning as integral to individual and collective change work. I experienced what it meant to be in community, to sit in affinity group break-out rooms and have to talk with other white folks about what comes up for us in being a part of the work. I had to also, at times, sit in my own discomfort at being the white gaze witnessing the pain and discomfort of members of our cohort, who were Black, Asian, Latinx, Indigenous, queer, trans, disabled, as they shared their life experiences with racism, white supremacy culture, and white people’s behaviors, and a few times, the harm caused during the program.

I continued to be a part of activist, author, blogger, Shay Stewart-Bouley’s, Beloved Community, a group of about fifteen, primarily white women, and several white men, who meet monthly over a course of five months, to share about what we are up to in the work of anti-racism, and to hold one another accountable in the work. Here is another space where I am learning what it means to be in community with others. I have always been shy, quiet, and someone who liked working on things, whether artistically, or at work, on my own. I now realize that, even though we are born with some of these innate qualities of introversion or shyness, it is also true that white supremacy culture created the myth of individual meritocracy, and living according to the desires of the individual. We live by the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality, when Black and brown people in this country weren’t given the boots or the straps. We give praise for individual achievement and advancement as if a person gains things all on their own. Yet, it is the creation of laws, policies and systems which afforded white people in this country the opportunities to advance, while slavery, Jim Crow laws, redlining, voter restriction, and an unjust criminal justice system, placed obstacles and stole those opportunities for Black people in this country to advance. Living my life focusing on myself, and not being a part of community building, has limited my ability to truly be a part of racial justice work, and be a part of making an impact.

I learn from Shay, and my fellow Beloved Community members, as I learned from the words of Rev. angel Kyodo williams, that none of us do the work of transmuting white supremacy culture alone. We do it in community. As Rev. angel says, “…look inward first, and then when you’re ready to turn outward, grab a hand.” I’m eternally grateful, too, that Shay, paired me up with my two cohort buddies, Alyssa and Gabi. We meet to chat in between our full community meetings to support one another in the work, and it means so much to me to have their presence and care, and honesty, as we share our experiences–the good, the bad, and the ugly–and carry one another along on this journey of learning and unlearning.

As leader of our group, who creates the container for this work to happen, I think about how that is a lot for Shay, a Black woman, to take on. Yet, Shay has told us she feels strongly that the work needs to happen within the white community, and more importantly, that the work is relational. That the way we move things forward is by being in relationship with one another. This is an important learning for me. I can see much more clearly now because of Shay, that yes, us white people need to be talking with one another and looking inward to reflect upon our own internalized whiteness and racism, and, look outward, and act, to be a part of the change. We also, of course, need to build cross-racial relationships in the work of transmuting white supremacy culture and systems of oppression.

On My Taking Baby Steps To Build More Community

Speaking to being in community with other white people, a close friend of mine, Anisa, sent along a group email to me and six other white women in our friends’ circle. The email contained a 21-day Racial Equity Challenge sent out by the local United Way. She said she was taking part in it, and passed it along to see if any of us wanted to join in. We thanked her, and at the end of the challenge, one of the women emailed the group to share some of her reflections, and said she was interested to hear what others in the group thought and felt. I thanked her for reaching out with that prompt, and upped the ante I suppose, by asking if all of us would be interested in meeting to get deeper into anti-racism conversations together. I was glad to hear the “yes” from everyone in the group, and we have been meeting monthly since last April.

I knew one of my reasons for wanting us to come together was to keep anti-racism work going. I noticed that conversations on racism were waning among white people. It’s just as Pilar noted above. The quiet came after the media coverage on anti-Black racism diminished. Corporate DEI efforts continue to dwindle just two years after the murder of George Floyd. I am grateful that my friends are showing up, in all of our imperfectness, to recognize and reflect on the power and privilege we hold, to learn and grow, cause less harm, and be a part of the necessary collective change our country sorely needs.

And even within our group, I realize the question of identity, how we see ourselves and one another, and the desire to not erase the complexity of our identities, is present for me. When writing this piece, I reached out to Anisa and asked her how she likes to identify herself as I know her father is Iraqi, and her mother, a white American. Anisa told me, “I’m constantly wrestling with this…I’ve even listened to some podcasts on this topic that actually sometimes give me the aha moment….I feel I both deny my Arab culture and want to acknowledge this part of my background, yet not speaking Arabic and growing up in the states, not in Iraq, with all the advantage and privilege of being white-it feels if I use the term Arab American that I am appropriating a life I have not lived, especially the political unrest. And then since Arab is not on a census, or as a box for race – I am left with white.” She finished with saying that she’s not sure how to identify, and this causes her discomfort. I truly appreciated Anisa sharing with me in her email reply, and a face-to-face, fuller conversation shortly afterward. I gained some insight and education, and the reminder of how complex and layered identity is, and I got to learn more about how my friend feels–something I never took the time to ask her about before now.

Some of the books I’ve read this year include, Dear White Women, Please Come Home, by Kimberlee Yolanda Williams. Shay asked our Beloved Community group to read the book, a collection of scenarios all experienced by the author, a Black woman, and written as individual letters to her long, lost (fictional) white woman friend, who she hopes will “come home. ” The metaphorical coming home is what Kimberlee, the author, keeps holding onto hope for, that white women will rise to the occasion and finally become “sisters” with Black women, instead of rendering them invisible, and causing harm, as Kimberlee so vividly shares in her book. I am currently reading, also at the request of Shay, for the next section of our Beloved Community convening, White Women: Everything You Already Know About Your Own Racism, And How To Do Better by Regina Jackson and Saira Rao. Once I finish reading this book, which I’m glad will be discussed with Shay and the rest of our community, I will be reading Myisha T. Hill‘s new book, Heal Your Way Forward, The Co-Conspirator’s Guide To An Anti-Racist Future. I follow healer, author, speaker, coach, Myisha on Instagram at the suggestion of my Beloved Community buddy, Gabi. I have appreciated Myisha’s “Instagram Lives” with Joquina (Kina) Reed, a Black woman, who is a justice, equity, diversity and inclusion specialist, community advocate, podcaster, and digital content creator.

Just this month, I took part in anti-racism educator, Ashani Mfuko‘s 5-Day Anti-Racism Conversation Confidence Challenge. I realize that even though I’ve been on this journey for a while, it is a life-long process to keep learning and unlearning my own internalized racism, my relationship with white supremacy culture, and get better at having the conversations that need to be had when doing the work. I gained much from taking part in the challenge, especially leaning into Ashani’s guidance in the areas of having curious, open conversations with people who are covertly racist, instead of shaming and blaming.

In my community, as a writer, and artist, I work to support Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and non-Black artists of color, through the arts coordination I facilitate at the hospital I work at. I attend art events–gallery exhibits, poetry readings, plays–led by, and featuring Black artists, and other artists of color. I also work to stay conscious, every day, on how I show up and move through all the spaces I find myself in.

I share all that I’ve been up to, not to say, look at what I’ve done, I’m a “good, white person.” I share it to show some of the ways us white folks can be a part of the transmuting of white supremacy culture and systems of oppression–how to be part of this liberatory work. I believe, as I’m taught by so many, especially so many Black women who lead in this work, that white people, we need to liberate ourselves too. We, who have to remind ourselves that we have a race, and that we are the creators of the systems that now exist that keep white people in the position of power and privilege, and we are not free until all of us are free of these systems. And I don’t share what I’ve been up to to say, look I’ve read all the books, taken all the courses, joined all these groups, and so now I know it all, and I’m good. Absolutely not. As white people, we can learn things and know things, and a lot of us would sure like to keep it at the intellectual knowing part, but until we know it in our hearts, and in our bodies, we will not be a part of the change we need to be a part of. If we simply say we know about racism and white supremacy culture, and keep on living the way we’ve always lived, thinking that the knowing makes us “good, white people,” then we stay complicit in upholding white supremacy and its systems of oppression.

On Uplifting The Work of Black Women

And if you noticed, aside from the white peers I am doing the work with, every person that I mentioned in this post that I have learned and grown with this past year, in reading their work, or engaging with their programming, have been Black women, and women of color. We white women, all of us white folks, need to give credit to all the Black women who are leaders of anti-racism education, activism, and healing work. And to pay them for their work.

Here we are at the beginning of a new year. It is 2023. Now is the time, if you are not already engaging with anti-racism work, to be a part of the work of transmuting white supremacy culture and systems of oppression into a liberatory future where all of us can live free and thrive and belong. There are so many places, and ways to be a part of the change we need. Won’t you look inward and see yourself, and look outward, and before you move forward, like Rev. angel says, “grab a hand.”

I thank you, as always, for taking the time to read this, to reflect on it, and to reach out with any feedback, questions, or conversation you’d like to further engage with.

Wishing you all a happy, healthy, peaceful, joyful new year.

———————————————————————————-

Sources:

www.blackgirlinmaine.com

@blackgirlinmaine

www.ashanimfuko.com

@ashanimfukoofficial

www.joquinareed.com

@divestingfromwhiteness

www.myishathill.com

@myishathill

https://www.linkedin.com/in/pilar-mccloud-605ba07b/

https://pilarmccloud.wixsite.com/pilarmccloud

www.engagingacrossdifference.com

@kimberleeyolandawilliams

www.transmutingwhitesupremacyandpatriarchy.com

www.diedrabarber.com

www.maureenbenson.org

www.mindheartconsulting.com

www.revangel.com

www.transformativechange.org

Welcome to 2021, Or: When Privilege is Handed to you on a Silver Platter, And No, We’re Not Better Than This

11 Jan

The Daily Don BLM MAGA illustration by Jesse Duquette
Illustration Credit: Jesse Duquette, IG @the.daily.don

I am not a political pundit, and am not going to analyze the week’s event that we all witnessed with our own unbelievin’, yet believin’ eyes. There have been enough news shows and articles for that.

I will be another person, though, to call attention to the great disparities in how Black people, and their multi-racial, multi-ethnic supporters, were treated this summer during protests calling for racial justice, equality, and the very basic human request to not be shot and killed–mostly by police officers, and sometimes by white vigilantes, simply because of their skin tone. I’m quite certain, too, that many men and women who fancy themselves vigilantes like the white father and son duo who killed Ahmaud Arbery, were in the crowd that showed up at the capitol this week to “take their country back.”

We saw it with our own eyes on video, and on the news, and yet, Roots drummer, dj, author, food and culture enthusiast, Questlove, in an Instagram post, had something to say about the statement that so many in our country would rather believe in, namely: “this is not who we are.”

Questlove says, “It’s no coincidence the unpacking of our lives is going down this way (this instance, the events in dc, the pandemic, BLM, MeToo–everything that has risen to the surface in the past 5 years–I know a lot of people wanna hang on to the common thread of “this isn’t who we are” or “we are better than this” “A lot of you have to ponder & rephrase it now.. “This is who we’ve been?”…”Can you imagine what went unchecked without the cell phone camera? This didn’t just start now…or 2011…or back in 91 w Rodney King…..this has BEEN going on & no one believed it.”

Questlove’s Instagram post was actually in response to the viral video of Miya Ponsetto, the white woman who physically attacked jazz musician, Keyon Harrold’s, 14 year-old son, accusing him as the person who stole her cell phone. Ponsetto singled out Mr. Harrold and his son, who are Black, as they simply walked through the lobby of their Soho hotel to go have brunch. The phone, turns out, was actually left in an Uber.

But, as Questlove shares, this same belief he sees so many falsely holding, was shared by countless people posting all over social media that “this is not who we are” after watching the January 6th domestic terrorist attack on the capitol. We can apply the “this is not our country,” to this most recent ‘Karen’ moment, or to the storming of our nation’s capitol, and we certainly have been applying it for years, decades, centuries, haven’t we? Those of us with white skin privilege who believed the myth we were taught of how our great country was founded, of how our democracy was for all of us. We want to believe we are better than what keeps playing on the screens in front of our own eyes. But if that were the case, wouldn’t we be behaving like we are better than this? Wouldn’t we have made things equal, equitable and safe for every one through the ages?

Wouldn’t we be doing something to change things since the notion “that all men are created equal” was never carried out in law or deed? We witnessed how giving up power and privilege is so damn frightening for the white warrior face-painted, Davey Crockett meets neo-Viking, fur hat wearing, confederate flag waving, heavily-armed men, and women, who stormed the capitol. We witnessed hundreds of these white folks descend upon the capitol building, break in through a window, be let in by politicians, take selfies with capitol police, without the presence of the National Guard or police in riot gear. Friend, Gloria Johnson, a risk analyst, and strong advocate for her community who sits on several non-profit boards, said, on social media, contrasting January 6th’s insurgence with the uprising for racial justice after George Floyd’s murder, “protestors this past summer were beaten, gassed and hit with rubber bullets for protesting and yet these mofos were allowed to get into the SENATE CHAMBERS…without being beaten, gassed or shot! Nothing…Clearly restraint can be used by law enforcement”…She added, “…white supremacy is a hell of a drug..” after witnessing the insurgents “just chillin in the senate chambers…”

That about says it all. We don’t need pundits to tell us what we saw. If we, in the words of James Baldwin, which always come to me the strongest in these moments, look in the mirror, we will see that it is us, white people, who are the violent ones, the oppressors, who founded this country on white supremacist notions, laws, and policies, overt and covert, for over 400 years. We saw that when Black people asked this summer to be treated like human beings and their right to live and thrive like everyone else in this country, instead of as a monolithic, faceless group to be feared and harmed, they are met with violence. We saw when white people, armed with guns and zip ties, force themselves into the nation’s capitol building in an attempt to overthrow democracy, that they are given carte blanche to roam the halls, make violent threats, and desecrate property, all aided and abetted by the President and some of the capitol police officers there–never mind the fact that there were a number of police officers, former military, and government officials who were part of the insurgent mob themselves.

We witnessed the fear of all of these white men and women losing the grip on what they believe their white country does for them. They fear being in the minority by number, and by privileges, real and perceived, they have always benefitted from, either without caring what happened to Black or brown people in this country, or with the will to do great harm to them.

I plead for all of us white people to see that this is who we are, and to every day do something about it. We can no longer believe we are better than this. We have to do the work to make where we are in each one of our very own communities a safe, just, equitable and free place for Black people. This is our call. A new President will not fix this. It is on us. If you don’t know where to begin, as I’ve said before, look around in your workplace, your neighborhood, your schools, your non-profit organizations, at your elected officials. Are these places equitable and just and inclusive? Who is in charge? Who has the power to make decisions? Do your elected officials represent the needs of all people? Connect with and listen to the Black leaders in your community. Listen to Black women. Think of ways you can support them and their work, and ask them if your ideas to support are okay, are necessary, or are something that isn’t needed, or off-base, or white savior patronizing. If you feel stuck, comment below, or message me. I am no expert. I am on this journey, just like you are, but if we keep saying we don’t know what to do, then we are the biggest part of the problem.

It’s 2021. Who is ready to change who we are?

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Illustration Credit: Jesse Duquette, IG: @the.daily.don Twitter: @JRDuquette

Facebook: The Daily Don

Follow Questlove: IG: @Questlove @qls @questlovesfood

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.

If It’s Not What We Say About Race, It Must Be What We Do

22 Jul

I haven’t written here in a few months. It’s not that there isn’t anything to write about. Believe me, thoughts about race, racism, whiteness, and what is going on in this country, and what I can do about it, are spinning around in my head, and in my heart, 24/7. No excuses, but I was recovering from a botched cataract surgery, and the old eye is just about 100%. This week, though, I was asked by an acquaintance, if I was going to “blog about our President and his comments, and saying he’s not racist. So crazy,” he said. Crazy racist, I would say.

But, we know that. We shout out “racist!” “racism!” over and over again. We shout it out about our “Occupant in the White House,” as Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley calls him. Yes, the Congresswoman, who was one of four Congresswomen of color, who were told to go back to their own countries.

Oh, you want to hear more about the racism? About the Occupant’s rally, who a friend likened to a KKK rally? Where the crowd chanted “Send her back!” when Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s name was mentioned? And how a day later, he doubled down on his damaging comments about Omar being linked to terrorism, by perpetuating the rumor that she got her brother a green card and United States citizenship by fraudently marrying him?

Or, do I keep writing about the viral videos that seem to pop up every other day of a white person telling someone just trying to buy their groceries, or work their job, to “speak English here in America”, or “go back to Mexico” or “I’ll have you deported?” And do I share how I agreed with social media friend, Michael Eaglin’s comments about how he’s lowered his expectations about people’s humanity, how he wondered aloud about our “basic respect and integrity,” and the fact that this “behavior isn’t admonished, isn’t found reprehensible by their communities and institutions, like family, church, schools, civic clubs, etc.’

Or, do I continue to write about the viral videos of white people still calling the police on black people, most recently, it was two black men, a real estate agent and a potential home buyer, who were thought to be breaking-and-entering a home the agent wished to show? Or, insert any normal life activity that black people are trying to do, just like white people, but are deemed criminal by white eyes that can’t comprehend the optics of black people living ordinary lives just like theirs.

Or, do I write about how some people keep saying these immigrants have to come in legally like their families did however many decades ago? The people who are able to separate themselves from any feelings of compassion or empathy toward children being taken away from their families, adults and children being kept in detention centers that mirror concentration camps, being treated with intentional cruelty, and not given their due process, as refugees fleeing unsafe countries are supposed to receive when seeking political asylum here?

And I wasn’t going to write about this, especially after my teenage daughters surprised me with their reaction to my action, thinking it privileged and performative. I questioned the purpose of sharing about the night of July 2nd, when I got arrested protesting at the Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls, Rhode Island. But now I am sharing it, perhaps as a way to process that night’s events. I’m sharing how as a Jewish woman, I felt I needed to use my voice, and my body, to say #NeverAgainIsNow, and joined the Jewish activist group taking national action to block the entrances of I.C.E. contracted detention centers around the country, thereby disrupting their ability to do their harmful business-as-usual. I’m sharing about the pleading sound of men, women–and, were there children?–pounding on frosted windows to let us know they saw us, as we waved to who we could not see, to in effect, say, we see you.

I’m sharing that when myself and five women of the eighteen men and women who were arrested were put into a windowless van, with a metal wall separating us from the other side of the van, and we all sat there with our handcuffed or ziptied hands behind our back, and nervously chuckled on our ride to the precinct, how I looked down the narrow metal bench to the faces beside mine, and said to myself, I know these women, these are my people, even though, except for one, I didn’t know them personally. And at risk at sounding over-dramatic, and right after one of the young woman shared that she had just returned two weeks ago from visiting the Anne Frank house, I could not help but imagine us as the Jewish women who might have ridden together on cramped trains to concentration camps, and how maybe they nervously laughed, too, knowing their fate was not a good one, but worked to comfort one another, in the face of the grave inhumanity that would befall them. And in that moment, I knew, too, we were not them, but were here honoring them, and saying, Never Again, because it is now, we must not sit idly by. And, I thought, too, as we entered the van, of Freddy Gray, and how hard, and cold, the white, metal seat and walls and floor of the van were, and how his body was broken into pieces by police officers that night in Baltimore. But we were not Jews on our way to a concentration camp. We were not Freddie Gray. We were not Black Lives Matter protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, or Baltimore.

Us eighteen, that night, were white-skinned, and treated with calm, and kindness. We did not have to use milk to wash tear gas out of our eyes. We were not hit with batons. We were treated as human beings, and within three hours at the police station, we were all released with a summons. A week later in court, with an agreement to either make a donation to a non-profit organization serving the immigrant community in Central Falls, or do ten hours of community service, we had our cases dismissed. Amazing what whiteness and privilege, an accessory automatically included, can do.

Yesterday, I paused my own writing, in anticipation of attending the annual reading by the 2019 writers-in-residence at the Rhode Island Writers Colony in Warren, Rhode Island. The organization was founded by writer, and literary mentor, Brook Stephenson and his brother, John Stephenson. Brook, unfortunately passed away in 2015, at the young age of forty-one, and John has carried on his brother’s legacy with the continuation of the summer Writers’ Colony. The two-week residency creates a space for writers of color, not only to write, but to commune with one another, share ideas, work, and nurture one another’s creativity, which is rare in a literary and publishing world, that as they noted, does not make great space for them.

I was moved and inspired by all of the voices, and the work of the 2019 writers-in-residence: Alisha Acquaye, Sasha Banks, Jill Louise Busby, Fajr Muhammad, and Jive Poetic. Writers of short stories, novels, essays, and poetry– we listened to a coming of age short story, stories recording the history of, and the undoing of the America that brutalized black people for over four centuries, a novel about the disappearance and murder of black women in Philadelphia with a narrator who wondered if anyone noticed or cared, an essay from an author learning to love her body as a black woman, and poems about connection to one’s heritage, one about the futuristic genetic engineering of our souls that brilliantly begins with the whispered warning about seedless green grapes, and a poem about a white woman placing her hand on the poet’s chest, because she sees his “I’m Out – signed Harriet Tubman” tee-shirt, and feels she needs to share that in her past life she was a slave, too!

I got to consider my own white fragility too, when writer, Jill Louise Busby, read her piece, Oreo, a powerful, honest writing, and, trust me, those two adjectives don’t even begin to do justice to her words, or the soul-searching investigation of self, how whiteness always others, how not to use whiteness as a measurement of self, and much more, written with such directness and complexity, that I can never fully know or understand because at the end of the day, when I write about race, racism, and cross-racial connection, I’ll still be a white woman writing about it.

And, when the reading’s host, author, and the Colony’s Artistic Director, Jason Reynolds, said right after her reading, “it’s good to be unapologetic..and to feel the discomfort..well…for some of us,” the audience laughed, the white folks, probably more nervously so. And I nodded, the white person nod, to say, yes, we do, I do, need to feel the discomfort, to feel the sting, and yet, don’t make it about me, make it about us, about whiteness, and yet, at the same time, don’t push it away, and know, and take responsibility, and continue to do my own self-investigation, knowing how whiteness informs my perspective, my way of moving in the world, my relationships with everyone I come into contact with, and to know what whiteness has done, and what it continues to do, if I am ever to liberate myself from it, and try to effect any real change around me.

And on those days when I wonder what purpose my writing serves, if I am saying anything new, anything that matters, or when I promise I will reformat my blog, and work with other people to include new voices here, I also wonder: Does not everyone get it yet about racism? Or do we, myself, guiltily included, have to keep social media posting and sharing every race-related article–whether an example of a personal attack, or recognition of an institutional system–when we know racism exists? Do we call it out to prove it, or to show we are still outraged, or to escape looking into the mirror, so we feign disbelief that this is our country, that this is what we did, what we have always done, and this is what we are doing right now?

White people, I don’t mean in any of this, that we need to stop talking about racism, stop calling out racism, and white supremacist structures, institutions, and systems that created and perpetuate racism and inequity. Call it out. Call it out every day, every moment. Do not sit silent with what you see, what you know. Don’t ever be tired of talking about it, and calling it out, of people telling you you make everything about race. Because until there is equality and freedom for all, none of us are free. And, if you are tired of hearing about it, think of how tired black people, and people of color are of living it.

What I do mean, is I want us to ask ourselves, but what can we do? We feel overwhelmed, ineffectual. We don’t know how we can ever change the big, overarching systems that control what is playing out in our country when it comes to racism and white supremacist structures..

It is during those times of feeling overwhelmed, and ineffective, and yes, sometimes, helpless, I remember the words of friend, artist, curator, poet, humanist, Zaiche Johnson, who recently shared, “debating and dissecting political theory, can be compartmentalized gaslighting, when there is so much work to do in real time within our own community. The destitute and oppressed can’t eat CNN transcripts, meme wars, or cyclic policy dissertations. Altruism is the only cool.”

When I let Zaiche know his words here, and our past conversations about the same, help re-center and ground me to the work that I can do–about how we all need to focus on what we can do on a micro-level in our immediate communities where ever and every where we live–he reminds me how “we can only do our best commensurate with what we have accessible, which varies for each person.” I thank him for this detail which speaks to the very core of the necessary shift of sharing resources and access when, as white people, we are part of the privileged group that has made sure it got and keeps the majority of both.

On days like this when I wonder if I should be writing about race, and asked by friends if I’m going to write about all that is going on in the country right now, like “the President’s comments,” I know that the true answer is I cannot stop myself from writing about it. And, perhaps, I finally wrote about the detention center protest, because that was something I could do. That is what matters a lot more to me. That I never stop doing something about it.


Becoming “Woke” Is A Life-long Journey and Why I’m Taking The Racial Crossfit Challenge

8 Aug

I read, I educate myself, I talk with people of color, not only because I believe it makes life richer to connect with and learn about people whose life experiences and culture is different from mine, but also in an effort to learn and understand how the history, and lived experiences of Black Americans in this country, and how the structures of racism and white supremacy, have afforded me, a woman with white skin privilege, to move through the world with an ease and truckload of access and opportunity not granted to them. But still, just because in June 2017, the word woke was entered in the Oxford English Dictionary, it doesn’t mean […]

Sadly, A Still Timely Encore: The Every 28 Hours Plays and Community Response Plays at Trinity Repertory Company

20 Oct

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Every 28 Hours PlaysIt didn’t matter to me that I had already seen The Every 28 Hours Plays at Trinity Repertory Company last October.  I wanted to see them again.

Trinity Rep actor, Joe Wilson, Jr., was one of a group of fifty actors, playwrights, artists and activists invited to be part of the non-profit organization, The One-Minute Play Festival’s, Every 28 Hours Plays project. All fifty went to Ferguson, Missouri a year after the young, unarmed, black teen, Mike Brown was killed by a white police officer , and met with […]

What Can I Even Say?

27 Jul

wendys back writing-2I haven’t written here–not since my post on Prince’s passing.While I still lament the loss of our Purple genius, my mourning is not what has kept me from writing. Instead its been my decision over the past four or five months really, to instead of writing about it, just live my experiences with race–the thing I most think about in my day-to-day existence. (Yes, white folks, we have a race, too–well, we’re all one human race, but, shout out to Debby Irving,  to say race, that made up construct, is not just something other people have, and we don’t.) I’ve spent so much time going to this talk, that play, reading that book, having that conversation, all the while, feverishly taking notes so that I could write about my experience afterward.

Only thing is, when you are at a play called Every 28 Hours, a compilation of fifty one-minute plays on race, the […]

On Being A Brat And Taking A Break From Writing About Race–Easy For a White Girl To Do

15 May

Wendy blog photo

Writer's Block

no such thing as writer’s block.

I’ve been a brat. Not writing. Just ignoring this blog as if it wasn’t my responsibility to keep up with it, thinking, that’s okay, I’ll get back on track

I don’t have any excuses as to why I’m not writing either.  Well, I did recently learn that […]

Reading Debby Irving’s, Waking Up White

13 Feb

In Waking Up White: And Finding Myself In The Story Of Race author Debby Irving gives us a window into her journey of self-discovery, and her new found awareness of how her whiteness had shaped her ability to achieve success,  as well as her perspectives on race, racism and race relations.

Part memoir and part history lesson, Debby begins with her self-described, ultra-white suburban, upper middle-class childhood in Winchester, Massachussetts.  Here she shows us how things said and left unsaid, like her mother’s telling of how the “poor Indians…lovely people who became dangerous when they drank liquor..it ruined them really..” shot down Debby’s enamored view and curiosity of Native Americans that came from visiting a beloved mural at her local library.

Born in the early 1960’s, Debby, shares she came from a strong WASP background, and enjoyed and never really gave much thought to, the entitlement of belonging to exclusive country clubs, attending prestigious private schools, and having access to the network of successful business people, primarily white men in corporate positions of power, who could do favors for her as she grew up and made her way out into the world.  She also had instilled in her the Yankee/WASP attitude and belief system that if you work hard, and pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you can achieve whatever you want in  life.

Becoming conscious in her early twenties when she moved into Boston and sensed for the first time neighborhood racial economic disparities, Debby began working in arts administration, bringing the arts to “inner-city” schools.  She believed she was helping, giving mainly people of color, access to the rich arts experiences people in more affluent white neighborhoods have easy access and exposure to.  Yet, in a haunting scene in her book, while doing work as general manager for First Night Boston, the city’s premiere New Year’s Eve arts celebration, Debby shows us maybe her help wasn’t welcome.  Maybe it was even hurtful.

After one year’s celebration, Debby and the First Night staff gathered a group of families of color to debrief about the initiative to bring more diverse participants to the annual event.  Feeling proud and that the pilot was a success, Debby is stunned and wounded when a black teen answers her questions about whether people had fun. “Man, it was freaky!  I’ve never seen so many white people in my life! I was scared!”

Immediately Debby is forced to look at how her conditioning to not consider how people different from herself might feel being put into an environment that is overwhelmingly white.  She learns it might make them feel uncomfortable and unwelcome, instead of grateful for a white woman’s actions to selflessly give under-served communities access to the arts–something she assumed everyone should want and feel good about.

And that is why Debby’s book is so wonderful, and so important.  Not only does she take the journey of “waking up” to her own whiteness and how that has impacted her interactions with people across racial lines, but she shares it with her readers in a way that is unflinchingly brave and honest.

There were so many places in the book where I said to myself, wow, that is brave she is admitting having what she describes as racialized thoughts, such as realizing how she internalized via family discussions and the media, that black people had an affinity for being great athletes, entertainers, and dancers, and yet doing a double-take in her younger adult years when meeting a black doctor, because there weren’t examples of black people in high-achieving professions in her white circle, or again, in the media.

Most white people wouldn’t want to admit they have these racialized thoughts, especially if it means they think they will be considered racist.  Yet, Debby doesn’t run away from them.  Instead she embraces them and confronts them head on in chapters that reflect upon race versus class, the construction of white superiority, her questioning of why she didn’t “wake up” sooner, concepts of color blindness, re-thinking her own good luck, her Robin Hood syndrome, the matter of diversity training, the culture of niceness, leaving her comfort zone, and transitioning to being a bystander to full engagement in learning and doing racial justice work.

Through learning about black history and the construction of systems of oppression–both invisible and visible, such as the GI Bill, that enabled her family to obtain new, affordable homes, but discriminated against black families, or her access to prestigious social connections, Debby took the call to action.  She enrolled in a class on Racial and Cultural Identity that Debby says blew the lid off and revealed to her how her whole life of not seeing how her race (she thought being white meant you were raceless) set her up for a life of invisible privileges and a clear, easy path of opportunities, while people of color who have suffered centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, urban renewal, inequities in education, housing and business loan discrimination, and more, had many more hurdles and obstacles keeping them from so easily achieving the American Dream.

As someone who started a blog because I became more in tune with my own attraction to black people, black culture, and a hyper-awareness of racial inequities, and who wanted to explore the how and the why of that, and not fear broaching the topic of race with people of color, I have deep admiration and respect for Debby for taking her journey of self-discovery, and for fearlessly and generously sharing it with readers, white, black and brown.  Also as someone who likes to think about race from an experiential point-of-view, rather than academic, I now know that I still need to understand how racial inequities came into being in the first place, to be able to talk about them from a personal point-of-view.  I read books on black history. I read black author’s books on their experiences on what it means to be black.  I stay current on topics of race and culture by reading on-line posts on social media from The Root, For Harriet, HuffPost Black Voices, Colorlines, etc.  I talk with, and listen to black friends, acquaintances and strangers share about their experiences with racism.

Am I perfect in all this?  No.  Do I worry that what I might say may not be politically correct, might come out as sounding racist or patronizing?  Yes.  But, as I hear many black people say when bringing up matters of race with white people, is it more important to worry about being called racist than to worry about committing a racist act, or not working to dismantle racism?  In other words, I need to get over myself, and do my best to not get defensive when approaching the topic of race, or take everything personally when a black person expresses their frustration or anger when it comes to white people’s role in creating structures of racism, and/or idly standing by, unaware of how one’s own white privilege has gotten them to where they sit in life today.  Or even worse, realizing it, and doing nothing about it.

I am inspired that as Debby’s journey unfolded from waking up to learning about the systems of oppression in our American history that afforded her these seemingly invisible privileges, has led her to a place of deep engagement and action.  Debby now works as a racial justice educator who describes her mission on her website as to “educate other white people confused and frustrated by racism and transform anxiety and inaction into empowerment and action, be it for an individual or an organization.”

I am grateful to Debby for writing Waking Up White, because it has given me some tools to delve more deeply into learning about how my own whiteness has shaped my life experience, and for giving me some history lessons on how institutionalized systems of oppression came into being.  As a resource, Debby includes study/discussion questions at the end of each chapter for readers who want to further explore how race has shaped their lives.  At the end of her book, Debby provides further reading and film resources, and ways to become engaged in your community and beyond in the conversation on race, and in racial justice work.   There are notes on individuals and organizations doing work in racial justice, such as the noted white privilege work of anti-racism activist, Peggy McIntosh, a white woman, and the White Privilege Conference, founded by Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr., who is black, and leads a multicultural Diversity Consulting and Research Firm, which strives to “provide a challenging, collaborative, and comprehensive experience to empower and equip individuals to work for equity and justice through self and social transformation.”

Debby’s book, Waking Up White,  gives me the history lessons I need to back up what I talk about when I talk about how white privilege impacts my life, other white people’s lives, and the lives of people of color. Her personal journey gives me the courage to keep moving forward in my own self-discovery, and in my engagement in conversations on race.

You can find out more about Debby Irving and Waking Up White, including speaking engagements, Book Club discussions, as well as resource material on race at www.debbyirving.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dear White People, The Movie: Go See It

31 Oct

dear white people

Dear White People:  Don’t be a white person’s voice trying to critique a movie made with a black person’s voice and point-of-view.

Okay, that was not said in the movie, but I recently read […]