Shay Stewart-Bouley, who is black, and Debby Irving, who is white, took the small stage inside the large-windowed auditorium at Angier Elementary School in Newton to talk about race on Tuesday night. The event lasted 90 minutes and was entitled “Tell Me the Truth: Exploring the Heart of Cross-Racial Conversations.”
Irving is a racial justice educator and author of Waking Up White. Irving met Stewart-Bouley onstage at a promotional event for Irving’s book—Stewart-Bouley is the executive director at Community Change, Inc., an anti-racist non-profit organization. The two have been hosting public discussions together for many years.
The event opened with the reading of a set of guidelines and a poem that encouraged people to enter a “brave space.” The poem was titled “Invitation to a Brave Space” by Micky Scottbay Jones.
Irving and Stewart-Bouley then took the stage and explained that the event was to be an unscripted, informal conversation between the two of them, based on topics the audience suggested. Before beginning, Irving suggested that the audience engage in a “collective deep breath,” with her and Stewart-Bouley. Following that exercise, the audience suggested five topics to discuss: Kyle Korver’s essay in The Players Tribune from April 8, interracial dating, “white fragility,” Greenbook, and fear.
Stewart-Bouley said she was not familiar enough with Korver’s essay and had made a conscious choice not see see Greenbook, so the speakers chose to begin with a discussion of white fragility. Irving explained that white fragility is a term used to describe white people’s insecurity about being called out for racist remarks or actions, especially if they are unintentional.
“White women’s tears are a form of bullying,” Irving said. “White fragility is a form of bullying because it shuts everything down—now, we have to make the white person feel better about themselves and we don’t do the actual work. It’s about manipulation.”
The two speakers discussed how overly-emotional white people can steer the conversation away from a productive discussion about race and instead center it around themselves, seeking attention, not dialogue surrounding the issues at hand, often because they are in distress.
“[Black womens’] tears don’t matter,” Stewart-Bailey said. “There is still a segment of the population that expects people of color to, sort of, be a bit docile in terms of how they connect with them.”
The conversation then segwayed into a discussion of interracial dating, where Stewart-Bouley shared her experiences in an interracial marriage and in raising biracial children. She discussed how she and her husband were treated differently, even when they were together, because she is black and he is white. She also explained the struggle of parenting mixed race children who receive conflicting messages from society because of their blended background.
In schools, black students will only bring a “percentage” of themselves to school, Irving said, meaning that students will choose to only show sides of themselves that they believe will be well received by the white population of their schools. The trade-off is that they don’t get to be their most authentic selves, she said.
Diversity is much more than who makes up a school or a workplace, they said—it is about how the organization’s structure and systems treat people of color.
“If diversity were measured by who populates the space, then plantations were diverse,” Irving said. “It isn’t about who’s in the space—it’s about who controls the space.”
The conversation concluded with a discussion about how the impetus surrounding the improvement of racials issues in our country is tied to elections, specifically the 2016 presidential election. Stewart-Bouley said she is afraid that if a progressive candidate is elected in 2020, then conversations around race will subside and progress will be slowed. She stated the need for people to continue discussions and progress, even when a progressive candidate is elected and racial issues are not in the news.
“Since 2016, there has been a real sense of urgency, because to be fair, for many white people in this country, that election year was when white people started to wake up and realize that matters around race and bigotry—the needle hadn’t moved as far as they thought it had,” Stewart-Bailey said.
Following the discussion, members of the audience formed in small groups to discuss the speakers’ views and issues in their own community, before the evening concluded with a Q&A session.
Featured Image by Keara Hanlon / for The Heights