A sampling of those who influenced my journey and what I learned from them
Maggie Anderson’s work impressed upon me the need to economically empower America’s black community. Her book Our Black Year: One Family’s Quest to Buy Black in America’s Racially Divided Economy, shook me to the core with its examination of the way money flows out of black communities and into white communities, perpetuating inequities set into motion centuries ago. The riveting story of how she, her husband, and their two daughters endeavored for twelve months to buy everything they needed -- from groceries to clothes to gas – exclusively from black-owned businesses illustrates the dearth of opportunity in black communities. Because of Maggie’s work, I now strive to locate and support black-owned businesses, example number one being this website, created by Social Hubris.
Barbara Beckwith was one of the first names I heard as I set out on my journey. A friend of a friend had recommended I take a course she co-led, White People Challenging Racism: Moving from Talk to Action. Still a little nervous that my ignorance would make people see me as not worth talking to, I steeled my nerves and called her. Her humor and sense of camaraderie put me immediately at ease. As I described my experience of waking up, she kept saying, "Me too! That happened to me too! I felt just like that!" Barbara, also a writer, supported me throughout the entire process, reading my work as it progressed, going to events with me, and being my roommate at conferences. She used both my writings and personal interactions with others to point out how my language and social habits could be perceived as racially insensitive, often weaving in an example of how she’d once done the same thing and commiserating with me about how hard it can be to change these habits. We now work together to develop, promote, and co-lead the course that first led me to her.
Dr. Stacy Blake-Beard, a professor at my alma mater, Simmons School of Management, crossed my path when a mutual friend introduced us. She asked to read my book, and, like any good professor returned it to me full of blue-inked comments, questions, and ideas for improvement. After two meetings to discuss her thoughts on the book I felt as if I’d taken an entire course with her. I credit Stacy as the one who got me to think about the importance of context. Using herself as an example, she said “I can be simultaneously empowered and otherized because all of my identities are with me all of the time. I show up as a woman and an African American and a professor and a wife and a mother all at once. Given the context, one of those identities will be at the fore. So in India people see me first as an American, while in America people might see me first as a black person.” This insight has trained me to always consider context when individuals are seeking to understand and/or challenge their racially charged experiences.
Angela Giudice fell into my life in a moment of complete crisis. It was the winter of 2011. I’d just completed what I thought would be my final manuscript when a national debate arose about the role of white people in the anti-racist movement. I wondered whether I should just walk away, and if maybe my particular blend of upper-middle class whiteness might have no place in the world of racial justice. Angela, a highly respected long-time racial justice activist and former VISIONS Inc. consultant, pulled me aside after a meeting one day and said in her gentle West Virginia accent, “Hey, I’d love to read what you’ve written. I’ll bet it’s great.” Truth be told, I was about ready to toss it in the shredder, tail between my legs. Thankfully I sent Angela my manuscript. A week later I received a voicemail saying, “Wow Debby, this is a great start.” A great start! And I’d thought it was done. Under Angela’s tutelage, I reworked the manuscript three more times, each round using the text to explore what I wasn’t telling and why. Waking Up White would be a very different book without the coaching she offered to pull ideas and stories out of the furthest corners of my memory.
Paul Marcus is one of those rare people who everyone seems to be able to relate to. As executive director of Community Change, Inc. and a born educator, Paul has gently and deftly guided me in my learning by asking pointed questions. He’s suggested books and films and invited me to events and meetings he knew would challenge me in ways I needed to be pushed. Of the many understandings he’s given me is the delicate position I've put myself in by using so much privilege to challenge privilege. I’ve learned never to talk to Paul without pen and paper in hand lest I miss some gem in his seemingly endless flow of quotes, metaphors, analogies, stories, and history, all of which he uses to help other white people understand racism and their role in it. Among his many accomplishments is one of the most efficient and effective presentations I’ve seen about how racism works. In a mere three hours, it brings into focus the key intersecting elements that hold racism in place. He loves comparing the film The Matrix to racism, and I hope someday to fully grasp the blue pill / red pill phenomenon.
Dr. Billie Mayo, a former public school educator turned racial equity consultant, attended an all-day workshop I’d also signed up for in 2010. New at the racial justice scene, I felt jumpy and out of my element. From across the room, I observed Billie’s calm, observant style. I noticed how intently she listened and that the few times she spoke the whole room stopped to listen. She used her words sparingly and to great affect. Among the wisdom she shared that day was this simple phrase: "Race isn't a cause, it’s a part of becoming fully human.” Though I didn’t fully grasp the concept that day, those words awakened a sleeping part of my consciousness, giving me an early clue about why I so longed to connect across race. Her belief that there is but one human family and that racism creates barriers to its inherent and healthy oneness, has been a pillar of my own journey.
Dr. Peggy McIntosh made famous the term “white privilege” with her 1988 essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. When I reached out to Peggy early in my process, she advised, “You must write about yourself and only yourself. That’s what you know best and people will find it compelling.” Throughout my writing process, I’d hear her voice interrupting me to ask, “Are you speaking from your own experience here?” Since our first meeting, she has shared with me writings, cautioned me about misusing my privilege, and stressed to me the importance of language. A favorite example of her use of language and imagery is the idea that one doesn’t unlearn racism, but rather can try to outgrow aspects of it. “I see that I will never outgrow what I have come to think of as my hard drive attitudes and assumptions, ”she explained,“ but when I install the alternative software I discover that I have outgrown some of them or can talk to myself about figuring out how to outgrow them. The alternative software allows me to see or study them.” From a background similar to mine, she’s modeled for me how to engage in this work without falling into white, upper-middle class habits without recognizing this.
Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr brings unparalleled intensity to the work of racial justice. A wearer of multiple hats, Eddie founded and continues to direct The White Privilege Conference, serves as director of diversity at the Brooklyn Friends School, and travels nationally and internationally to conduct training sessions, workshops, and keynote speeches. He has modeled for me what it looks like to be warm and gentle while vigorously challenging people’s deepest beliefs about themselves and their place in the world. Eddie’s approach emboldened me to make a habit of asking friends, colleagues, and clients of color to hold me accountable and tell me when I’m overstepping my bounds or enacting my whiteness. Though as a child I was taught that “honesty is the best policy,” I credit Eddie with being the one to show me honesty’s full potential. A private K-12 educator, administrator, and diversity director, Eddie has developed a particular passion for the insights and strengths young people bring to the work of social and racial justice. Along with everything else I’ve learned from him is to make time to ask young people for their perspective on issues and to encourage them to make their voices heard.
Verna Myers’ charismatic storytelling and sense of humor make her one of the easiest people for me to learn from. A Harvard Law School trained lawyer, Verna consults with law firms around the world striving to attract and retain legal talent of color. Her ability to bear her soul while weaving humor, storytelling, analysis, and data into her work has influenced and affirmed my own style. Her deep understanding of the way bias and fear wreak havoc on the best of intentions added tremendously to my understanding of intent and impact. The chapter title in my book, “Getting Over Myself,” is a direct quote of hers from a conversation in which we laughed over my lifelong need to be seen as having it all together. Her book, Moving Diversity Forward: How to Go From Well-Meaning to Well-Doing is full of cartoons, do’s and don’ts, and anecdotes from her own life. I think it’s an ideal follow-up to my book.
Dr. ShellyTochluk’s book witnessing Whiteness came out just as I was embarking on my journey. Thirsting for insight into whiteness, I tore through the book, spellbound by Shelly’s honest insights about herself, interview-style conversations with people of various races, explanations of the social dynamics that complicate cross-racial relationships, and guidance for white people on how to take action to challenge racism. At one of my first conferences, I ended up eating dinner with Shelly, having the opportunity to share with her ideas for my own book. She listened closely before offering this advice:“I could imagine it as a series of short essays, each around a different aspect of racism.” This concept stuck with me and you’ll notice its influence on the final product. That first interaction I had with Shelly was typical of the generosity and solidarity she brings to this work. Among the many ways Shelly gives to the racial justice community is the extensive free online set of workshop agendas and resources to support groups working to understand and work towards racial equity in their own communities.