Marblehead explores cross-racial biases

Vanessa Grimes, left, of Beverly, and Jackie Belf-Becker, of Marblehead, listen to the “Tell Me the Truth” discussion between Shay Stewart-Bouley and Debby Irving at Marblehead High School.


MARBLEHEAD — Offering different, but complementary perspectives, a black woman and a white woman explored racism’s impact on their lives, while taking part in a cross-racial conversation on Sunday afternoon at Marblehead High School.

The Marblehead Racial Justice Team hosted “Tell me the Truth: Exploring the Heart of Cross-Racial Conversations,” which was presented in collaboration with the Marblehead Task Force Against Discrimination.

The format was a conversation between Debby Irving, a white woman, who works as a racial justice educator and writer, and Shay Stewart-Bouley, a black woman and executive director of Community Change Inc., a Boston-based organization.

The pair has had similar public conversations in the past, which grew out of Irving’s 2014 book, “Waking up White.” On her website, Irving describes the book as her “cringe-worthy struggle to understand racism and racial tensions,” while offering a “fresh perspective on bias, stereotypes, manner and tolerance.”

“When my book first came out, I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just a white person talking to an audience, but I wanted to have a person of color there to kind of be speaking with me about the need for this kind of a book,” Irving said.

Stewart-Bouley said the purpose of the discussion was to able to model an honest conversation on race.

“Racism is everyone’s problem,” she said. “It’s not just people of color. It impacts white people too. It’s systemic. In order for white people to really get involved, they need to have the tools to do that and modeling this discussion is one way in which white people can be empowered to start having conversations in their own communities around race.”

Irving and Stewart-Bouley explored the common fears and pitfalls of cross-racial conversation that keep people isolated in their own racial groups, at the expense of personal, professional, and societal growth, according to a description of the event.

White silence was one of the topics the pair explored. Stewart-Bouley said some discussions around race may not always be considered polite. For instance, she said, a curious white child who says “hey, mom, there’s a brown person,” leads to the mother becoming horrified and telling him he can’t say that. Even as a little kid, she said, you’re so normalized not to talk about it. She said there’s a toxicity in nice spaces, where people don’t want to talk about race, that runs deep in white American culture.

When Stewart-Bouley lived in a town in Maine, rather than the island off the coast of Maine where she lives now, she said her neighbors didn’t talk to her, even after an incident that went viral, when she and her family were called the n-word in downtown Portland. Everyone knew about the incident, she said, but no one would say anything, even to ask if she was OK.

Irving said she hoped that people would learn some facts they didn’t know or hear some perspectives that they had never heard before. Stewart-Bouley said she hoped some seeds were planted around them for change.

“I hope they understand the root of the fear of talking and the white silence, what’s behind the white silence,” Irving said. “When I think about racism, which is like a boiling pot of water, sick water that can blow at any time, it’s white silence and white refusal to acknowledge it that’s like the lid on the top.”

Gayla Cawley can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @GaylaCawley

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