Stop waiting for people of color to educate you on their lived experience: A Q+A w/ Bonnie Boyle McGahee

Sinclair: How many books are you aiming to read this year? How many have you read so far?

Bonnie: When I started my New Year’s Resolution back in December 2017 I set the goal to read 12 books in 2018. I figured 1 book per month would be realistic and pretty manageable. I also wanted to catalog the books I was reading on some sort of social media platform, so I chose Instagram with the hashtag #BBMReads (after my full name). I thought it would be neat looking back on my journey over the last year and see the themes and genres of books I gravitated towards. I have just finished book #20 and I am currently reading book #21:  Yes We (Still) Can: Politics in the Age of Obama, Twitter and Trump.

Sinclair: What’s the reason you created this reading goal for yourself?

Bonnie: I wanted to set a goal for 2018 that would help me grow both professionally and personally. Late in 2017, I started becoming more interested in learning about mass incarceration, the role I play as a white person in society, and how I can continue to develop as a feminist, wife, ally and educator.

Sinclair: Is there any particular way you source the authors?

Bonnie: Mostly word of mouth, blogs, and let’s be honest—Amazon suggestions (hah!). Back in November of 2017, I told a colleague of mine that I was so angry about the way the criminal justice system targets people of color and I needed to learn more. He told me I needed to read The New Jim Crow and my world hasn’t been the same since. Thanks, Jason, for inspiring me!

Next, I read …But I’m Not Racist and right after I finished that, my friend Natalie suggested White Rage and thus began the beginning of my #BBMReads journey.

Sinclair: Which book challenged your thinking?

Bonnie: I just mentioned The New Jim Crow and how that was the catalyst for my #BBMReads adventure; but truly I was stunned by reading Michelle Alexander’s words. As an educator, I am very humbled to say this. Prior to November 2017, I didn’t realize once someone is conflicted of a felony their rights get stripped away. They can’t vote. Can’t serve on a jury. Housing is pretty much a non-option. Education is virtually nonexistent because of the high tuition costs and lack of financial aid. There are so many parallels between slavery and prison and at times it was too much to read. I would highly suggest pacing yourself with this book.

Sinclair: Which book made you feel inspired or empowered? How so?

Bonnie: Oh, this is a difficult question! I would have to say Make Trouble by Cecile Richards. For folks who don’t know, Cecile was the President of Planned Parenthood for 12 years and recently stepped down from the organization. She starts off the book by saying: “Maybe there’s an injustice that’s bothering you; maybe you see something in your community or at work you want to change; maybe you’re trying to get up the courage to share your beliefs with friends or family who see things differently; maybe you’re worried about the world your kids will inherit. I hope this book will help you get out there and do something about it. Just don’t forget: to make a difference, you have to make a little trouble.” From that moment on, I was hooked. I read all 263 pages in a weekend. Cecile talks about her mother, Ann Richards, the first female democratic Governor of Texas. And, how Ann went from housewife to Governor, all while battling alcoholism and getting a divorce. But, Ann never lost sight of fighting for what is right. Cecile talks about her journey of activism all throughout her life and what led her to Planned Parenthood. I don’t want to give too much away, but this is an incredible book. Go read it!

bonie headsthot 2
Bonnie & Sinclair looking fly.

Sinclair: You told me about a social media post that caused conflict with a family member. What happened and what did you learn from that interaction?

Bonnie: Back in November 2017, I posted on Facebook a New York Times op-ed by Jay-Z titled “The Criminal Justice System Stalks Black People Like Meek Mill.” The article discussed Jay’s feelings on our criminal justice system and how Black people are sent to prison more often, and given probation at much higher rates than whites. This article really hit on how important it is to engage in conversation surrounding our criminal justice system, and how a person convicted of a crime at 19 years old would spend their whole adult life on probation, and be sent back to jail 11 years later for missing a curfew. This op-ed was important. It was interesting and really shook me, so I posted it on Facebook.

A family member reacted by laughing at the post. I was stunned. This article was talking about how the criminal justice system is harassing Black people. This is not funny.

I thought about what to do and decided to delete the post and message my family member. I told him I was deleted the post and reposted it. Apparently you cannot delete a reaction on Facebook. The conversation through Facebook Messenger was not ideal. I explained why I deleted it and that I was reposting the article because it was not funny to me. I also acknowledged that we have two different views on politics and that I’d prefer if we kept our views off of each other’s pages. He responded saying he wouldn’t debate a liberal like me, and that my posts are offensive to him because he views them as anti-white and anti-white police. My cousin is a police officer and I am very thankful for him keeping the city safe. I can’t even imagine how difficult it is risking your life every day. This situation made me really understand that doing this work of calling out injustice and discrimination is not going to be easy. I can’t even tell you the amount of negative messages I’ve received or relationships that have been strained. It’s sad, but at the end of the day: being an ally and confronting racism is just the right thing to do.

Did I handle that situation correctly? Maybe? Maybe not. Based on where I am now, I probably would have tried to engage in conversation a bit more: “What was so triggering? Talk to me about your view and here’s mine…” All we can do as allies is learn and improve.

Sinclair: You mentioned White Fragility at some point when originally sharing the story to me. What is that? And how do you think that played a part in this?

Bonnie: Oh, White Fragility…something that is so troublesome in our society. White Fragility is basically the discomfort that triggers defensiveness and anger when talking about issues surrounding race. Race is a very uncomfortable subject for a lot of white folks. Some people are open to listening and others aren’t not open to discussion. Instead of leaning into the conversation to learn about discrimination and injustices that happening to people of color, some folks get very defensive and try to shut down the conversation because that isn’t true of their lived experience. That’s white fragility. Derald Wing Sue talks about that in his book Race Talk & the Conspiracy of Silence, Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race. Sue writes: “Discussions of race between people with differing racial realities are likely to engender strong feelings of discomfort, anger and anxiety; most people prefer to avoid the topic of race, to remain silent, to minimize its importance or impact or pretend not to notice it.”

I think that’s what happened between me and my cousin. He was looking at the article from his lens and wasn’t open to another perspective. So, he reacted by laughing and being defensive in his response.

Side note: Robin DiAngelo’s new book just came out in June called White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism if you’re interested in learning more! It’s on my “to be read” list for this month!

Sinclair: What advice would you give you folks who are looking to be better allies and supports to folks from marginalized identities?

Bonnie: Do the work. Do not wait for anyone, especially people of color to educate you on their lived experience. If you are seriously committed to being an ally and support folks from marginalized identities I encourage you to read, engage, show up, be vulnerable, and most importantly call out your racist friends and family members.

A quote by Desmond Tutu is something I reflect on virtually everyday: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

I was silent for too long, letting microaggressions slide, not confronting my friends and family when they would say racist remarks. Now, since I’ve been educating myself more about oppression, racism, white privilege – while also being married to a Black man – I can no longer be silent. That just isn’t an option for me anymore. Most importantly, if a person of color says that you’ve done or said something offensive, apologize and do better in the future.

It’s okay to mess up, but it’s important to be better and grow. There is a passage in So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo that hits the nail on the head: “If you want to be an ally you must remember… you are not doing any favors. You are doing what is right. If you are white, remember that White Supremacy is a system you benefit from and that your privilege has helped to uphold. Your efforts to dismantle White Supremacy are expected of decent people who believe in justice. You are not owned gratitude or friendship from people of color for your efforts. We are not thanked for cleaning our own houses.”

Sinclair: How are you working to incorporate what you’ve been reading and learning about social justice, inclusion, and equity into your everyday work? Life?

Bonnie: When I started my hashtag it was definitely a way for me to keep track of all of my reading, but since I have friends, colleagues and students who follow me on Instagram they’ve began to message me, seek me out and let me know how certain books or passages really spoke to them. I try to engage with my students as much as possible whether it’s a one on one conversation, showing up at events and speaking out against injustice, or simply listening to their lived experience.

On a personal note: I am trying to be extra mindful of microaggressions and calling them out as I hear them, being mindful of the language I use (I’ve erased “hey guys!” from my vocabulary), and being open and honest about my journey. As a person working in higher education, diversity work is my work.

We as white student affairs professionals cannot just say “diversity and inclusion isn’t really my area…” No. We need to make it our area, because at the end of the day we serve students, all students, and being able to talk about race, gender, religion and sexual identity is important. I’m still working at this. I don’t have all the answers but I’m willing to learn.

Sinclair: Imagine that all your life’s work disappeared and you only had 1 minute to tell the world what you believe to be true. What would you say?

Bonnie: I believe that we have a responsibility to one another, to be kind, show compassion and listen. Black Lives Matter! Being a feminist is about wanting and supporting equal rights. Science is real. And most importantly, don’t tell me what you believe in. Show me. Actions speak louder than words.

📘📘📘

Bonnie Boyle McGahee is the Assistant Director of Residence Life at Stevenson University in Owings Mills, Maryland. She received her Master’s degree at the University of Baltimore in Negotiation and Conflict Management; her passion areas include residential education & social justice. In Bonnie’s free time she loves spending time with her husband Linton, typically wine tasting and of course, reading.

Keep up with what Bonnie’s reading and connect: Instagram | Twitter | Email 

 **This post contains affiliate links. 

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