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Why two Dallas women started a female-only book club about diversity

Jean McAulay (left) and Shannon Cerise, founders of the Multicultural Women's Book Club, at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture in Dallas.  (Rose Baca/Staff Photographer)

Jean McAulay (left) and Shannon Cerise, founders of the Multicultural Women's Book Club, at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture in Dallas.

(Rose Baca/Staff Photographer)

Shannon Cerise wasn’t expecting 25 women to show up. The meetings usually had about half as many attendees, but on this night, there didn’t seem to be enough chairs.

Cerise stood at the whiteboard with a marker in hand and asked the room: “How are you feeling?” She wrote each answer down one by one.

“I feel comfortable,” said one woman.

“Nervous,” said another.

“I’m hopeful.”

One was curious, and a few were excited. It was a mixed bag of emotions all across the board.

The women gathered for the Multicultural Women’s Book Group meeting, a book club for women of all races that uses books to discuss social topics. On this night, they were discussing Robin DiAngelo’s controversial White Fragility for the second time. Most of the attendees recall that the first discussion didn’t go so well.

White Fragility is an in-depth look at “why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism,” as the author puts it. The group, made up of white, black, Asian and Latina women, doesn’t always talk about books as contentious as this one, but race isn’t an unusual topic to focus on.

The Multicultural Women’s Book Group was started two years ago by Cerise and Jean McAulay. The pair had attended the Questions of Color panel discussion, an event held in 2017 by The Dallas Morning News on how conversations are framed around people of color.

McAulay said the event was alarming and depressing, especially after hearing some of the life experiences that people of color and their kids go through. McAulay is white, and she admits that being shocked by the stories she heard was “a privileged, white woman, clueless, stupid thing” for her to realize.

“We lead such segregated lives,” she said. “You might work with diverse people, but most of the places that we live are super segregated. So how do we get people into connection with each other?”

Cerise and McAulay wanted to continue talking about social issues in a civil group setting. So they started the Multicultural Women’s Book Group with a membership that is open to many, regardless of ethnicity, age, culture, perspective, religion and sexual orientation. But there was one condition that McAulay was adamant about: The members had to be women.

“Women are more often the people who create relationships for their families, their communities, for their neighborhoods. They’re the people out there who are making connections,” McAulay says.

Those connections and discussions, McAulay says, are the things that create change in a community. While the Multicultural Women’s Book Group does read and discuss books, the group wasn’t meant to be an intellectual study.

The goal is to bring the community together, one woman, one friendship at a time.

The book club topics dive deep into the realms of race, privilege, immigration, poverty and politics, and the books they read guide these conversations. Previous books include Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, which led to a discussion about privilege, adoption and abortion, and Dallas Morning News reporter Alfredo Corchado’s Homelands, which prompted a discussion about immigration and diversity.

Each meeting is guided by rules that outline civil discussion, and each discussion is led by a different member of the group. White Fragility was led by Laurel Bush, a black woman who works for a nonprofit in Dallas.

Bush became a part of the Multicultural Women’s Book Group early on. She says that to see two white women take on the initiative of putting together a group like this one meant that they “were open to other people’s thoughts and ideas.” Beyond the important discussions, she says, the best part about the group is developing friendships.

Forming a group like this has its challenges. McAulay says talking to a group of strangers about deeply personal experiences can be intimidating, and getting over that initial stage takes a lot of time. In order to combat that, the women are encouraged to spend time with each other outside of the meetings. They’ve gone line dancing, bowling and held meditation sessions.

McAulay attended a Beyoncé concert with Bush last year. Bush had already been to one of Beyoncé’s concerts, but her experience with McAulay was different. It wasn’t all about the music — it was about the conversations.

“Jean’s older, and it’s obvious she’s white,” Bush said. “A lot of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s lyrics are about black empowerment, and I think we had a more rich discussion because we were in book club together.”

Cerise and McAulay say they don’t plan to expand their membership; they feel that a group of their size works pretty well.

“We’re interested in helping others develop their own groups, to build deeper relationships, in their own spheres of influence,” Cerise says. “With that, more folks can voice their opinions and feel heard as well as listen to and learn from each other."

HOW TO START A CONVERSATION ABOUT RACE

Pam Fields

Even once we develop the desire to engage in more open conversations about race, it can feel difficult or awkward to know how to start. One way to do that is by taking the focus off the individual and talking more generally about how racism is entrenched within our American society. We have been socialized into this way of thinking and being. Our media and news, Hollywood, justice systems – everything reinforces negative stereotypes.

Next, you can take things to a more personal level by sharing your own experiences of debunking racism from your life. What are some misinformed beliefs and ideas you previously held that you now realize are incorrect? What information helped change your thinking?

Then, let the other person know that our collective challenge is to undo this thinking and being. We can do this by informing ourselves and by developing relationships with people of other cultures:

            Seeking to be inclusive, not exclusive

            Building new, equitable systems, not discriminatory and oppressive systems

            Loving all, not just a few.

 

TINY GLIMPSES INTO MY WHITE PRIVILEGE

 Jean McAulay

I am a white woman in middle age (as long as I live to 110). I can go anywhere and no one ever seems to think I’m up to no good no matter what I’m doing.

This hit home last week when I returned to Atlanta, where I had lived for 10 years, to visit old friends. One of the very first friends I made there moved out of the country just two years into our friendship. I’ve missed her now for 10+ years so, when I heard she had moved back to the area, I started digging around to find her and reconnect.

I found an address online but no phone number, email or social media contacts. So, back in Atlanta on this visit, I headed out to the address to knock on her door.

Through the gates

I pulled up to the neighborhood to find a gated community, common in Atlanta’s affluent suburbs. I sat at the gate and weighed my options. None of which was that I had better leave before anyone got suspicious or scared.

Then the mail carrier pulled up. I asked if he could confirm that he delivered mail to the name of my friend. He provided a long explanation of why he couldn’t share that information and I quietly listened. Until he started yelling, “Go, why don’t you go!”

Turns out a resident had pulled up, activated the gate and it was now open before me. Is there any chance the white male carrier would have urged me to drive through if I were a young black man? I seriously doubt it. A black woman? I don’t know.

In I went. I found my friend’s address, parked and knocked on the door feeling well within my rights to do so. When no one answered, I walked next door and knocked. Seconds later it swung wide open and a broad-smiled young white woman answered with a big hello. She confirmed that my friend did live next door and suggested she was likely out walking her dog.

Just hanging out

I thanked her and went to wait in the car. Minutes later with my head buried in my laptop, there was a tap at the car window. The police telling me to move on? No. That nice young woman offering my friend’s new cell number so I could call her.

I had a conference call coming up in just minutes so I sat in the car with my ear buds in and my laptop open for the next 20 minutes while I completed the call and waited for my friend. Did I feel suspicious? Unsafe? Like neighbors were probably calling the police? No, no and no. I felt like there wasn’t a reason in the world for anyone in that neighborhood to be concerned about my presence. And they weren’t.

Because we were both enjoying the balmy waters of our pervasive white privilege.

Swimming in it

Despite 55 years of living as a left-leaning progressive in various states and cities across the U.S. from the Northeast to the Midwest, Southeast and now Texas (its own region), it has taken me until just about now to realize I have always been swimming in a sea of white privilege.

Thanks to books like White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele and many others, I have finally started to get just the tiniest glimpse of the privilege and freedom afforded me by white skin.

But, more than anything, it has been the lived experience and relationship with the women of the Multicultural Women’s Book Group of Dallas who have opened my eyes. These smart, brave, kind, informative and patient (God, the patience!) strangers-become-friends have done even more than well-researched and written books to help me understand how different their daily experience in this country is than mine.  And how difficult their everyday journey continues to be. And, of course, the deep fears they hold for the black men in their lives.

I have absolutely no answers but I suspect that understanding the depth and scope of our white privilege is a critical first step for white people. And then to start speaking up and pointing out the racism that defines nearly every part of our shared existence. I don’t know where this is taking me, but I’m quite certain this tiny glimpse of understanding requires that I become a different person moving forward.

Thank you MWBG members for sharing your insights, your truth and your friendship. I hope to be deserving of it.

What MWBG means in my life

Rhonda Bellamy Hodge, Member

 How many of us have been in meetings, symposiums, conferences, or maybe even an impromptu gatherings of people who “say” we want to do “something” about the race, religion, immigration, sexism, gender, poverty, discrimination, or any of a myriad of society’s problems?  We leave excited and pumped up with perhaps a few numbers typed into our phone or scribbled on scraps of paper.  And if we’re really lucky, we clutch a coveted business card, hopeful that this time will be different.

 In March of 2017, I attended a joint initiative between the Dallas Morning News and the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.  It was the culmination of a project called, “Questions of Color.” The gathering was an array of people, many with shared stores of personal experiences of racial injustices and discrimination.  Additionally, I sensed there was a genuine desire by some to want to do “something” on a personal level to try to bridge the many gaps within our own environments. 

At the end of the meeting, there was a seemingly natural graviton of a group of women obviously moved by the conversations but also by the desire to put our hopes for change and increased mutual understanding between women of different races, ages, careers, and socioeconomic levels into tangible actions. We were excited and did not want to let it pass as we returned to our separate lives, perhaps with our paths never crossing again.  A sign-up sheet was passed around for those interested in continuing the conversations in some ways or another.  Happily I signed up, hopeful that this time would be different.  That we would make connections and begin to be active participants in making our lives and our communities better by forming meaningful relationships with women who perhaps we might not necessarily be in relationships with in “normal” situations.

Since the initial meeting of the Multicultural Women’s Book Group (MWBG), I’ve been pleased with our efforts to make this a group we are all proud of.  From the book selections, to the interactive exercises, to the food fare — which often compliments the theme of the book, to the open and honest discussions, our gatherings are one of the highlights of my month. 

Oftentimes, many of us want to live in greater understanding of other cultures, traditions, and circumstances our fellow sojourners are on.  But we don’t know what to do. I say start where you are and seek out others with similar interests.  With the added caveat being those who don’t necessarily look like you, are the same age, career, religious/spiritual background, etc..  The richness to be gained is immeasurable.  The MWBG is an amazing example of what can be possible when we open ourselves up to new learning and life experiences, traveling along the paths of a variety of authors by which my desire to continue to be a lifelong learner is constantly enhanced. 

 

Get in touch with us through our website and we’ll be happy to share our experiences and help you start your own group!