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