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  • Valerie Hope

Ep. 56 - Not Quite Strangers: Coming To Terms With Your Skin Color


Not Quite Strangers | Skin Color


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Coming To Terms With Your Skin Color

Welcome to another episode. It's my pleasure to bring this moment together with two people, who do not know each other, in this case, and have a meaningful conversation. The whole point is to inspire curiosity, shift our perspective about what it's like to interact with strangers, and build connections. Who knows how they'll show up and what will happen during the result?

 

Ultimately, if you're not already subscribed to this show, please do so by going to www.NotQuiteStrangers.com so that you don't miss any others in your inbox. Drum roll for my special guests in this episode. I'll start by introducing Jae. Jae, you and I met in July of 2022. You were working at the Equal Justice Initiative Memorial Center.

 

It so happened that was my second time visiting because I went back a few days before with my brother and his family. My other brother said, "I want to go too." I ended up going back but because I'd already seen the memorial, I was like, "I'm going to hang out in the gift shop." I'm so glad I did because I ended up hanging out and chatting with you. You were so cool and open. I hope I didn't take you away from a bunch of customers.

 

No. You're good.

 

You were so open and generous with your information and experience. I was like, “Jae, we got to keep this conversation going. Come on and be on the show." You said, "Yes." Thank you.

 

I'm so glad to be here. Thank you.

 

Shelly, funny enough, I met you the first time I went to the memorial. Jae, you did not know this. This is a surprise. The first time I went to the memorial was with my first brother and his family. We were towards the end of the tour and about closing time. I was hanging out looking at one of the exhibits when, Shelly, I met one of your peers who was in the tour group with you. We started a conversation. Somehow, you all started to come around as we were getting ready to head out.

 

You and I had a fascinating conversation about your experience at the Equal Justice Initiative Memorial and what you got out of it. I didn't think until that moment that I got the brand of activism that I exercised. I so appreciate our conversation because it opened up a whole new field for me or at least a new perspective. I thought, “What two better people to bring together than the people I met in the same place on different days but all committed to the same cause?” Welcome to the show. 

 

Thank you.

 

Thank you for having me.

 

Why did you say yes?

 

I had a good time talking to you. You radiated a positive energy. It honestly felt like there was an establishment of trust in the kind of person you are in the world that I was like, “I'll go have a conversation with you and allow other people to hear me out of it with a person that I do not know.” Somehow, you were reiterated that that was still going to be an okay thing to do.

 

It is more than an okay thing. Thank you.

 

I would say the same. It’s your personality, talking about your experiences, the show, and everything. The conversation we had was very engaging, light-hearted, and fun. We talked about serious issues and our experiences. I used your energy and I couldn't not do it.

 

Thank you so much to both of you. This is very kind. I don't take it for granted because the other thing I've learned through this show is the element of trust is such an important aspect of how people connect. I've been learning that over and over again. Every single conversation seems to be the key for people to want to say yes to us. For those of you reading, FYI, if you want people to do stuff for you, make sure that they trust you. It’s a pro tip.

 

I also started this new tradition in the last interview I did. I listened to a podcast called The Diary of a CEO. In that podcast, they asked the current guests a question that they would like for future guests to answer. I have a question for the two of you that was posed by my previous guests. We'll start with that one and then we'll see where the conversation goes. The first question that I have for you is, what do you feel you have in common so far with the person who is on the show with you?

 

I feel we both agree that you are a trustworthy and amazing person. We haven't got the chance to get in-depth with anything. If you think and know that Shelly will have a great vibe, I'm here for it with positive energy and trust.

 

Shelly, what would you say we have in common?

 

I'm repeating something you said. It is the fact that you met both of us at the same location. While I do not work at EJI, it was an important place for me to go to. It wasn't just a thing I happened to buy. There is an investment in the mission and justice. Jae, if you're working there, I'm making a bit of an assumption that you believe in the mission of the location. Therefore, that's something that we would have in common.

 

Both of them resonate. You both trust me and you’re committed to the mission of the place where we met. That's question number one and we might delve into more detail around it. I want to ask the second question. The second guest asked, what are the people like in your hometown? When you think about who you are and where you grew up, what are they like? How do they like you? How are they different than you?

 

Being here in Montgomery, it's a very true Southern conservative atmosphere. Everybody is Southern hospitalitable and very nice but there's always that undercurrent of, “You have to bless your hearts,” or the types of things that they don't want to say, “You're crazy,” or something that goes, “Bless your heart.” It is a true thing. The community here has been growing, especially with the civil rights movement in the local community and everything. That's been a good part of the community and something that I’m hoping to see more of.

 

Montgomery, Alabama is the heart of so much of the civil rights movement. It's interesting to see that you find it increasing. Did it die down at one point?

 

I don't think it died down. There was not much going on for the longest. Going to school and everything here, we never delved into civil rights other than Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. There wasn't a national memorial and a lot of community dialogue and engagement even as I got older until 2018 when it started to pick up and become a thing.

 

Thanks, Jae. Shelly, what about you? We'll start with the question about your community. I have a feeling that we can maybe go back to some of the answers that you both have given so far.

 

It's so interesting because I immediately thought, “Which community are we talking about exactly?” I have lived in Los Angeles for many years. They’re so diverse. There are so many different people and pockets. There's a different flavor to so many different places and people that said it is LA and therefore, it's a lot of people in their cars. You have to decide to be around people. You are a middle-class person who owns a vehicle and is not using public transportation. You're going to your job or wherever you're planning to go and select who you're around.

 

In the land of a lot of suburban living, my community can feel a little bit disconnected in that way. I've happened to live in the same location for many years so I know some of my neighbors, which is great but a lot of us live in our backyards. There isn't a lot of activity out in the front unless you're walking a dog in my particular neighborhood. That does flavor a little bit of the community, which is interacting with people you want to interact with. You can avoid people you don't want to be around. That can be both easy and sad at the same time.

 

It's interesting to think about life happening in the backyard. The sense of privacy is important. Building the commonality and connecting might be a lot more challenging. You'd have to be super intentional. My answer to either of those questions would be one thing that has in common is both of you saying yes to doing something like this with some random stranger that you've met at a memorial center.


Not Quite Strangers | Skin Color
Skin Color: Building the commonality and connecting might be a lot more challenging.


Both of you have your level of activism, what you're committed to inside of the work that you do, and the interests that you have for the place where we all met, the EJI or Equal Justice Initiative. Community-wise, I'm building a community through a show like this, helping break down some of the silos that we artificially erected around the community.

 

Part of it was because, for me, my dad was in the military so we moved around a lot. I had to build community constantly. Sometimes those were artificial like, “We all happen to go to the same school, be on the same team, and live in the same block.” We would have to find creative ways to build communities so that the experience of having been the new kid wasn't so raw every time.

 

After many decades of being on my own and not having the military necessarily as the crutch, I still have that need to build community. I have a lot of it with my work. The dimensions have changed. I don't even know some of the people that live around me. Usually, I say, “Hi, neighbor.” I do not know their names half the time.

 

It's an opportunity for me to create a community with people who are doing interesting things. That's what this show provides me. People are doing interesting stuff. Let me have them have a conversation with each other. Maybe that can support something that they're each doing. Welcome to a new community.

 

Thank you.

 

What questions do you have for each other so far? Pretty early on in this conversation, you probably have something that piqued your interest in one another.

 

Shelly, what do you do, if you do not mind sharing? How did you get into your passion for activism or being into social justice? I will assume that that is something you're passionate about as well coming to the memorial and you say you make a point to come to the memorial. I was wondering that.

 

The long story cut down to the abbreviated version is that I started teaching elementary school in Inglewood, California. It’s here in Southern California, a little bit South of LA. It is that location where the people around me helped me to recognize that I was walking into that environment as a person with a race and class background, both of which were influencing how I showed up. It was quite a long journey of coming to grips with it, meaning more than I wanted it to mean.

 

What it led to was me fully taking on both the value and responsibility for having been on that journey. It's been my dedicated mission ever since coming to that place of reconciliation that I realized I want to help support other people to more readily move on that journey for themselves in a way that is healthy, effective, and productive so that more people who have the background as I do can commit to racial justice.

 

Shelly, can you give us an example or a story of something that you noticed that you learned about yourself or the community that influenced who you are and how you moved?

 

There are so many but there’s one of them that will always stand out. I was teaching fifth grade and there's a young Black boy who was part of the foster care system. He had moved through multiple different schools and locations. We knew he was having a rough time. I wanted so desperately for him to be successful. I wanted him to be the one to demonstrate all of his leadership skills.

 

I saw the brightness in him. He was a smart kid. I wanted him to be able to do these end-of-year celebratory speeches and things like that that I thought he wanted to do but he kept breaking the rules over and over again. I kept giving him chance after chance because I didn't want to give up on him. There was this one teacher who pulled me aside at one point and said, “You are doing damage to this child by not offering the appropriate boundaries, you and your White liberal guilt.” She didn't use those words but she said, “You're not holding him accountable. He's not going to learn the tools he needs to learn.”

 

It was not in that exact moment but it was that process that helped me understand that there's a big difference between being strict, loving, and helping somebody formulate where they need to go to navigate where they are in the world versus being nice and permissive. That had a lot to do with what I came to understand. I don't want to say it this way but it was like, “You poor kid, I need to do this thing for you.”

 

There's a big difference between being strict and loving and helping somebody formulate where they need to go to navigate where they are in the world.

I had this investment in being the person who was going to help him be more than his circumstances we’re telling him he could be. There was a certain level of my identity process, which was wrapped up in the way I was treating him as opposed to honestly assessing what that child needed at that moment that was going to be best for him. I was getting in the way of that.

 

That's what people talk about the savior mentality. That's for anybody. It’s appropriate boundaries for children and adults. I hear what you're saying. The focus is on what's best for the person, not only what's best for our sense of self or lowering our self-orientation to be of service to other people where they're at and meeting people where they are. Jae, what do you think about that? Do you have anything to say or add?

 

That's very awesome that you took that feedback and looked into yourself to see, “Maybe I'm not doing the best that I am.” There are people who have that White savior mentality. It can be harmful. Is it helping or you're doing it just for you to say, “I'm helping someone underprivileged?” More people should do a self-assessment like you did in that moment, look, and see, “Am I helping this person? Am I helping someone who is underprivileged and who I want to see strive?” That will be something everyone can learn to do. It’s more inner monologuing to see, “How am I being a better person and helping the community and others?”

 

We've mentioned EJI several times. Even saying Equal Justice Initiative and more museums may mean nothing to a lot of people who are reading this. Since you both experienced it, could you give us a flavor or context of what it meant to you?

 

The Equal Justice Initiative is a nonprofit that was founded by Bryan Stevenson. His vision for The National Memorial for Peace and Justice was to have America recognize the atrocities that happened with slavery, how they have the Holocaust Museum and Apartheid, and how those countries continue to acknowledge that this happened. It's Americans' version of that.

 

It's meant to honor those people who have passed from racial terrorism and open dialogue. That was one aspect of it. I feel like the great part about the museum is it takes the narrative from slavery to mass incarceration, and how it's all connected. When I first thought about it, I was like, “How do you connect slavery to mass incarceration?” I was very curious to see how that was done.

 

With the separate eras and going through the information, it was done very easily. It was easy to comprehend. You could see that throughout the years, racism and the school-to-prison pipeline have created these racial systemic issues that we have. It's very informative and emotional. It's something that everyone should try to experience. It's very well done how you connect slavery to mass incarceration. Before, I was like, “How are you going to do that?” It was very well done and thought out. It's incredible.

 

I have my top three museums and memorials that I've been to. I've been to the Deutsches Glashütte Museum, the German history museum in Bonn, Germany, and the Holocaust Museum in DC as far as history goes. I'm not a big fan. I wouldn't sit there and study all the books. My brother was the encyclopedia reader of the family when we had those back in the day.

 

For me, it was impactful, not only because of the way it was presented but also because it was multimedia and things are very modern. It brought life to data and facts, not only the data but also the human aspects. Shelly, I shared this with you when we met. It didn't hit me until that time. Shelly, was your focus has been on reparations or the school-to-prison pipeline?

 

A friend of mine has founded that fund.

 

You were sharing that and then other people in your group were talking about some of those huge systemic issues that you're fighting against. Before going to the museum, I would have thought that that was so much more powerful and impactful. It's not in my spirit to work at that level with that particular level of justice but when I walked through the museum with all the displays and connection of the system to humans, the trend that I saw in common was not only with the racial terrorism that you mentioned, Jae.

 

When I thought about the Holocaust and Rwandan genocide, it was how we disassociated the humanity of these beings. These people who were terrorized became less than human. That was the moment in which all these different systems were able to grow and take root. I discovered through walking through that museum that my brand of activism is connection. Having conversations like this has always been something that I've been compelled to do and have a lot of conviction around.


Not Quite Strangers | Skin Color
Skin Color: These people who were terrorized became less than human. That was the moment in which all these different systems were able to grow and take root.

 

I always found it was the soft side. It's not as powerful. It's not like I'm not there picketing and trying to lobby for certain things. I found validation when I walked through that museum. I was like, “If people could only understand the humanity of everyone involved in the systems, then it would be harder to implement some of the things that people were implementing.” Not only harder but it would be inappropriate.

 

Unlikely, we will be more courageous and questioning when things come up because we have a connection to humanity, not only ourselves but others. That's what I walked away with. That's why I have such a powerful experience. I'm so grateful I got to meet the two of you in the process. Shelly, I would love to hear your reaction to what Jae and I shared.

 

What’s coming up for me, which I have related to as well, is what's my brand of activism and contribution. I have come to a place where it all counts. All of it is important. If we bring our best of ourselves to it, then that's going to be the way that it is best done and that's more effective. There are critiques out there that say, “Here's the right way to do something. Here's the most important way to do activism.” All of it matters.

 

I wrote this one piece called On-ramps and Lanes on the Racial Justice Freeway. The whole idea of it is we have to find our lane. What's the way we know?

 

Jae, the question was, what is it like to work at EJI? It is a powerful message that it's giving to the community about this particular system that's been in place for everything from slavery to prison and the mass incarceration pipeline. What is it like for you as a person being surrounded by that every day all day?

 

I was one of the first classes of people to start working there before it opened. I would go back and forth from the museum to the memorial. Working in the memorial due to the context, it gets to you emotionally. I would not say you phase it out but you look at it as like, “This is more than me and my emotions.” You build resiliency and things like that so that way when people come through, we have a lot of people international, local, and everywhere.

 

With a lot of the information that we have, they want to know more. They will ask and we’ll answer questions as best we can. There's a wide range of emotions and questions that we get. Usually, if someone's very emotional, we're very supportive. We let them say, “If you need to take a moment, go ahead and feel free to step out. Grab a wristband. You're more than welcome to come in.” It's made aware that the content can be very heavy and some people need it in doses.

 

When it comes to crying, we're like,” It's okay. Strength brought you here.” I've had a few situations where people have come out of the museum or memorial and asked questions like, “Do you hate all White people for this?” Those are the questions that I stop and make me pause for a moment. You go through this experience. It's not meant for anyone to feel like they shouldn't be hated or anything. It’s meant to tell the story and present history as it is with the facts. It's meant to create dialogue and let people come together and talk about it in a way.


Not Quite Strangers | Skin Color
Skin Color: It's meant to tell the story and present history as it is with the facts, and so it's meant to create dialogue and let people come together and talk about it in their own way.

 

I'm not saying people aren't entitled to think what they think or feel how they feel at that moment. There are better ways to start the dialogue than, “Do you hate all White people now?” We’re going to be professional, even though I'm thinking, “Why would you ask me that?” I tell them, “No, I don't hate you. Why would I? You came here. That says a big thing for you to take the time to come here. I don't hate you for that. I applaud you for that and for staying through the whole walkthrough, going into the memorial, and everything. You shouldn't feel that way. It's not meant for you to feel that way and think, ‘All White people are going to hate me.’ That's not the intent.”

 

It’s like, “You went through this emotional journey and experience but you came out. Your question is making it about you and yourself. What did you take? Did you take the message that it was meant to be portrayed as when you're coming back like, ‘White people are horrible. Do you hate White people?’” My thing is what you’re paying attention to. That should be the first thought that comes to somebody's mind, especially coming up to an employee.

 

To give people some context who haven't been to the museum, so much of it is devoted to, first of all, slavery, being in the economic system that was established, 12.1 million African slaves, the transatlantic slave trade, the economics behind it, all of the businesses that boomed, and the family wealth that grew out of that by Europeans that was involved in this process. That is one aspect of it.

 

You talk about the Jim Crow South, the history of segregation, and the systemic extermination of many Black people. Some of the laws that were quite arbitrary were set up by racial terrorism. There's so much of that depicted and very graphic ways in some cases too that you can help them walk away knowing, “This is what a group of people did to another group of people. Here are the facts and history.” I’m wondering about the reaction that you were getting from people asking how you hate White people or something like that coming from a place of shame and guilt. Those are the big two.

 

Not to take anything away from the gravity of that topic but when I talked to my mom, for example, about things in my childhood that I was dissatisfied with like “This thing happened and then this happened.” All of a sudden, she would say, “Was I a bad mom? Did you hate your childhood or something?” I'm like, “No, it was just this moment.”

 

I hear in her question some self-flagellation. She's questioning her approach to motherhood that somehow provoked whatever I was judging. That's the connection I'm making to what you're saying. Shelly, I'm curious. You went through it. You're studying and have been experiencing some of this. What did you walk away with? What have you heard other people walk away with?

 

I'll be honest. The thing I do is research this particular topic, which is a racial identity process for White people. I appreciate what you said, Valerie. Many of us when we come to that first awareness of how bad it was and the systemic part, the wish and the hope for White people is that we will understand the system of it and we will decide, “Here's this whole system that's never been good and clean. How do we disrupt and ship the system?”

 

There’s too much frustration. The typical response isn't about seeing the system. It's about, “What does this mean about me? How am I related to this thing?” If I haven't figured out what my relationship is in a way that allows me to feel decent about myself, I go into that place, “You must hate everybody. You must hate me. I can't even treat you like a full human being. You're just a person of color in front of me because I'm so filled with my emotions.” That's what happens in our heads so much at a particular status point.

 

The hope and wish is that we continue on a journey and get hooked up with people who are helping us to do the self-evaluation and action that allows us to create an identity around being against that system and being one of the people who, throughout our history, has worked to improve things and move it towards justice. When we can adopt that as an identity and feel honest about that being true for us and we know enough, then we stop saying those sorts of things. We stopped being that level of frustrating and disappointing quite frankly. Typically often where it starts is with ourselves. That is not what these spaces are intended to do. It's a reflection of where we are in our identity process.

 

The hope and the wish is that we continue on a journey and get hooked up with people who are helping us to do self-evaluation and action that allow us to create an identity around being against that system.

I went through this company that did online tours. This particular one was done in Kyiv, Ukraine. This was prior to the beginning of the war. The person who was guiding the tour, and I can't remember the name of the place, but in this particular location, she was walking through and sharing the history of it. That particular place had witnessed the extermination of 30,000 Jews during World War II. They were deceived into coming to this particular location and mowed down.

 

I've not gone back to research it on my own. I don't know how much of this was factual or her interpretation. She’s just sharing what she shared. One of the things that she mentioned that stood out to me was how many of the Nazi soldiers were responsible for executing the citizens of their community. Some killed themselves and some became very ill.

 

I can't imagine what it does to the soul of another human being to be a part of exterminating another person, especially in such a systemic way. I would imagine someone who has a family member or friend who committed some heinous crime that created trauma for someone whether that was molestation or rape, or a serial killer who has a family who's left with, “What do we do with all of this?” I was so curious about that.

 

I saw in the museum the things that we talked about. It was displayed around lynching and how those were like carnival atmospheres, where people were taking photographs and making postcards of people being lynched, taking body parts, and things like that. How does one sit around the dinner table? On both sides of the trauma, the victim and perpetrator, what do you do with that?

 

How does one continue to live life in a place where it's in an empowering context after having seen, heard, or known that your neighbor disappeared? There's never to be heard from again and then you saw a picture or heard people talking about a picture, or knowing that your cousin, uncle, or father participated in this event? I was left with so many questions about that.

 

We do have quite a few people who come in and they're very open. My family members owned slaves. This is my way of coming through and trying to come to terms that someone in my family did this brutality to another human being. It takes a lot of strength for you to come in and take it all in. When people hear about it and see the museum and memorial, there's not a lot of inside things so I don't think they expect the kind of emotional exposure that you will have going through it.


Not Quite Strangers | Skin Color
Skin Color: It takes a lot of strength for you to come in and take it all in.


People come in and say, “I have family members who were part of this. I had to come through and witness how my family could do such a horrible thing and learn how I could be a better person for my family. I've gained so much from awful slavery and everything. What can I do to make things just?” At that point by coming here, you're starting. From there, you continue to search, find, and work your way until you get to a place where you feel that you are making the change. The first thing I always tell people is, “You're making a change by simply coming here.”

 

Shelly, you may have something you want to share. Go for it.

 

It's more complicated for me. I'm one of those White people who don't have ancestral feet in the US far enough to know that they participated in any way. I remember this in my twenties. My family didn't own slaves. It’s like I divorced myself from needing to take into account how I've either still been complicit with the system or still benefited from a system or the unending work. What was so powerful for me about the museum was the way that it room-by-room allowed me to see the uninterrupted trauma.

 

Regardless of when my parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents set foot on what we have as US territory, they entered a diabolically interesting space, particularly to Black folks, which is the focus of the museum. There is no place for White people to escape that in this museum. That's important and powerful. It calls for those of us who are in the community that I'm in to be looking deeper at that question you asked about. What does it mean for me to be raised in a society that is giving me a lot of messages about not needing to identify with race unless I feel like it?

 

Things are starting to shift because things are so prominent but my generation, the generation after me, and multiple generations before, we had this opposite racial identity experience that didn't become clear to me until I started going to workshops. We'd have mixed-race rooms of people and they would ask the question, “When's the first time you realize you were a part of your race? When was the first time you realized that that was meaningful, meaning it was going to affect your life?”

 

Most of the folks of color, regardless of background, were like, “4, 5, 6,” or something like that. Half the room of White folks were like, “At 25 or 42. I still don't know.” It is so hot for young people. I don't know how young people aren't going to see it as salient and meaningful. Racial literacy was not part of my upbringing. I did not get raised in a way that helped me have a race conversation. It was not until my mid-twenties that I started inelegantly trying to have these conversations. I'm sure I was super frustrated.

 

I was probably one of those people, Jae, where you'd have been like “Hmm.” It wasn't me who was like, “Thankfully, I had some special gene that made me pay attention to feedback.” It wasn't like that. People took me under their wing and were patient with me. There were a good number of folks who supported me when I was crying and finding it hard to work through the emotions that came up with wanting to see myself as a good person, wanting to be a good person, and trying to figure out, “I'm dedicated to being a good person. If that means some things need to shift, fine but now, I don't know what to do.”

 

There's a little bit of fun often made of people who are saying, “Tell me what to do.” There is no easy ten-point list. There is nothing that you can say that's like, “If you do these things, everything's going to be fine. You're not going to bother people anymore. You're going to be a real dedicated, useful member of antiracism.” It's not that easy. It comes from a heart place that not only wants to do easier but also wants to be effective right away. All of that is what's coming up for me as you tell your story.

 

It’s important to ask questions when you’re unsure. If you’re curious, it's great to ask those questions. It's all about the tone. I'm a person who fully believes that you can have a conversation with anyone. You may not have the same beliefs or everything. I have a neighbor who's big libertarian and everybody's like, “I don't see how you all are friends.” We're good. We have conversations.

 

You could have a conversation with anyone you may not have the same beliefs.

When you have those dialogues with her, and for example, she's like, “I never realized my White privilege until I started talking to you,” I said, “But now you know.” What you take with it is you learn and grow, and try to be more cognizant of the things that you say. She's like, “Am I allowed to say hot sauce? Can I give somebody a hot sauce?” I'm like, “You can give somebody a hot sauce.” You're doing great. It's the acknowledgment that is the important part. Everything is meant to bring about that type of dialogue civilly and manually.

 

No one there is offended by questions. It may jar us for a moment, especially when it's like, “Where'd that come from?” It's always going to be like, “You took the time and came. It's a start.” That's the important thing. You're asking questions like, “What can I do more?” Shelly said, “No ten-point list.” I can't get it. I don't know. Reach out to other people, go out in your community, and learn more about what's going on in your community and how you can help the underprivileged, children, or anything like that to learn and grow from this experience. This is a seed that you can take to grow from.

 

Both of you made some interesting points about the experience on both sides, Jae as a host and then Shelly as a participant or a member of the public coming in to partake. “Tell me what to do and how to do it.” Oftentimes, it's an easy approach. We're like that with medicine. “Give me the pill. Let me not go through the thing. I don't want to go through the process. Don't I want to go to therapy? No. Don’t I want to talk about it with my family? No. Let me fix it.” There's a fix-it mentality that sometimes comes to the surface.

 

I didn't realize I was Black until I was fourteen and that's because my family were immigrants to this country. I didn't know this until much later but in Panama, which is where I'm originally from, the Republic of Panama, the Panama Canal was built by the US Army. Many of the people in the Army at that time were from the South. They'd established segregation in the canal in a foreign country. That canal was known as US property or territory.

 

My mother would share that. My grandmother never talked about it so that's probably why I didn't get much of it or if he did, I was not aware of the impact of it. They would call it silver and gold, rather than Black and White or colored and White. Blacks were painted silver and Whites were painted gold. That was part of it back then in the early 1900s. I thought that was fascinating.

 

Many of the rules, as far as the division of access to restrooms, water fountains, and all the same things that you would see in Jim Crow South, were also in effect in a foreign country. Those are the kinds of things that I remember we may have experienced then but we didn't grow up that way. We grew up very integrated into Panamanian culture. My great-grandparents were from the West Indies and Caribbean islands.

 

It wasn't until we moved to the US that my father joined the military. I was nine years old. We lived on military bases. That conversation doesn't come up. I had to create an artificial community because all of us were coming from someplace else. It wasn't until I went to high school and college in Alabama that I saw on the first day in the cafeteria that ninth-graders were all Black students on one side and White students on the other side.

 

I've never seen that outside of a civil rights movie. It was shocking to me like, “Is this a thing? It’s the ‘80s. It’s not like civil rights movies of the '60s. What's going on?” That was a learning experience for me. I'm still learning a lot of things about, “What is my responsibility, even as an immigrant of African descent? How do I show up? How do I educate not only myself but also those in my family?” I have nieces and nephews who are mixed-race. How does that happen? How do they identify? How do they reconcile their Whiteness and Blackness?

 

There are so many conversations about this that we could take. A big piece of what I heard the two of you share, that at least implies, is so much of it starts within and figuring out why is it what we want to do and how we want to approach it. That takes me to my next question. Why did you all decide to do the things that you're doing?

 

Shelly, why are you committed to knowing that this isn't necessarily something that your ancestors were involved in the slavery movement? Jae, you were raised in Alabama. I'm sure you probably have a family history that was directly impacted by some of the terrorism that took place. Why did you guys say yes to doing more of this deeper?

 

My experience is a little different. I grew up in the suburbs with a single mom. It was a very small subdivision and there were only maybe four Black families. You know you’re not the same but you see the difference. There are undertones there. It’s like when you go to a friend's house and they're like, “What are you doing here?”

 

Living in that situation and then going into private school was a bit of an identity crisis for me because I was like, “Where do I fit in?” Some of the kids were like, “You speak so well that you want to be White.” It was like I didn't fit in with either side. Once, they were like, “You act and talk like White” I never understood it. I was like, “I don't get what that means but I identify as Black. What's the issue?” There will be the kids who would say microaggressions like, “You're so smart for a Black guy. Why do you speak so well to be Black?” You're like, “What?”

 

Growing up in that situation made me want to understand people and our history more. Fortunately, my mom and aunt did a lot of great work in teaching me about my culture, African-American History, and everything. I ended up doing nonprofit work for a local community here in Montgomery, which led to working with another larger nonprofit, which branched off here. My experience of people in the community and seeing people who may not fit in exactly in a box or bubble is what inspired me to go out and work with different communities and everything.

 

To understand even better. That's interesting, Jae. Thank you. Shelly, what drove you?

 

I want to be careful the way I say this because, on one hand, my commitment to racial justice is about having a just world where everybody gets to be fully valued and be the fullness of who they can be in the world so their gifts can shine. What's become so important and what helps drive me the way that I do it is a lot of what you said before, Valerie. What does it mean for a person to recognize that they're attached to something so awful?

 

I feel strongly that I have a personal stake. My humanity is wrapped up in living in a more healthy society. I don't think living in a racist society is healthy, even for White people. I understand that the scope and severity of the trauma is a whole different kind of thing but I can do a whole long list of ways that White people are not well-served by this whole setup.


Not Quite Strangers | Skin Color
Skin Color: My own humanity is wrapped up in living in a more healthy society.

 

In terms of our emotional life, community life, cultural life, and even bills of society, racism makes all of that worse. We wouldn't have so many of the issues that we had if we had a more equitable society. I want to be a person who lives in a not racist environment. I want my family to live in a not racist environment as much as I want other people also not to deal with the abuse and trauma. For me, it's a personal stake on a spiritual level. It's also very practical and all of the things.

 

With my little position within my little world of anti-racist White people, I say, “I'm the Pollyanna of White, anti-racist people.” “They’re optimistic.” “We can do better.” We don't have to feel bad about ourselves. That's not the number one point. It's not to ask. We can feel good about being anti-racist people in the world and there's nothing wrong with that. It's not about binding goodness but finding a healthier way of being. Quite frankly, we're better with each other, too.

 

There are a couple of books that so lay this out like Dying of Whiteness by Jonathan Metzi. We're injuring ourselves when we, as a collective, invest in racist policies and things. You don't see it right away and that shouldn't be the whole point but it's true and we should look at it. With Heather McGhee's The Sum of Us, its metaphor is deep. This hits the work of The Legacy Museum. When the desegregation orders came down, whole bunches of White communities used to invest in things like big, beautiful community pools.

 

It was community orientation. They build the community pools with concrete instead of desegregating them. That is a metaphor for the things that White racism has done writ large. That's why my neighbors exist in the backyard. This is how we all wrapped up together. A lot of it is the mental illnesses that are made worse by separation, isolation, and not having extra support. All that stuff is wrapped up in racism. Every day, I want racism to end because I don't think it's a sermon for anybody including me. That's my life.

 

I feel like we're just starting to scratch the surface. It usually happens when we have these types of conversations. As we're wrapping up our time together, I'm curious about what you guys get out of our conversation.

 

It was very wonderful. It was great to meet Shelly. I would love to connect with her outside of here because I have many more questions. I would love to know more about her work. She said something in a way that shows you equity. Equity plays a very important of equality. What you do is something that I could take from my community when I'm asked questions like, “We're horrible.” It's a genuine response but it throws you off. I would love to talk to you more about how you have those discussions and those things like that. I am very grateful to have been part of that. Shelly can be a word of information for me. I'm ready to learn.

 

Jae, I need to match out. You thought this had been a great conversation and I agree. We've just scratched the surface of all that we could be talking about and the fact that you see people coming in and out day after day. I arrived at the museum and memorial with a group of eleven multiracial folks. I saw how we had different reactions based on our backgrounds and how we had to hold each other in terms of making space and room for people to have different emotional responses and stuff like that. With what you witnessed, I'd be curious to hear more about the patterns of that.

 

We'll have a part two for sure because I do think that there's still even more to unpack there. I want to say how grateful I am to the two of you for our conversation. I do have a couple of asks. Do you have a question that you would like for the next guests to answer? If so, what is it? It could be about anything because the conversation will go wherever it goes.

 

I'd be curious for you to ask somebody what they think they're going to get out of the conversation.

 

I'm drawing a blank, to be honest with you.

 

if you don't have a question, Jae, is there a challenge that you would pose to the audience? Maybe it’s something that you'd like to say, “Do this or try this.”

 

Show compassion to someone that you normally wouldn't show compassion to.

I would like to challenge the next person or whomever to show compassion to someone that they normally wouldn't show compassion to. It’s maybe someone that they don't get along with at work or outside of things. Try to be nice and compassionate. See how things go.

 

Show compassion out of your comfort zone to someone that you would not typically show compassion to. Thank you both very much for your time and energy on this show. For those of you who read this, thanks again. Make sure that you subscribe and follow us on your favorite platform so that you don't miss a single episode. Jae and Shelly, you have been fantastic. Thank you both again so much for what you shared. Thanks, everyone. Have a good rest of the day.

 

Important Links


Strangers: Meet Jae Maye & Shelly Tochluk 

From: Alabama, USA & California, USA

Talk About: Coming to terms with skin color

 

Connect with:

Julius Maye

 

Shelly Tochluk

Video:

 

Books/Articles:

  • Witnessing Whiteness: The Journey into Racial Awareness and Antiracist Action, Third Edition

  • Living in the Tension: The Quest for a Spiritualized Racial Justice

  • On-ramps and Lanes on the Racial Justice Freeway

 

Shelly’s monthly newsletter - https://www.shellytochluk.com/newsletter/

 

Other Resources:

 

Subscribe to my YouTube channel and access new and past episodes! To receive episodes and personal 'Connection Challenges' in your inbox, subscribe at www.NotQuiteStrangers.com.

 

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