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Author Breaks Her Silence Regarding Racism And Religion

Written by: Dr. Lisa T. Lewis, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


As an Executive Contributor to BRAINZ magazine, I have the most amazing opportunity to interview intriguing industry and thought leaders. Today I get to present to you an author, Shani McIlwain, who is breaking her silence regarding racism and religion.

Racial injustices are more apparent than ever, leading many to look inward and reflect on how they have contributed to the discrimination marginalized communities face every day. White leaders in faith may think they are on the right side of history—but no one is immune to the biases and racial myths we have been taught our entire lives.

If you are a leader in faith who is ready to challenge yourself to recognize and repurpose your white privilege, Awkward Silence Handbook: Practical Activities for White Ministry Leaders to Confront Anti-Racism will open the door to doing the necessary work of dismantling oppression and rebuilding a world more equitable for all. Using her five-step SHARE formula, executive coach Shani E. McIlwain guides readers through how to effectively practice anti-racism and allyship, using your faith as a foundation.

Whether your goal is as simple as wanting to listen, or if you have grander aspirations to rid the world of hate and intolerance, this book will inspire you to take that first step toward your true heart transformation.

Here we go!

Dr. Lisa T Lewi: Thank you Shani McIlwain for allowing me the opportunity to interview you about your latest book. You are already a well published author and speaker, but your latest work, oh my gosh, smacks me right in the middle of my head and my heart because you get into a very sensitive area where it is concerning ministry and anti-racism. I often hear about the conversation in the workplace, but it's not often that people have the courage to talk about it as it pertains to faith.

Shani McIlwain: I appreciate that. Thank you for having me.

Dr. Lisa T Lewi: Absolutely. So, tell us, what is the book about? The title of the book is.

Awkward Silence: Practical Activities for White Ministry Leaders to Confront Anti-Racism. You picked an amazing title, but still tell us what the book is about.

Shani McIlwain: I will definitely, yes. And so one of the things that in order to tell you what the book is about and what I tell people that I coach that is doing this work as allies and co-conspirators and abolitionists, whatever you want to define yourself as is your why. Like why after all this time, because as you said, this is not my first book. And it definitely goes back to my childhood, growing up in an all white community. I was the only Black child from second grade all the way to my senior year of high school. And I'm still friends with like the class of '93.

I am still friends with all of them, whether it is on Facebook or real, authentic friendships that I call my friends every day or text or have conversations, but we never talked about race. It's always the elephant in the room. My experiences, my introduction to Christ was from a white lens. I'm not saying that that was good or bad, but I often joke, I didn't grow up in the Black church. I know I have been, but you don't have to grow up in the Black church to understand the Black church if you're Black.

Because someone in your family, and especially in mine, my grandmother was Baptist. My grandfather was United Methodist. And so I always had the Baptist music playing in the background from my grandmother. But in terms of the structure of the church and the polity of the church, that was always framed from a United Methodist lens. And the church that I grew up at, that I was confirmed in, that I said, I believe in Jesus Christ as my saviour, was a white church. And so I was taught to not see skin colour.

Growing up in upstate New York, I never talked about race with my friends. And then fast forward to just growing up, becoming an adult, having children, living in DC pretty much all of my adult life, and then seeing the world as it is and what's happening and my experiences. Right after Trayvon Martin was murdered almost 10 years ago, this year, my son was profiled and detained because he fit the description and having to have that conversation with my white friends started to be a little awkward. It was awkward because we've never talked about it before. Trying to describe and define, more so define, not describe, what white privilege is with my white friends was awkward. Because it was so awkward, we didn't talk about it. So we would get on the phone and we would talk about everything except for that. It was interesting.

About two or three years ago.

Dr. Lisa T. Lew: Now, did you feel like awkward silence was hanging in the room? Did you feel like it was there?

Shani McIlwain: No. I never did. It wasn't the elephant in the room at that point. It was just something that we knew that we just weren't going to talk about. It was kind of one of those things. When you think of politics, we're not going to talk about political affiliation, right?

But we're still cool. But we're still cool. But everybody knows that I am probably much more liberal than most. Everybody knew that about me. That's why I have a friend, a lifelong friend. We've been friends for 40 years. She says, "Everybody loved Shani. Everybody loved Shani." Because I could definitely be in any crowd, right?

I was actually comfortable being the only one because I grew up like that. So as an adult, it never crossed my mind, "Oh my goodness. You're the only Black woman in the room. Oh my goodness." Because I've always been the only Black woman in the room.

But really, around 2017, going to a Presbyterian church and really understanding the polity of Presbyterianism and the history of Presbyterianism and because I'm a history major and I like to nerd out on things, I'm like, "I'm in this 92% white denomination and they're talking about" It was probably about five or six years ago were the moderators of our denomination, which were two ordained women, one Black, one white, challenged the church to read a book called Waking Up White.

That book started this conversation of reconciliation. You started to hear discussions that the church is complicit in upholding whites. What does that mean? For Presbyterians specifically, because I am Presbyterian, our fundamental groundwork of things, how we confess our sins, our calls to confession, our prayers of confession are all rooted and grounded in these Presbyterians that happened to be slave owners. That's a history that you got to reconcile.

You got to reconcile that. You got to own that. That's true. Where does the church fit in upholding these values? So I found myself working with colleagues who were, again, it's 92% white. So you're going to be working with a lot of white people, and having these Bible discussions on why reparations are biblical. So that's how this all started.

But I'll tell you, Lisa, when I came out of that four week Bible study with my friend, and this is five years ago now, and the gentleman asked me, comes up to me, white guy, says, "This was so informative and educational. Do you have a list of resources that I need?" I was convicted at that moment because. Now, I say it was a conviction, but then it also could have been my ego. I'm going to keep it 100 because I was like, "Yeah." I said, "You'll have one soon, my book."

I didn't even have a thought, wasn't even thinking about writing a book on this. It did not cross my mind. I actually, five years ago had just finished writing my second book and was really feeling led or drawn or I thought I wanted to stay in the devotional lane. I wanted to be the go-to for devotionals, a 30 day devotional, a 90 day devotional. How about a 40 day devotional? I wanted to stay in the devotional lane and do a little speaking around that and get your heart right and all of that.

And then the Pandemic of 2020 happened. 2020 happened. Full time. entrepreneur helping people like yourself, you are, my ideal client.

By 2020, half of my income was on live events, not just for my own live events, but others. I would travel with clients and be doing very well with that. And then 2020, and nobody was travelling. I always say, "Nobody was checking for me." I lost all but two clients during a pandemic, and I had to pivot. And then George Floyd is murdered right before our eyes. Two days after his murder, I had three clients at the time, actually. And then it was down to two.

This third client of mine text me at 3:00 in the morning and said, "I've been up all night. I cannot sleep because my book cover is not what I wanted, and I'm very upset by this. I need you to get my publisher on the phone so we can iron this out." She was working with a traditional publisher at the time, and she felt like they had forced her into this cover that she didn't like, to stay on target with a release date.

She was very upset by that, and that kept her up all night. I looked at that. Now, I was up at 3:00 AM. She didn't wake me out of my sleep. But I was up at 3:00 AM, but I wasn't up at 3:00 AM,

I was up at 3:00 AM because we were protesting.

Dr. Lisa T. Lew: We as a nation were in crisis. Yes.

Shani McIlwain: We were in crisis. This was three days after his murder. My son was going to work every day in the middle of protesting. I had people watching me, and those people were my children. Right?

Dr. Lisa T. Lew: Yes.

Shani McIlwain: What was my response? So 50 years from now when my grandchildren are asking "Where were you?" "Where were you in the summer of 2020? What were you doing?" I wanted to have a legitimate answer. So I started writing. I'm going to put it up here. I started writing this. It wasn't a workbook or a handbook at first. I really thought I was going to stay in the devotional realm and just really take my stories of the first time I was profiled, the first time I was called the N-word at seven, the first time I was called an angry Black porch monkey is what I was actually called at 13 and how all of those stories connected and silenced me for years, and then how I was able to get my voice back and claim myself.

So I thought I was going to be able to get this book done in six months. But the amount of reconciliation that I had to do with myself.

Like, how come I didn't notice that? How come I didn't speak up with that? We have a list in the book. I talk about a list of white supremacy values that Kenneth Jones, constructed for us over 20 years, that we're still trying to reconcile today. But this idea of what professionalism is, the sense of urgency, worship of the written word, all of these things. White supremacy is the air we breathe, and we're all affected by it.

We all have to take an account for it. But I'm talking to white [inaudible] who I've worked with over the past, specifically in the past two years, going back to that 2017 conversation with that man that asked if I have a resource. Because a lot of them, I'm not speaking for all of them, but a lot of them that I've worked with were just so. We were all affected by that modern day lynching if you will. They came to the table like, "I didn't realize we were this far behind."

I had a client that was like, "I was doing civil rights work in the '60s. I went to March on Washington as a college student. I thought we had progressed. I thought we were further, and we're not." And then.

Dr. Lisa T. Lew: Because they had the luxury to say, "Oh, look at what I've done. So we've come a long way." But they weren't the ones that needed to come from and to.

Shani McIlwain: Exactly, exactly. So what I hope this book does is that it keeps conversations at the forefront before the next national story or the next tragedy. Because what happens in your privilege, from a privileged point of view, is that it gets too hard or you don't see the fruit of your labour, so you check out. And then you disengage until the next murder, until the next police-involved shooting, until the next, until the next Trayvon Martin, until the next Tamir Rice, until the next Breonna Taylor.

It's my hope that this book keeps people engaged and understands that if you love God if you love Jesus like you said you do, this is why He came, for the oppressed, to set the captives free.

There are probably some people of colour activists that might want to challenge me on this, but I'm going to stand firm in my ground, stand firm on my opinion here. But I am not looking to shame white people. That is not my intent. That is not my goal. I feel like this work is heart transformational. Your heart has to be transformed for you to say, "Love my neighbour." First of all, you can't love your neighbour till you love yourself.

You can't love your neighbour until you really love and know God and the attributes of God and God's Son because it all goes together.

Dr. Lisa T. Lew: Absolutely.

Shani McIlwain: Dr. Bonita Love, I love her. I hope to meet her one day. But she always says that "Use your privilege like an ATM card because you're going to get it right back." It's the truth. So I'm teaching white Christians to use their privilege like an ATM card in practical ways, practical ways. Dismantling is not going to come immediately. There's no immediacy in this work. It is step by step, each step just breaking down the chips, just being in a room. I used this example one time. I mean, Lisa, the light bulbs came on. The heads were exploded on the Zoom. It was a beautiful sight to see.

But I'm like, "This is how you use your privilege." The automatic hand dispensers that you see in the bathrooms in all public facilities, now, it's a 50/50 chance it's going to work for me and you and not because it's out of paper towels or it's out of soap. It's because there's no one.

Where's my hand? There's no one testing with our pigment, so the machine doesn't understand to look for us. That's why we got to go like this. That's why we got to go like this.

Using your privilege means when you're in a room full of white people making a decision, you ask the question, who does this benefit? When I said that, they were like. Just speak up, because the awkward silence is when you don't say anything when you don't say anything. This spills over into other intersections of life.

Shani and I had such a great time speaking with one another, our interview was nearly 45 minutes long. It goes without saying a lot of rich information wasn’t included in this brief article.

However, you can listen to the full interview on my YouTube channel here.

Shani E. McIlwain is a sought after speaker, pulpit supply preacher, retreat leader, and a Ruling Elder at Faith Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. As a global prolific writer and award-winning bestselling author, she connects with her audience through humour, honesty, and compassion—striving to teach women and men how to use daily practices to form a spiritual and intimate relationship with God.

Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and visit my website for more info!


Dr. Lisa T. Lewis, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Dr. Lisa T. Lewis, The Belief System (B.S.) Boss®, through her Belief System training, teaches career-oriented single mothers how to provide abundantly and effortlessly for their families so that they can achieve their personal and professional goals without stress or guilt. A certified John Maxwell Team Coach, Teacher, Speaker, and Trainer, Dr. Lisa is also the best-selling author of Making B.S. Boss Moves: The Four R’s to Achieve Success, and The B.S. Boss Blueprint: A Guide to Perpetually Succeed. She also hosts, The Blueprint, a streaming TV program that helps you design your life’s vision and goals one episode at a time! She incorporates her 30+ Years of Leadership & Management in the Public Sector (Budget and Finance), Certificate in Public Leadership (The Brookings Institute), Certificate in Personal Development & Executive Coaching (The Coaching and Positive Psychology Institute), and Ordained Elder/Clergy (Greater Saint John Cathedral) experience to the table in service to clients.



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