There are experiences we have to share with one another so that we can all become stronger, braver, and wiser women. In this second half of our two part interview, Shannon talks about her marriage to Jonathon over the past 11 years. She married him at the age of 33, and had her beautiful daughter Lara at 40. Throughout these milestone experiences Shannon faced several obstacles brought on by racism. Shannon shares in this section how her and her husband have not been brought down by these encounters, but they have built a closer and stronger relationship instead.
Shannon also shares advice and encouragement for black women and women of color to succeed and move into roles of leadership. Shannon’s experiences and life perspective stem from her background as a licensed attorney, mother, associate pastor, world traveler, and ultimately a mother. This wisdom and fortitude that she has gained over these last 40 years have made her bolder and braver, and for that we are thankful. Read Part 1 of Shannon's interview here.
We are so grateful to have been welcomed to Shannon’s home, hear her story, and in turn share it with you. This story is for you. If you are white, black, an immigrant, a younger woman, an older woman… Shannon’s words will inspire change in you.
We look forward to hearing how her story challenges you and encourages you.
Shannon Polk is this month’s Kathy
We are Kathy.
Their stories. Her stories. Our stories
The story of Shannon and Jonathon & how they work through racism together
I’m really a lot like Forrest Gump. I find myself in a lot of weird situations and I just kinda go with whatever happens, right? Like even the things that are up in our house, it’s because that’s who we are. Authenticity means a lot for us because we don’t know how to be anything other than ourselves. We know we are our own weirdo hot mess of a couple. We are okay with that. Nothing about us on paper makes sense, but it fits and I am okay with that. That’s what matters to me.
I met Jonathon at a Bible study. Actually a pastor invited me to the Bible study, and I asked “Am I going to be the only black person there?” and he said… “well, yeah.” So I go to the Bible study, and he walks up to me grinning, and I instantly knew, yeah, this guy likes me. But he looks like he’s 19. I need you to go have a life. The girl I had been mentoring since she was 16 worked with him, and she was actually there with him and they were both social workers at the time. She told me he bought his car in cash, he goes to this church, he’s so faithful… She gave me the whole low down on him. That’s where it started. We went out a couple of times, and then I didn’t hear from him for three months. And then he called me up out of the blue, which is why I definitely thought I was in the friend zone. And then we started hanging out. He told me later, that in those three months, he was trying to make sure his heart was going to be right for interracial dating. He wanted to make sure he knew what he was getting into and that it wasn't just some fetish. He said he talked to one of the guys he worked with who was black, “So tell me, what do i need to know? What do I need to understand? Because before I do this I need to be right.”
“I’m gonna break this down for you. I grew up white. I get why you didn't think that was inappropriate but here’s what you don't know.”- Jonathon
And his heart was right. That is not an easy thing. Michigan is so segregated. It can be hard to find a place to live, a place to go to church, sometimes a place to vacation, and even a place for your kids to go to school. You want to be in a place where you are not the only one. It can be very isolating. And so finding that, finding friends, finding places where who you are as a couple is going to be normal is hard. What’s great is we have conversations about this kind of stuff all the time. You know if I'm frustrated about something I see politically I can tell him and he understands. He’s not going to be like oh, it’s all in your head. He’s going to say I get it. I’m here with you, and we are going through this together. There have been times where people have said things very inappropriate. And before I could even say anything he’ll be like, “Uh you owe my wife an apology.” And he’s like, “I’m gonna break this down for you. I grew up white. I get why you didn't think that was inappropriate but here’s what you don't know.” He’s made it very easy for us to exist. We have created our space. My friends will often say I can’t believe you guys talk about that stuff. This is our world!
Even when people don't want race to be around, it is. It is in the DNA of America.
We have also prepared Lara. Some kids have said to her, how come you and your mom don’t match, and you don’t match your dad? I told her “Okay, our skin doesn’t match but you have my eyes you have your dad’s forehead, you have my goofy grin.” And she was like “oh okay.” So now she goes back to her friends and says, “Yeah, when I was born I was white, and now I grew up… And now I’m black!” It’s not a weird thing. Race is not a weird thing in our house because we talk about it. We live in a very racialized society.
Even when people don't want race to be around, it is. It is in the DNA of America. And when we don't talk about it, we mess up. To try and ignore it, to try and act like it doesn't matter, causes a mess. It matters more or less in any one situation, but it’s a factor. And so you just gotta be honest with it.
Can you give us some examples of how you have navigated prejudice or racism that you have encountered being together? Do people assume you’re not together?
Oh. All the time. We had a lot of that early on. The kid makes it easier. One example was after I had congestive heart failure (after having Lara), and I had follow ups with the doctor. Jonathon is out with this little brown baby, carrying her, and putting her in her little car seat. And someone approaches him and asks him, “Oh! Where did you get her from?” I’m in the building getting an MRI, but when he told me, I asked him, “Did you say my uterus? Because that would have been appropriate.”
We were at dinner, and someone said to Jonathon, “Oh you work for the social security administration now?” (That’s what he does now.) And he said “Yeah.” And this person says “Well I hope you don’t wanna work at one of the offices on that side of town.” Now I’m sitting there, “You mean that side of town, with those people, is what you mean?” We are at this point now where we just look at each other, and say, “You? Me? Who wants to take this one?” Jonathon pulls this guy aside later, and says “I got this.” Sometimes it’s at a restaurant. You know, Michigan has a lot of touristy sites, and we were at one of them, and I couldn't get any service. Or for example, the other day I was at the bank and they asked me for four pieces of ID in order to make a withdrawal. I hand this lady my drivers license, my passport, my passport ID, (nexus card) and she says “Passport card? I’ve never seen this! What is this?” And I think to myself “Oh, I’m sorry you don’t get to travel.”
Jonathon knows unconscious bias is real, because he knows that group preferences are real, then I don’t have to convince him when these things happen. He knows they are real. It would be harder to navigate if he had not observed it.
When we were first dating we were buying each other gifts for Valentine’s Day. We went inside this store, and I asked the gentleman “Do you have any sleepwear?” and the man said “I don’t understand what you’re talking about, can you say it English?” Jonathon was like the Grinch, he grew three sizes that day. He leans over the counter and says, “She’s a lawyer. Her English is fine. What didn't you understand?” He was standing behind me, so the man didn’t know we were together. Jonathon was infuriated. He wrote a letter to the company, they sent us a gift card with an apology… (she laughs)
How do you not hold those things in your heart?
Well I think, most people are good. When I went to Europe I made a lot of good friends, I’m there by myself. I got lost and people gave me directions. I believe in the goodness of human beings as a general rule. So that makes it easier when I run into what I call “the aberrations” It’s like “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for you. You just haven’t lived enough yet.”
Secondly, I recognize the difference between unconscious bias and sincere prejudice. Unconscious bias can happen regardless. I mean at the bank, the teller was black, but the bank manager was white. Bias is just bias. You assume some people are just bad. You believe certain stereotypes. You may not even think that you believe them, but they are in the back of your mind. When I was at that bank, the manager asked me, what do you need that money for? Because in her mind she couldn't wrap her mind around the fact that someone who looked like me could be asking for this money for something other than a negative reason. That’s a bias. That’s a stereotype. I didn't mind the ID check, as much as I minded those questions. Because those question went to my value as a human being.
So when you ask me how I deal with this, number one having a strong relationship with God tells me that my value comes from him. My values are already defined before I go into a situation. So I don’t let someone else define me. I had a boss once that told me I wasn’t a very good writer. And that really messed with me. Well I wrote something for the Mom’s blog, and it was a top blog of the year. So am I a bad writer? No. I can’t let other people put labels on me. Even if they are good labels. Somebody else’s good labels on me could get me thinking things about myself that aren’t true. Don’t let anyone put labels on you, good or bad. So I don’t let these people who are doing bad things to me, I don’t let their labels stick. I won’t let your label on who I am as a black person, or who I am as a woman, stick. There’s a common phrase in the black community, “It’s not what they call you, it’s what you answer to.” Unconscious bias or racism might be your thing. I don’t have to patronize your business. I don’t have to go to your church. I don’t have to live in your neighborhood, if that’s who you are. Because I don’t want that. I look for spaces where I am celebrated. I look for places where people say, we want people like you. We want to engage with you. We want to hang out with you. Great! That’s my tribe. Those are my people. So I am going to hang out with those people. I let the crazy people be crazy.
Does it (racial and social bias) hurt? Yeah, it hurts. It hurts when you hear about a man on a plane slapping a baby, because he thought that was okay. The baby just happens to be African American, and you’re like, whoa. It hurts when I’m with my daughter and I see people pull their kids away because they don’t want their kids to play with her. Yeah, that hurts. But that is the world that we live in and I’m not naive. I also know that I can go someplace where there will be a mom who is like, “Finally! Yes! Some diversity!”
My advisor for my doctoral work was a South African man who grew up under apartheid. I couldn't have asked for a better advisor. I would like to think that I was one of his favorite students. So how can a man who grew up under apartheid be willing to let me write this essay where I talk about this fact of great imbalance and there are these innate preferences for your group? And if you’re really gonna help woman come to a place of power you’ve got to acknowledge that. I’m sure there were some alarms that went off inside of him, but he approved it.
Everybody is not out there to get you. Are there some people? Yeah. They marched in Charlottesville. They shot up a church in Charleston. They’re real, they’re there. But that’s not everybody.
You’re clearly a very successful woman. What are some things that you’ve learned along that you would like to share with other women of color?
You’ve gotta have a tribe. I mean when that thing happened at the bank I had my daughter with me. After I pulled myself together I texted my tribe “Girl, guess what happened?” And the response I got was “Girl, you’re not crazy.” You need those women around you that are going to affirm you and tell you that it’s not all in your head. They're not going to have you somewhere thinking “Oh, it must be me, what did I do?” You know, you gotta have your tribe. My tribe is a group of men and women who can say “Girl, you’re fine.” And they can also call you out and say, “That was dumb. Let’s not do that again, okay?”
You gotta work at your craft. You gotta be good at it.
You also gotta have grit. It’s not easy, it is harder. We do have to work twice as hard as women, and probably three times as hard as women of color. You do. When I gave a sermon in Cincinnati, nobody was expecting it to be good. Even Jonathon, my beloved husband, who has heard my best and my worst sermons was like “Yeah, that guy before her was really good. She’ll be good, probably not THAT good, but she’ll be good.” (she laughs) I just went for it. And when I got finished speaking, there were people that said “Can you come preach at our church? Can you come do this or that?” You gotta stay with it. And you cannot be easily intimidated. You’ve got to know what you know and you’ve got to work at your craft. Viola Davis said this, you hear this a lot with creatives. You gotta work at your craft. You gotta be good at it.
So I invested the thousands of dollars in the logos, so that I can exist with the best of them. I spend a lot of time writing. I spend a lot of time reading books on women. I spend a lot of time reading books on women of color. I read a lot of books on leadership, and I read fiction. And I read crazy stuff. Why? Because I am constantly in a place where I can learn. I can grow and make these connections, because I have gotta know my stuff. So, part of it is getting good and committing yourself to your craft.
Another part is learning how to be confident. Everyone needs to learn how to grow in their emotional intelligence. Do you know how to get along with people? Do you know how to navigate these situations. I know it enough to know when I've got my switch on, and when I have intentionally turned it off and being very deliberate about that. So that if I make a mistake, it’s not gonna be an accident. So please don’t think I said the wrong thing. If I said it then I meant to say it. Doing that, it’s so important.
Be confident with you and your successes
Getting comfortable in your own skin is important. I had an executive coach one time that said, “Shannon you’re working so hard to fit, but who you are is eventually going to bleed out. So quite trying to be somebody else.” Quit trying to act like what matters to you doesn’t matter. It matter to you so if it doesn't fit in that environment, go find the environment where you can be yourself. That’s why you find so many women, and women of color, who are starting their own businesses. Because we are like, “I can do this in corporate America, but if corporate America doesn't want me, then guess what? I can go do this and rock it out.” And now you see these women who have done this, they've started these multi-million dollar businesses. Not because they couldn't do it in corporate America but because they wanted to do it right here and their way, so that the people who come and work for me don’t have to cover up who they are and hide who they are. So you gotta get comfortable, ya know?
I’ll never forget when I went into the beauty salon and I said “Cut my hair. This who I am, and I am comfortable with this.” I’ve always had long hair. I remember the first time I cut it, I had just graduated from law school and buried my mom. I was like, this is who I am, it’s not all these other attachments. This is me. The last time I cut my hair, I was like “I’m taking care of my dad, I gotta figure out what I’m doing with this estate planning business, I’m raising this kids who has more energy than my husband and I combined. I don’t have time for her. I need to focus on what matters. Cut it all off.” It was one of the most freeing things I had done. It was very freeing.
Being comfortable in my skin was important. I had always been a size 2. Size 2 used to be here, but she doesn't live here anymore. Let’s get excited about what we do have. I have more equipment now than I've ever had in my entire life. Get excited about who you are, and where you are. I don't feel the need to be 20. I feel good about being 40. This is awesome. I don't need to be something else. When you see women like Michelle Obama, Sonia Sotomayor, Ana Navarro… when you see all these women, you’re not disappointed. You’re inspired. My favorite is Whoopi Goldberg. Whoopi has always been like, “I’m Whoopi, baby. If you don't like it, there are other people down the street.” As a woman you have to be so confident, because there are so many things eating away at your confidence. So many women who are telling you … only if you do it like this … and they hold up these other people that you’re supposed to be like, as if you could be a cookie cutter imitation of someone else. As if you could just smash yourself down, and shrink yourself down, and get yourself to fit into some weird contortionist shape. That’s not who I am. That’s not what I do.
“I see you boo, and God does too."
I’m loud. I talk a lot. That doesn't go anywhere. That doesn't stop. When I spoke in Cincinnati I preached it on Hagar, a woman who was invisible to everybody but God. And the title of the message was, “I see you boo, and God does too.” I didn’t shy away from my blackness. I didn’t shy away from being a woman. I amplified and gave voice to this woman who was enslaved, who was sex trafficked, who was manipulated, who was cast out. But God saw her. Hagar did something that women don’t do in the Bible. She then named God. That’s something that Abraham did. That’s something that the forefathers did. But here’s a slave, “I’m naming God because God saw me.”
We have to get comfortable with who we are, we have to get comfortable with the space we are in. And we have to be okay with people looking at us as leaders. The first time someone called me a pastor, I was like who are they talking to? The first time someone said “Dr. Polk we want your opinion on these drafts,” it didn’t feel natural. I realized I gotta get comfortable with seeing that. I gotta be okay with that. Because if I am not okay with that, then nobody else is going to be okay with that. You can’t show up with your insecurities and expect people to follow you. So I show up as me. Yeah, I have 9,001 titles, but Shannon is cool.
I remember one of the first board meetings I went to, I kept raising my hand to speak, because we are taught be polite. The pastor looked at me, and said, you’re never gonna get to speak if you keep waiting to get called on. That’s not how we do it here.” So now, the last board meeting, I just leaned in.
So for me, for women in leadership, those are things that really are important. Get comfortable being a leader.
Written by We are Kathy editors Jenifer Veloso and Sarah Elkins