Pain and Possibility: How Dr. Maysa Akbar is Charting What’s Beyond Allyship

Jennifer Brown | |

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Dr. Maysa Akbar, groundbreaking psychologist, author, and Assistant Clinical Professor at Yale University, joins the program to share her own diversity story, including overcoming childhood trauma. Discover a new identity model of allyship, and how to engage well-intentioned, but misguided allies.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • Maysa’s diversity story and the trauma she experienced as a child (14:00)
  • How Maysa’s early struggles shaped her career path (19:30)
  • The importance of language in the healing process (24:00)
  • Why sharing our stories helps others (32:00)
  • How racism impacts marginalized communities (34:30)
  • The move from knowledge to action (37:30)
  • A new model of allyship (42:00)
  • The danger of having good intentions  (44:30)
  • Why Maysa is hopeful about Generation Z (50:00)

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

JENNIFER BROWN: Maysa, welcome to The Will To Change.

MAYSA AKBAR: Hi Jennifer. Thank you for having me.

JENNIFER BROWN: Congratulations on your new book. It’s released this week and it’s Friday. You must be exhausted, in a good way.

MAYSA AKBAR: Like, it’s a great exhausted, right? It’s like, “Oh my gosh, this is amazing.”

JENNIFER BROWN: I know. Isn’t amazing?

MAYSA AKBAR: It is. It is. I hit, number one new release. That of course always makes it well worth it. And continuing to rise up the charts. I am super excited to see where this goes. Of course, as an author that you get obsessed with looking at.

JENNIFER BROWN: Checking and refreshing and checking and refreshing.

MAYSA AKBAR: Yeah.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Don’t worry, you’re in the long game. And by the way, this is your second book, right? I hope we get to talk today about how is this one different, getting into that. But would you take us through your diversity story first and foremost. I just want folks to be able to be grounded in your story, who you are, how you came to think about your own diversity defined in whatever way you’d like, and how it all sort of, as it often does, sort of power us into our purpose, which it certainly has done with you. I know you work from your purpose every single day. We’re so privileged to do that, but where did it all start and what would you like to share with the audience?

MAYSA AKBAR: Well, for me, I’d have to say that it started definitely in childhood and in those developmental years where you’re coming into reasoning and understanding about, first of all, who you are in terms of identity development, but then also who you are in relation to the world that you live in.

I would define myself as an Afro-Caribbean woman. I was born in the Dominican Republic and so I’m an immigrant to this country, and so were my parents. They migrated to the United States in the early eighties. And I ended up living in New York, which was at that point, sort of like immigrant central and had been for a while. So I grew up in a very diverse community. In terms of forming my initial understanding of who I was, I was around so many different cultural groups, so many different types of people. All I knew is that New York was an identity or being a New Yorker was an identity within itself, right? They’re sassy, they’re pushy, opinionated, and that was something that I loved, growing up in New York.

And then I knew also that there were like these sort of ethnic differences between me and my friends and my neighbors and the community that I grew up in, but that those ethnic differences were celebrated in so many different ways. So whether I had a Jewish friend or a friend from Korea, or a Muslim friend, it didn’t really matter. We were all in the struggle together, at least that’s what it felt like to me. And it’s funny because in the new book I write about how, no matter the walk of life that you came from, and no matter how poor you were, or seemingly impoverished or disadvantaged, it all culminated in the corner bodega in the morning when everybody was rushing to get their coffee or their bagel, or their egg and cheese sandwich before hopping on the train. Like that was the meeting spot.

And I loved it. It was like, Oh, here’s everybody, every culture, this is sort of where holding court happens before the morning rush hour. A lot of folks will ask me like, Oh my God, it must’ve been crazy growing up in Brooklyn in the eighties, with all the gun violence and the middle of the crack epidemic. And I was like, I was clueless as a kid, like, yeah, all that was happening. And yeah, I remember seeing all of that, but in a lot of ways, I still had a reasonably happy childhood. Like it just didn’t seem so awful. As an adult, I look back and I’m like, “Gosh, that was tough.” But as a kid, that was my normal environment. I didn’t know anything different, so it didn’t seem as bad as like what we would consider it now.

So that definitely shaped my way of thinking about community. Community was always super multicultural for me. And it was very inclusive, we all had differences that brought us together to feel like we were the same also. So all those things happened at the same time. And then as I was developing into my teenage years, my parents informed me that they were moving back to our nation island, or island nation, back to the Dominican Republic. And that one of the decisions that they had made was that I wasn’t going to come with them because they felt it was very important for me to stay here and complete my education.

Again now as a parent and as an adult, was that the best decision for a 13 year old girl? I was their only child together. I wouldn’t make that decision as a mom. But I think that if we look at the immigrant story, it’s not very different than many of the immigrant stories, even till today, the separation of parents and children, the needing to come to the U.S. for a better life to support families back in home countries. And so, I wouldn’t say that my story is unique, but I would say that it was very painful for me individually, because that caused me to have to grow up very, very quickly. It also caused a great deal of trauma and pain in my life, and set in sort of seeds of abandonment and rejection really early on during my formative years.

I think that then by the age of 16, I lived with family members between 13 and 16. And then by the age of 16, I was pretty much like couch surfing and trying to find a place to stay all the time. And then eventually, was able to get a little Jewish man down in Brooklyn Heights to rent me this tiny little apartment in a storefront, he had a storefront downstairs and two small apartments up top. And he said, “Young lady, I don’t know what your deal is, but you seem nice.”

He rented this little space for me. Where I only really had a mattress and a couple of other items, I think it was like 400 bucks or something like that. And this little Jewish man really took care of me for the next two years, until I went to college as did some other very important mentors and people in my life, including my boss that I had at the time, because I worked almost full-time at a shoe store. And so that’s where I made money to pay that rent.

That was the beginning of forming, sort of not just my diversity story, but also like what… shaping in my eyes, at least what struggle, real struggle felt like. And it also anchored in me a desire and a passion in terms of what my career path is going to be, because I kept thinking to myself growing up, who do I turn to? Who do I go to? Who takes care of me and who takes care of other children that are going through what I went through? And I wanted to turn that tragedy into something that can propel and empower me to understand personally, the experiences of other children. And so that’s how I decided to become a psychologist through those experiences.

JENNIFER BROWN: You ended up specializing in how people of color live in a state of crisis due to oppressive societal systems and processing anger, rage, hopelessness. I didn’t know that piece of your story that it really originated with you and you then became curious about … And wanting to heal. Sort of your experience of the oppressive. And I don’t know, maybe, your parents’ decision feels like it’s in a way related to oppressive societal systems. I mean, that decision, that very painful decision that they likely had to make is, and then you being on your own, and not feeling supported in a way that young people should be, is a huge part of the problem.

MAYSA AKBAR: Yeah. I mean, I think that they felt that they just couldn’t make it here. It was too tough. It was too difficult. The language was a very big issue in terms of a barrier. My mother worked in a factory. My father had different jobs as like a security guard. The economics just didn’t work out. And so we were always in a perpetual cycle of poverty, despite how hard they worked. We couldn’t get out of that cycle. And while the Dominican Republic certainly wasn’t the best climate to be in and to raise a family in, and the economics of that Island has never traditionally done well, it was for them at least better than what was happening here during that time.

Again, as an adult, I can rationalize and logically understand their decision, but my inner child is always so wounded by the idea that I was left behind because it felt like I didn’t matter enough, for sacrifices to be made. And that’s something that I’ve had to work through. That caused, I think not just painful experiences growing up, but even as an adult in the way that I relate to other people. And so that’s why I was so passionate about doing this work because it was so devastating to me. It goes beyond just sympathizing with my clients and with the community that I serve. Like, I’ve walked those shoes. I’ve walked that walk. I get it. I personally understand it. And I personally also understand how to break cycles because I was able to break the cycle of poverty.

And I was able to be the first one in my family to have a college education and let alone a doctorate. I was the first one to move into the middle class to be a homeowner. And I was the first one to break that cycle for my children. And now generations of my nucleus family moving forward. And so it’s doable. It’s possible. So not only do I understand the pain, but I also understand the possibility, and that’s why doing this work for my community is so important. That’s why writing Urban Trauma was so important. It was my primary purpose, other than anything else, because I needed for us to understand where our pain originates from and I needed us to own and acknowledge the pain and to have language to be able to discuss it because with language comes understanding and we create pathways of healing when we have language to express our feelings and emotions.

And so, that was my focus. That was my primary purpose, but above all, Jen, it was my responsibility. Urban Trauma was my responsibility. I needed to write that for my people, for my community. And that’s why I’m so passionate and have chosen, like you said, not just to be a psychologist, but to be a race-based trauma expert because I get it.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, you certainly do. And so, what did Urban Trauma release for you and what sort of maybe unexpected impacts did it have? I know writing books, and especially about things that are so personal. Literally, the act of writing it shifts things in us and it gives us the language for our own story. And then the part of the healing that happens when other people are so grateful for the language that you’ve laid out in the pages, like that’s part of the healing too. I’m sure it probably surprised you in many different ways, but tell me about the shift of getting that out into the world and maybe their proudest impact that it had.

MAYSA AKBAR: Oh, it’s funny, right? Because when I engaged in the whole book writing process, I remember having an initial conversation with Jen Grace, who we share as a publisher, and I shared my story with her. She was like, “Oh my gosh, we need to do this.” And then I remember the first draft of the manuscript that I gave her. She was like, “So you’re not writing for an academic journal.”

JENNIFER BROWN: You should be forgiven for doing that.

MAYSA AKBAR: I know.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, she does that. She forces us to get real and that’s really uncomfortable.

MAYSA AKBAR: And I was like, “What do you mean?” And she was like, “What do you mean, what do I mean?” I was like, “Yeah, so what are you asking me for?” And she was like, “You have not one personal story in here.” And I was like, “Right.” Because this is not an autobiography, or like a memoir. And I was like, “I don’t know whenever I’ll write that one day.” And she was like, “Yeah, not interested in this.”

And I was like, “What do you mean you’re not interested? You mean talk this through?” And she was like, “Either you buckle up and share pieces of your story that I’ve heard, that are so powerful and that contextualize the science, or this is just not the way we want to go with this. Like I don’t know if we can push this out.” And so I had to go back and really rethink. Like what am I going to do? And I think that there’s a piece of, at least in the training for psychologists where self-disclosure is really taboo. It’s just not something that’s part of the training. It’s actually very much discouraged, because your primary focus is always the patient. And so there’s really no room for you to talk about your personal life experiences. Unless it’s therapeutically something that will support the therapeutic alliance, but it’s very minimal nonetheless.

And so being asked to share, was like blasphemy. I was like, “Oh no, what are you talking about? Are you out of your mind? People will know my trauma. Oh no, no, no, no, no.” And then once we got over that, that took a couple of weeks of fighting. Then what ended up happening is that, when you start writing, now you start opening doors and cellars and basements and garages that emotionally, you’ve locked with keys and padlocks and all kinds of things, because you don’t want to deal with that. And so opening one lock at a time and one door at a time to get to the core of that emotional pain is really difficult. And then to write about it, is even harder.

So as I’m unlocking, I’m now becoming less academic, and I’m humanizing the book more and more. So then now our weekly publishing meetings became me sobbing and crying like for weeks, because every time I had to put my pain to paper, was like reliving that trauma experience, some of which I had already dealt with through my own therapy, but some that were so wedded deeply that I didn’t even know that they existed. And it was only through the process of writing that they started to surface. And then also making decisions about what I was comfortable, in terms of putting out versus what were, like, no touch zones. And there were some no touch zones. Absolutely.

JENNIFER BROWN: What was the riskiest thing that you ended up including that you maybe never thought you would, or you wouldn’t have the fortitude to write about?

MAYSA AKBAR: That’s a really good question. It was about my mom. It was about my relationship with her. And the reason I didn’t think I would include it is because I was afraid about what my family would think that I was sharing the way that I saw my mom, because the way that other people see my mom is that she’s this like just the sweetest, kindest person. And she is, but she also made really tough and I think poor decisions in terms of her parenting. Like she can be both of those things.

And I think that I felt that my family was not ready to see her how I saw her, and I felt bad that this is the way that they were going to see her. And perhaps, maybe like that we had never even had a conversation about it, because I don’t think we did. That was really tough and it was tough to decide to leave that in there. But I did it and I think it was also very cathartic at the end. And my mom doesn’t read English, so she hasn’t read the book. I talked to her about it, but I don’t know that she really gets it.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you for sharing that. I think a lot of us struggle with the stuff that remains locked in the deepest basement. And as we grow older, we figure what the heck or we don’t need to protect people anymore, and that it’s more important to reveal these things. And then we realized that legacy is so important, that it’s so uncomfortable for us to go through this process, but that we are shining a light for so many other people. And that’s what you realize when you go down this author path or a speaker path, and you and I know the unexpected, sort of light that we are, even without intending to be, just in sharing the story and how transformational that can be. It continues to surprise me, but now I know, I’ve done it so many times. I know to expect it actually, because the unspoken being spoken by us, is releasing so much that wants to be spoken.

And so many people that shared your story, maybe not literally, but like even the concept of abandonment is shared across so many different diversity dimensions and socioeconomic background. So it’s this like beautiful, what my Friend, Erin, called a universal truth. I mean, as ever, even with your second book, I believe you are continuing to tap into something that’s universal, something that needs to be named, that hasn’t been named. I’m similarly sort of on a similar journey, topically speaking, meaning some things that haven’t been named so that we can move forward. Because I agree, kind of the first step is naming it.

I’m curious, so Urban Trauma is your first and you’re an assistant clinical professor at Yale, of course, in school of medicine, you have a private psychotherapy specialty treating race-based trauma. And so your next book then you decided to work on the whole concept of allyship and racial justice. And I love, like when I read it, and I’m delighted to be mentioned in the book by the way. Is not an accident we found each other and that we share Jen Grayson and her publishing company in common. But to have a woman of color writing a book that tackles whiteness in the way that you do, I just was so thrilled to know that it’s going to be in the world.

Just tell us about the process of deciding this is going to be your second book, why? And then, boy, your timing is exquisite, and you didn’t know that. And I know for me, I’m having the same kind of weird feeling sitting here in July of 2020, but having written my book last year and the years preceding, feeling like this desperately needed to be verbalized, it needed to be in the world. I didn’t know how it would be used, but I knew I needed to name something for myself and that my audience desperately needed to be named too. So tell us about your decision to write on this topic.

MAYSA AKBAR: Well, I mean, to me, it was a natural extension of completing the Urban Trauma book because I understood that once I was able to describe the framework for how racism impacts communities of color, then the next thing to do was to describe what happens when there are people who are positioned to have privilege and power and sometimes consciously, sometimes subconsciously, exercise different levels of racism. If you kind of see it as like, in some ways like the cycle of violence, there’s this idea of like, how are in many ways, people of color victims to systemic and institutionalized racism. And part of what I wanted to do was create a pathway for understanding that, and then also a pathway for healing from that. And then I needed to tackle like, who are the benefactors of these systems and who has been able to gain advantage because of these systems and who continues to perpetuate them.

And then my positioning was like, all right, I need to attack that. I mean, you said it in a very lovely way, right before we got started, which is like, it’s just different sides of the same coin. Part of the intentionality in writing the book is because I wanted to chart a path for those that identify as white and are committed. And I’m underlining, bolding, committed, to engage in the allyship process. And so if I can chart that path, as a woman of color, so that you know as a white ally, how to ally appropriately, how to ally the way that it should be done, it takes out the guessing game, it takes off the systems by which many white citizens already operate under, which is that there’s a power structure, the you and them categorization. And that is often backed by substantial wealth in many different systems.

And so, I wanted to sort of even the playing field, and we talk about equity from that perspective by saying, this is authored by the recipient of somebody who’s experienced racism in a variety of different levels. And if you want to know what will work for me and for many who identify the way that I do, here you go, here’s the path, here’s the guide. This is the way that I see it from my vantage point in terms of what needs to be done. If we think about the other pieces of work that have been written that preceded my book, they were all building blocks to get us here. It moves people from just like knowledge, understanding, learning, listening. Those are all very good skills to have in this process. But in order for us to not engage in ally fatigue, or even to create a sense of apathy, I think people need move into action.

So what’s going to be the impact, right? I’ve done all this learning, I’ve done all this research. I’m able to acknowledge some of my privilege and power. And now what? And I think that Beyond Ally: The Pursuit of Racial Justice, which is the name of the book, gives you the now what.

JENNIFER BROWN: We got to get to the now what quickly. We got to get to the how, that’s the question I get constantly, “Okay, what do I do?” And then it makes me reflect. It makes me reflect on how many books, I guess don’t go into the how sufficiently. Or maybe people just aren’t getting that out of the books that are written. We look at the best seller lists and we know all the names who are sold out right now. You and I were talking about that. And you layout all the theory, and you lay out the history, right? But we’ve got to make this real. And I think that’s part of why both of our books are going to be in your case and it is happening for me it’s, we are obsessed with the how, we’re obsessed with the activation around the knowledge and the things that we’re learning and the things that we’re being told right now.

And I love that someone that identifies as a woman of color is stepping in and saying like, “From my viewpoint, here is what would be most helpful.” And that book, I don’t think has really been written, yet. And I think there’s the sensitivity we talked about around not wanting to ask what would be most helpful, because some of us who were clued into what’s going on right now, don’t want to cause more emotional labor and don’t want to pile on to a really difficult time and ask people to give us feedback or to partner with us, or support us, or, I don’t know, like do any more work right now.

But then the problem is that if white people endeavor to do a lot of this solo or alone, or in a vacuum without that guidance from somebody who is, like you said, you’re offering this book as a recipient of the behavior, of the societal ills, of the apathy, of the microaggressions, your voice as a messenger is so critical. I mean, I would argue it’s the best thing that we can listen to right now. You must have felt like it was rather unusual for you to tackle this?

MAYSA AKBAR: It was. Yeah. You’re absolutely right, because when we were doing the research, and I was delving into the different models and different concepts of allyship that were out there, there were very limited frameworks that had been created that were authored by people of color. And so that gave me even more sort of energy to say, “Okay, this has to get done.” I have to have a voice for us around this table, around what this looks like and take out some of the guessing game. And I think like not to knock other people’s models, there is value to all of them.

In fact, that’s why I included them in the book, because I think that I want people with this book to understand that it’s an individual journey. Like you can read this and you can say at each part, there’s a call to action. And then you can make choices about what’s within your bandwidth to step into. And my challenge to folks is to say, “Hey, if you want to move from just a supporter to let’s say an advocate, here are the steps by which you could do that. And if you are going to engage in advocacy work, then make sure that you are in alignment with what that looks like.”

Don’t be in alignment with all the behaviors and all of the characteristics and all of the actions in the category of supporter, but then act like you are an advocate because that’s two very separate things that in this sort of genre of work, can be used interchangeably. And you know this through your work, right? That we sort of use these words very loosely, ally. What does ally really mean? And we can challenge people to think about that. And even in the book, ally is lower in the stage process and the developmental process, than let’s say an equity broker. I think that I wanted to … And I’ll tell you, something that you said triggered a thought in my mind, which is like the why, why would a woman of color wants to engage in this type of work? Why write this book for a target audience of white people? Why not continue to focus on expansion of Urban Trauma?

Well, my thought about it was that I sit around enough tables and I’m privileged in order that that is my situation. And every single time I was sitting around these tables, I would hear, if we just dealt with the financial literacy issues of the black community, they would be so much better. Let’s tackle economics. Well, if we just dealt with the fatherless issue, if we created a fatherhood program and engage black fathers, and children had access to their fathers, everything would be different. Well, if we just focused on reading, let’s focus on reading and make sure that every black child, every child of color is reading by the third grade, then everything would be different. Right? I would sit there and I’d be like, “How do you know? How do you know that’s going to be different?” You have no idea what my lived experience is.

I just wanted to sort of say like, listen, I appreciate all the well-intended white people that sit around tables and offer suggestions about what would be better for communities of color. But sometimes, just sometimes, there are sometimes you’re off the mark, you’re off the mark, you’re off the mark. And there is no time, room or space for us to delve into a conversation where now you’re eating up all the space in that room talking about your reading initiative. It’s so complicated. Like, before we get to your reading initiative, can we talk about how we resolve unarmed black men not being killed by police, can we start there?

Or can we start with making sure that institutions don’t perpetuate prejudice and bias in hiring practices, can we start there? Or can we start in, let’s say like, how do we get organizations and nonprofits that are mostly run by white women to be diversified and that there is a diversified board and a diversified leadership, so that the communities at which they’re serving are represented by that nonprofit, can we start there?

Part of my issue was like, okay, well-intended white people want to look at what’s wrong with communities of color and talk about solutions, but can you look at your community one second and figure out what needs to happen to dismantle the types of systems that have been created that perpetuate the oppression. That was my issue. And that’s why I was like, “Okay, I need to have a voice around this.” And it needs to be different than just saying, “Yeah, you’re right. Okay. Now let’s focus on a reading project.” It just needed to be different.

JENNIFER BROWN: I’m so grateful that you prioritize this and that you have the temperament. I mean, when you think about your temperament to do this work, I also think that that’s something you’re being really humble about it. It’s really frustrating to be in these conversations. And I just can’t even … For me, it’s frustrating to hear people try to solve issues, first of all, to sort of arms length it, versus looking in your own house, in your own organization, which is a way that we sort of deny our responsibility. And I think it’s a way that we maintain our sort of belief that we’re good people and that our organizations like are not flawed.

I think it serves us to say, Oh, we don’t have those problems. Like, let’s talk about it conceptually, but let’s not make it real in terms of what we have been complicit in, what we haven’t challenged and what that says about us, and what that says about me. That sort of self identity piece is really powerful, really powerful. I often say, believing that you are a well-intended and a good person can be one of the biggest enemies of this work. Even getting through that.

And then to your point, who is even around this table to bring the perspective of the lived experience and to say, that’s not going to be enough, or that’s not something you know about, let me identify where I think you should be applying your energy. And that is what your book does. I mean, it just literally says, like, ask a person who’s impacted and I’ll tell you. And then I’ll be there to … I’m not just going to leave you high and dry, but I’m really sort of committing to that journey, which is really, probably incredibly uncomfortable for you. Although maybe on some level, you really enjoy it. And that was a curiosity I had. How do you avoid feeling microaggressed constantly? If you are parachuting into white audiences and having these conversations and they’re reading and loving your book, what is the makeup of you that enables you to be in that space and feel energized by that?

MAYSA AKBAR: I mean, I think that I have to anchor myself always in thinking about the allies that are true and authentic and genuine. And when I can do that, then it gives me, I think a lot of hope about the possibilities. When I think about the community of white allies that I have, I’m like, they all had a different starting point, and I don’t know every single one of their worldviews or how they were brought up, what they were taught about race and about different ethnicities. But I do know that they manage to have an ego strength to engage in this work and not give up.

And so that gives me a lot of hope. I think that this generation, the Gen Z generation, that tends to be more tolerant and more globally minded, more inclusive, and willing to engage in tough conversations very early on, gives me hope. When I’m dealing with a microaggressive situation, which happens to me by the way daily, all the time. I just try to think about, what can I create as a learn … Always respond. I do get angry because I think for me, it elicits a sense of rage. I talk about that in Urban Trauma, how the zero to a hundred anger through microaggressing is a very real thing. Because I acknowledge that, and I know that, I try very hard to temper that. And then also to make it a teaching moment. I’m not always great at it, but I keep trying, and I apply that same type of philosophy to allyship. You don’t always have to be great at it as an ally, just keep trying. That’s it.

JENNIFER BROWN: This was so powerful. You’re right. It’s two sides of the same coin. What you just described is staying centered in a moment that’s difficult. Your reason for needing to do that might be different than my reason for doing that if I’m a white woman and I’m having a fragility moment, for example. What you just described is reminiscent of what it feels like to me to kind of sit with the discomfort of fragility. And the sort of self defensiveness, the denial, the wanting to justify, the excuses. Well, you see my heart, just sitting with it and just noticing it objectively, letting it move through your body, because it’s also that whole sort of amygdala hijack, like your heat rises. And sort of your body responds. But then on the other side of that, when you have some distance from things, is where the real power of the learning and the teachable moment is for yourself.

Perhaps we’ll never be able to not have that reaction that really strong initial reaction, but emotional intelligence tells us that we have the capacity to put that in its proper place and move into what is really intended as the learning and the truth of the moment. And I believe it actually builds resilience every time we do that, we may not see that resilience being built, but it is being built in us. So that that next time that happens, the response won’t be the same, that we will have grown.

MAYSA AKBAR: I love that you said that because you know, that’s another way that I cope with it is that, because I am able to understand human behavior and I walk through life with the lens of processing why people do things and why they behave the way that they do. And emotional intelligence is such a large part of that. I think about when the other day there were some trolls in my social media calling me a racist and saying that I was uneducated, self-proclaimed expert. I’m like, “You just have to look at my resume. I don’t need to tell you.”

Instead of getting offended by that or getting angry or defensive, what I ended up doing is to say, “Oh, what poor emotional intelligence this person has, that that’s their only sign of defense.” I’m writing a book about allyship, yet you’re calling me racist. That makes no sense.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s the world we live in. It’s so backwards and upside down.

MAYSA AKBAR: Yeah. When you understand it from that perspective, you’re able to sort of say, okay, here’s a perspective of the other person’s shoes, and here’s the path that they’re walking and I’m not enabling it. I’m not allowing you to sit in that space. I’m going to create a corrective opportunity here, but I understand if you have low emotional intelligence, why you would say that. Because if you had high emotional intelligence, you wouldn’t respond with such a rudimentary comment as that I’m racist. In context, that just doesn’t make any sense.

That also provides me with a higher level of tolerance. And I’ve said this actually, Jen, I’ve had workshops and keynotes where people have gotten so angry at my topic, especially when I’m talking about historical racism, that they have yelled at me and started saying slurs and all kinds of things. All I can do as a response to that is say things like, “You know what I do for a living, right? You know that all I do is watch people and observe all day long. You know that you look a little unhinged right now.”

JENNIFER BROWN: Even crazier.

MAYSA AKBAR: Exactly. And when you put that in context, and people start looking at that person and they start looking at themselves and they’re like, “Oh-oh, I really do look unhinged right now.” Some people, some, not all, are able to stop themselves.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. I can just see you as the sort of eye of the hurricane. So centered and unbeatable. I mean, maybe you go home and you do some heavy breathing, I don’t know. It’s got to take a toll, but at least in the moment, the strength to kind of stand there and actually like love that person. If that’s not too radical of a concept, like, seeing people and not sort of position taking, and hating them back and seeing the response for what it is, which is really not about you. And it’s not about the message that you’re talking about, or maybe it is, but it’s not … When you’re a teacher, I think it’s really cool to be able to sit in those cases and see like so many different angles to the interaction and also to feel unshakeable based on what you know you overcome in your personal story and what you’ve achieved and all the odds that you’ve beaten.

And the fact that like now you are a teacher. I mean, you’re really shining a light. I predict, the second book is going to gain so, so many grateful readers and followers and allies who want to activate beyond allyship, because that’s a question I get a lot too, like, how can we be accomplices, for example? How can we be, to use your words, equity, brokers? And that’s real, like rolling up your sleeves, challenging yourselves, putting different systems and processes in place, holding yourself and others accountable. I mean, that’s where the rubber is going to hit the road with all of this. That’s where we’re going.

And so I always tell people like, it’s going to have to be more than performative allyship and believing you’re a good person and celebrating certain like cultural heritage months or pride, whatever, it’s going to have to go beyond that, because that’s the work that we have never done that we’ve got to buckle down and do.

MAYSA AKBAR: Exactly.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you so much for writing this book. Just remind us of where we can follow you, the names of the two books, any other details you want to share.

MAYSA AKBAR: Yeah. So, Dr. Maysa, M-A-Y-S-A, Akbar, A-K-B-A-R, in all social platforms all together, Dr. Maysa Akbar. The book you can certainly purchase it on Amazon. Right now that’s a platform that we’re pushing in terms of Amazon sales. And the delivery is not too bad, a couple of days. But I’m also wanting to make sure that if you are engaging in the allyship process, that you’re thoughtful about, if there is a black owned or POC owned bookstore near you, that you purchase it there, because that serves to support you getting the reading, you getting the book, and also supports that bookstore, in terms of purchases there. If they have a sitting space, and if you can sit outside and have some coffee and read it there, then better for them.

JENNIFER BROWN: Maybe somebody will see you reading it and say, “What’s that book? That looks interesting.”

MAYSA AKBAR: That’s right. Wear your mask though.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Wear your mask. Thank you so much, Maysa, for all of this. And I’m so excited to see where this journey takes you, and me to, like where this whole conversation is going, because we’ll be looking back at this moment and say a lot of this scholarship and also sort of the models that will someday become I think a part of our DNA of healing when it comes to race, it’s happening this summer, it’s happening. It’s coming out in our books and our interviews. We’re just starting to, I think, make it concrete. And then now we can make it visible to others. And hopefully we can inspire people to say, this is not a mystery. There are steps you can take and let’s make this real. I’m excited to do that work alongside you. So thank you.

MAYSA AKBAR: Absolutely. Thank you, Jennifer, for having me here. I appreciate it. I love your audience and the work that you’re doing and I hope that we can do work in the future together. I think that this makes a lot of sense.

JENNIFER BROWN: Me too. Totally. Thank you, Maysa.

MAYSA AKBAR: All right.

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Maysa Akbar