Book Event: Waking Up White with Author Debby Irving and Interviewer Shay Stewart-Bouley

10 Feb

Just last week I attended a book signing and author interview featuring Debby Irving and her newly published, Waking Up White.  The event took place at the Central Square Theater in Cambridge, Mass.

The evening was sponsored by local non-profit racial equity organization Community Change, Inc. Serving as interviewer was Community Change’s new Executive Director, Shay Stewart-Bouley.  Ms. Stewart-Bouley is also known for her blog, Black Girl in Maine, which is described as the musings of a black woman living in one of the whitest states.

Waking Up White was published this month and I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but have been looking forward to it’s arrival ever since I met Debby at the Muse and the Marketplace Writers’ Conference in Boston several years ago.  In one of the Muse workshops, Debby mentioned the topic of her book–the recognition of how her awareness of her own white privilege, as well as the systems of socialization of white people around racial construct, inspired her to take an inward journey that she wished to write about.  And as Debby reminded me at the book event, I made a beeline for her at the lunch table after the workshop to “talk race” since I was just beginning my own journey to share stories about what seemed like my obsession with race relations.

It’s wonderful, and inspiring to me that Debby has now published her book, and is beginning a tour of readings, book signings, and book club events to share her journey, and her work as a racial justice educator, with all of us.

As the evening’s talk began with Debby and Shay seated in front of the theater audience, Debby traced her roots to her white upper-middle class suburban upbringing in Winchester, Massachusetts during the 1960’s and 1970’s.  She admitted she had barely any contact with people of color until she went to college, and it was in college that she decided she wanted to work in education and the arts.  Furthermore, when Debby traveled through various neighborhoods in Boston and Cambridge at that age, she was shocked at how quickly an upscale neighborhood, after a few blocks could turn, as she called it, into an “inner-city” neighborhood.

The imbalance of wealth and poverty became evermore apparent during Debby’s years as general manager of Boston’s famed New Year’s Eve celebration, First Night, and later as a parent and teacher in the Cambridge school system.

It is here that Debby shares with Shay that she had a bit of a wake up call while working for First Night.

“I had to start being honest with myself about making assumptions about what black people wanted.  I was raising money for all of these urban youth programs.  I thought I was helping people,” Debby said.

Shay picked up on  this thread and read a short segment of Debby’s book which described one year that Debby brought a number of young people of color from one of her youth art programs to First Night.  She thought she had done such a great thing, and at the end of the evening asks the kids, “Was this fun?”

Shay reads the response from one young man who attended.

“It was freaky.  I never saw so many white people in my life.”

Debby jumped right in.  “That was me making assumptions about what people of color wanted.”

Wanting to “do something” to better understand how her whiteness shaped the way she related to people of color, Debby yearned to look at how her upbringing and socialization as a white person impacted the way she related to people of color.  She also wanted to be able to have open, honest discussions about race with people of color, even though she knew it wouldn’t be easy.

Shay agreed, speaking from her own experience when broaching the topic of race with white people.  She often hears comments like, “this isn’t about race,” or feels people try to deflect, or worse, label her the “angry black person.”

Debby added, “I was raised not to have conflict, to be passive, to say, “I’ll be in touch later,” if something difficult comes up in conversation.”

“It’s hard for black women and white women to have honest conversations.  It’s easier to say, ‘See you later’,” Shay said, supporting Debby’s concerns.

As I sat listening, I admired Debby for her brutal honesty, for her not being afraid to be the white person who stumbled along the way, sticking her foot in her mouth, or really tripping up horribly, as she recalls her attendance at a Diversity Conference for Employees of Color.

The conference had close to 2,500 people in attendance, and of that number, only 100 white people.

“You have to have the experience of being in the minority.  I thought, I wonder if this is how it feels for black people all the time?….I worried about saying something stupid,”  Debby began.

She told of how a black woman in one workshop when discussing points to include in a company film on diversity, spoke up saying, “why are we making this same film ten years later?” implying that shouldn’t we be further along in the diversity and inclusion process.

Debby had been taking notes while everyone talked, because she was the white person, who was so used to being the helper, the fixer.  She felt she could perhaps contribute something here.  So, she stood up and began to give advice.  It didn’t go over well.  At all.

Several people in the room laid into her, telling her it wasn’t her place to take notice, to give advice, to help.  Debby left the conference quite shaken.  She revealed to Shay that it took a lot to process that moment.  In fact, it made her question the work she was doing on the book, and she wondered if she should give up.  But in her words she, “remembered the faces of the black and brown kids in the Cambridge schools, and the pain that I have seen these kids go through because of the color of their skin, and I knew that I could go through it too.”

In thinking about where she is now on her journey, after looking inward and connecting with many others along the way who are doing work in the field of diversity and inclusion, and now that Waking Up White is published, Debby related that it’s now time to move forward, and how her book might help other white people deal with their tensions around race relations.

“We’re one human species.  We had this message of we’re superior.  It’s the 21st century.  This country is full of white people who understand there is something wrong too, and don’t know what do do to help, to bring change.   That’s where I’m focusing my attention.  I don’t put my energy into changing the minds of people who aren’t open to how racism might be operating in their lives.”

Shay asked, “Do you think as a white woman of privilege, upper middle-class, this gives you an in to white folk?  Can you plant seeds in ways others cannot?’

“Yes, but I feel strange about it.  I’m married to a white person–a husband with a good job.”  Debby joked, “People like to hire white people.  I’ve been able to not work and write this book.  But I wonder instead should I have taken a chunk of money and given it to a person of color to tell their story and I’ll promote it.”

Debby continued, “If a white person or a person of color says something, who can move it?  I’ve had maybe one original idea.  There are 400 years of wisdom that has come from the black population, and only more recently, over the last 150 years have other perspectives been added.  If this is a best seller, white people will hear things more easily (about how their whiteness impacts their perceptions of race) from a white person.”

“You write things the way a white woman would write, your book speaks to a segment of the population.  If I was the black friend who said it (what’s in the book), I wouldn’t be heard like you’re heard.”

* * *

As the evening’s interview began to wrap before the audience Q & A, Shay acknowledged Debby’s journey from her early beginnings on the book four years ago to today, and asked, “Where are you now in terms of racial thoughts?”

“I still struggle with biased thoughts,” Debby began.  “If I’m in a store and I have my purse on the ground and a black man walks in the room, I might find myself looking to my purse.  I have to monitor my voice, to say, “screw you old voice.”

“I’m constantly observing myself and I take information and feedback on how I’ve been socialized.  I still have deeply embedded thoughts that I will always grapple with.”

“How has this work, this process affected your family?” Shay asked.

“My daughters I think had a hard time because I went from being upbeat Mom to in-house activist because I’m always showing them articles about race–“did you see this?”  My husband has been amazing.  I have five siblings, and when it came to the cover photo, I originally had chosen a photo of myself and my siblings at Christmas time.  A couple of them were not comfortable with it, finally sharing, “this is your story.  We weren’t as clueless as you.”

Debby related that she learned that two of her siblings did civil rights work in the 1960’s, and that her parents knew this and supported their work, but Debby never knew it until now.  She wondered if her parents didn’t want her to know because they had relatives in the South that were racist and would have frowned upon family members doing this work.

Shay:  Is this now something that’s deep in your core, this “born again” waking up role?

Debby:  Yes, and it makes me realize what kind of family I’m from.

In wrapping, Debby advocated for inclusion, where white people are not taking over the space,  and noted the United To End Racism Organization and the annual White Privilege Conference for people who want to get involved in anti-racism efforts.

There was a lively question and answer session following the interview, with the heavily white audience in attendance, and with the majority of questions asked by white people.

I wanted to think of a question to ask, but I’m not quick to process and formulate them. Yet, many of the questions posed seemed to cover much of what I was thinking of.  Several people spoke of their worry of opening up discussions on race because they worry about saying the wrong thing and offending a person of color, or worse, being seen as racist.  Debby and Shay both encouraged the audience to not shy away from these discussions, and that if we are honest and open, we can have positive outcomes from doing so.

A more prickly question came from one audience member, a white woman, who asked about whether Debby wondered if people of color, or if she herself felt it was wrong to do this work on race, and as a white woman, profit from doing it.

Debby acknowledged that there are white people doing this work and noted Tim Wise, who has written several books on white anti-racism activism, and who’s attracted some controversy as a white man making a living from this work. Shay interjected, and stated that she feels people who are professionals and doing the work should get paid for what they do.  She added, “it’s a balance.  You don’t necessarily have to look at the color of the person.  Do the work; have the commitment.”  Debby later shared with me that she is donating 50% of the proceeds from sales of her book to charity.

I know that this point made me lapse into a moment of “white guilt.”  I have thought about the same thing–the what if I go on to publish works based on my writings for Wendy Jane’s Soul Shake?  Would I be listened to over a black person’s voice who is examining the same matters on race relations?  Will it be okay to profit because I, as a white woman, have the privilege of being more easily heard?

Yet, I believe that Debby’s book and the work she has done to get where she is today, is born out of her heart’s desire to bridge the relationship gap between herself and people of color, despite her own socialization and the systems that have kept these relationships strained.  Furthermore, as a racial justice educator, Debby is doing the work to tear down those larger systems of white superiority, blatant and hidden, that keep white people especially, from recognizing themselves as part of the problem, and even more so, as part of the solution to building a more equitable society.

I look forward to reading, Waking Up White, and hope you will too.


Click on the link here to watch the recorded video of the interview:


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