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Reading Debby Irving’s, Waking Up White

13 Feb

In Waking Up White: And Finding Myself In The Story Of Race author Debby Irving gives us a window into her journey of self-discovery, and her new found awareness of how her whiteness had shaped her ability to achieve success,  as well as her perspectives on race, racism and race relations.

Part memoir and part history lesson, Debby begins with her self-described, ultra-white suburban, upper middle-class childhood in Winchester, Massachussetts.  Here she shows us how things said and left unsaid, like her mother’s telling of how the “poor Indians…lovely people who became dangerous when they drank liquor..it ruined them really..” shot down Debby’s enamored view and curiosity of Native Americans that came from visiting a beloved mural at her local library.

Born in the early 1960’s, Debby, shares she came from a strong WASP background, and enjoyed and never really gave much thought to, the entitlement of belonging to exclusive country clubs, attending prestigious private schools, and having access to the network of successful business people, primarily white men in corporate positions of power, who could do favors for her as she grew up and made her way out into the world.  She also had instilled in her the Yankee/WASP attitude and belief system that if you work hard, and pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you can achieve whatever you want in  life.

Becoming conscious in her early twenties when she moved into Boston and sensed for the first time neighborhood racial economic disparities, Debby began working in arts administration, bringing the arts to “inner-city” schools.  She believed she was helping, giving mainly people of color, access to the rich arts experiences people in more affluent white neighborhoods have easy access and exposure to.  Yet, in a haunting scene in her book, while doing work as general manager for First Night Boston, the city’s premiere New Year’s Eve arts celebration, Debby shows us maybe her help wasn’t welcome.  Maybe it was even hurtful.

After one year’s celebration, Debby and the First Night staff gathered a group of families of color to debrief about the initiative to bring more diverse participants to the annual event.  Feeling proud and that the pilot was a success, Debby is stunned and wounded when a black teen answers her questions about whether people had fun. “Man, it was freaky!  I’ve never seen so many white people in my life! I was scared!”

Immediately Debby is forced to look at how her conditioning to not consider how people different from herself might feel being put into an environment that is overwhelmingly white.  She learns it might make them feel uncomfortable and unwelcome, instead of grateful for a white woman’s actions to selflessly give under-served communities access to the arts–something she assumed everyone should want and feel good about.

And that is why Debby’s book is so wonderful, and so important.  Not only does she take the journey of “waking up” to her own whiteness and how that has impacted her interactions with people across racial lines, but she shares it with her readers in a way that is unflinchingly brave and honest.

There were so many places in the book where I said to myself, wow, that is brave she is admitting having what she describes as racialized thoughts, such as realizing how she internalized via family discussions and the media, that black people had an affinity for being great athletes, entertainers, and dancers, and yet doing a double-take in her younger adult years when meeting a black doctor, because there weren’t examples of black people in high-achieving professions in her white circle, or again, in the media.

Most white people wouldn’t want to admit they have these racialized thoughts, especially if it means they think they will be considered racist.  Yet, Debby doesn’t run away from them.  Instead she embraces them and confronts them head on in chapters that reflect upon race versus class, the construction of white superiority, her questioning of why she didn’t “wake up” sooner, concepts of color blindness, re-thinking her own good luck, her Robin Hood syndrome, the matter of diversity training, the culture of niceness, leaving her comfort zone, and transitioning to being a bystander to full engagement in learning and doing racial justice work.

Through learning about black history and the construction of systems of oppression–both invisible and visible, such as the GI Bill, that enabled her family to obtain new, affordable homes, but discriminated against black families, or her access to prestigious social connections, Debby took the call to action.  She enrolled in a class on Racial and Cultural Identity that Debby says blew the lid off and revealed to her how her whole life of not seeing how her race (she thought being white meant you were raceless) set her up for a life of invisible privileges and a clear, easy path of opportunities, while people of color who have suffered centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, urban renewal, inequities in education, housing and business loan discrimination, and more, had many more hurdles and obstacles keeping them from so easily achieving the American Dream.

As someone who started a blog because I became more in tune with my own attraction to black people, black culture, and a hyper-awareness of racial inequities, and who wanted to explore the how and the why of that, and not fear broaching the topic of race with people of color, I have deep admiration and respect for Debby for taking her journey of self-discovery, and for fearlessly and generously sharing it with readers, white, black and brown.  Also as someone who likes to think about race from an experiential point-of-view, rather than academic, I now know that I still need to understand how racial inequities came into being in the first place, to be able to talk about them from a personal point-of-view.  I read books on black history. I read black author’s books on their experiences on what it means to be black.  I stay current on topics of race and culture by reading on-line posts on social media from The Root, For Harriet, HuffPost Black Voices, Colorlines, etc.  I talk with, and listen to black friends, acquaintances and strangers share about their experiences with racism.

Am I perfect in all this?  No.  Do I worry that what I might say may not be politically correct, might come out as sounding racist or patronizing?  Yes.  But, as I hear many black people say when bringing up matters of race with white people, is it more important to worry about being called racist than to worry about committing a racist act, or not working to dismantle racism?  In other words, I need to get over myself, and do my best to not get defensive when approaching the topic of race, or take everything personally when a black person expresses their frustration or anger when it comes to white people’s role in creating structures of racism, and/or idly standing by, unaware of how one’s own white privilege has gotten them to where they sit in life today.  Or even worse, realizing it, and doing nothing about it.

I am inspired that as Debby’s journey unfolded from waking up to learning about the systems of oppression in our American history that afforded her these seemingly invisible privileges, has led her to a place of deep engagement and action.  Debby now works as a racial justice educator who describes her mission on her website as to “educate other white people confused and frustrated by racism and transform anxiety and inaction into empowerment and action, be it for an individual or an organization.”

I am grateful to Debby for writing Waking Up White, because it has given me some tools to delve more deeply into learning about how my own whiteness has shaped my life experience, and for giving me some history lessons on how institutionalized systems of oppression came into being.  As a resource, Debby includes study/discussion questions at the end of each chapter for readers who want to further explore how race has shaped their lives.  At the end of her book, Debby provides further reading and film resources, and ways to become engaged in your community and beyond in the conversation on race, and in racial justice work.   There are notes on individuals and organizations doing work in racial justice, such as the noted white privilege work of anti-racism activist, Peggy McIntosh, a white woman, and the White Privilege Conference, founded by Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr., who is black, and leads a multicultural Diversity Consulting and Research Firm, which strives to “provide a challenging, collaborative, and comprehensive experience to empower and equip individuals to work for equity and justice through self and social transformation.”

Debby’s book, Waking Up White,  gives me the history lessons I need to back up what I talk about when I talk about how white privilege impacts my life, other white people’s lives, and the lives of people of color. Her personal journey gives me the courage to keep moving forward in my own self-discovery, and in my engagement in conversations on race.

You can find out more about Debby Irving and Waking Up White, including speaking engagements, Book Club discussions, as well as resource material on race at www.debbyirving.com