Thursday, August 17, 2017

Waking Up White by Debby Irving



Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race is a book I tried to review after I read it in December and again after I led a four-week discussion of it in February. I have over twenty pages of handwritten notes on it and have flagged dozens of passages in the text. I’ve also spent more time learning about myself from this book than I ever could have imagined yet I couldn’t picture describing my experience reading it. The incidents in Charlottesville this week forced me to write this review.

Waking Up White tackles Debby Irving’s struggle to understand the racial tensions in her community, her professional work, and her life. She was a worrier who didn’t want to offend people, yet she could tell that her efforts to stimulate diversity in her job as an arts administrator were a failure. She was certain that as “a good person” she didn’t see color and “didn’t have a racist bone” in her body. The more she tried to understand and “help” the more confused she became. In the winter of 2009, at age forty-eight, she began course work for a master’s degree in special education where a “Racial and Cultural Identity” class offered what she thought would be tips that would help her with her students of color, but it made her turn the lens on herself.

Irving’s struggle to understand race and racism had left her upset and confused. “It turns out, stumbling block number 1 was that I didn’t think I had a race so I never thought to look within myself for answers. The way I understood it, race was for other people, brown- and black-skinned people. Don’t get me wrong – if you put a census form in my hand, I would know to check “white” or “Caucasian.”. .  . I thought white was the raceless race – just plain, normal, the one against which all others were measured. What I’ve learned is that thinking myself raceless allowed for a distorted frame of reference built on faulty beliefs.  For instance, I used to believe:

  • ·         Race is all about biological differences.
  • ·         I can help people of color by teaching them to be more like me.
  • ·         Racism is about bigots who make snarky comments and commit intentionally cruel acts against people of color.
  • ·         Culture and ethnicity are only for people of other races and from other countries.
  • ·         If the cause of racial inequity were understood, it would be solved by now.


If those beliefs sound familiar to you, you are not alone. I’ve met hundreds of white people across America who share not only these beliefs but the same feelings of race-related confusion and anxiety I experienced. This widespread phenomenon of white people wanting to guard themselves against appearing stupid, racist, or radical has resulted in an epidemic of silence from people who care deeply about justice and love for their fellow human beings. I believe most white people would take a stand against racism if only they knew how, or even imagined they had a role.”

Irving began educating herself and soon learned that “not talking about race was a privilege available only to white people.” She also learned that she couldn’t give away her privilege so she had to use it to create change and that her own “Robin Hood Syndrome” of helping people in certain ways actually disempowered them. She understood that her belief that the police were there to protect her came from her mother’s words to her when she was a child: “If you get lost or feel worried, just look for a policeman.”  Now she understood that just five miles away, black mothers in Boston were telling their children, “If you get stopped by the police, keep your hands in plain sight so they don’t think you have a gun.” She began wondering what else had shaped her beliefs. 

This book offers historical research and examples along with Irving’s own compelling story, but what sets Waking Up White apart from other books about race is that each short chapter in the book ends with a question that makes the reader learn more about his or her own story. I wrote fourteen hand-written legal pages answering those questions and those words offer a more multifaceted portrait of my experiences than any other exercise I’ve ever completed. After I contemplated each answer, I was even more eager to return to the book and to learn more. 

Listen to this 2015 National Public Radio interview to hear about Irving’s light bulb moments beginning when she was five and wondering what had happened to Native Americans through her times as a teacher trying to help but often hindering her efforts. She discusses the GI Bill and how 98% of the money for housing went to white families and how her eyes began opening to her own privilege. Listen, if only for her statement “There is no neutral in racism.”

This is the single book that every American must read AND it’s a book that will compel you to find others to read it so you can discuss it with them. Ask your library, book store, religious institution, school, or local newspaper to sponsor a discussion group. Our four-week discussion at Flossmoor Community Church in Illinois had people from their thirties to their nineties who’d grown up poor, rich, white, black, Latino, some with multiple educational degrees and some with none, some in cities, some on farms, and we taught each other. Whatever you believe or know, this book will stretch you.

Summing It Up: Every person living in America today needs to read and talk about Waking Up White. We all want to end racism and reading Waking Up White is a first step toward that goal.

FYI: Best-selling author Jodi Picoult’s 2016 novel Small Great Things is inspired, in part, by what she learned reading Waking Up White. The Presbyterian Church, USA chose the book for their denomination to read together in 2016. Many communities are selecting it for a one-book-one-community reading project. 

Rating: 5 stars for the importance of the topic and its impact on the reader
Category: Five Stars, Nonfiction, Soul food, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: January 9, 2014
What Others are Saying:
"Debby Irving's powerful Waking Up White opens a rare window on how white Americans are socialized. Irving's focus on the mechanics of racism operating in just one life -- her own -- may lead white readers to reconsider the roots of their own perspectives -- and their role in dismantling old myths. Readers of color will no doubt find the view through Irving's window fascinating, and telling." -- Van Jones, author, Rebuild The Dream, The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems; Co-host, CNN Crossfire 

"I read Waking Up White in one sitting. To say I loved it is an understatement. It's such a raw, honest portrait ... Irving's experience on display - warts and all - will help white people, who haven't noticed the role systemic privilege has played in their lives, start to see the world in a new way." -- Jodi Picoult, author, The Storyteller, My Sister's Keeper

Irving's personal and moving tale takes us on an adventure to a world utterly new to her as she wakes up to the reality of how, without her knowledge or active pursuit, she lives in a society which is set up to reward her at the expense of people of color. I cannot imagine a more understandable and compelling invitation to learn about how racism lives on in our homes, communities, and nation. -- Bishop Gene Robinson, Retired Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire and Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Washington, DC

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