Reading ‘Waking Up White’ shines light on white privilege

By ERIC MOUNT

Contributing columnist

Debby Irving asked herself “how it was possible . . . to be a ‘good person’ and utterly clueless” about race; and that jump-started her journey to white awareness. The full title of her book (first published in 2014) is “Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race.” For 25 years as a neighbor, arts administrator and teacher, she sensed that her efforts to reach out to students and families of color were falling flat. She had not fathomed white privilege; and, as her husband says of her bold self-exploration, “It couldn’t have happened to a whiter person.” She agrees with Daniel Boorstin that “education is learning what you didn’t know you didn’t know.”

Not content simply to recount her journey of self-discovery, she involves her readers as she retraces her odyssey by including prompts and exercises at the end of each chapter. We are challenged to do our homework before the next class. She had thought that white was the “raceless race — just plain, normal, the one against which all others were measured.” She learns that race is not about biological differences but about socially constructed definitions with white supremacy as the sub-text. She learns that “racism is [not] about bigots who make snarky comments and commit intentionally cruel acts against people of color.” Systemic racism, she discovers, is about how hard it has been to get an education, a job, healthy food, legal protection, housing, transportation, and medical care. Why was the G.I. Bill not available to black veterans returning from World War II? From the 1930s to the 1960s, why did even the Federal Housing Administration’s system of “redlining” neighborhoods exclude black people from most legitimate means of obtaining a mortgage?

As she explores her relationship to the dominant culture brought to this country by white Anglo settlers, she includes the voices and perspectives of people of color. She realizes “how I perpetuated racism by taking advantage of my ‘good luck’.” She explains why saying, “I don’t see race” is “as racist as it gets.”  She concludes that there has been “no bigger misstep in American history than the invention and perpetuation of the idea of white superiority. It allows white children to believe they are exceptional and entitled while allowing children of color to believe they are inferior and less deserving. Neither is true.”  She continues, “Unless adults understand racism, they will, as I did, unknowingly teach it to their children.

The content of Irving’s book is not new or unique. Tim Wise, for example, has authored several noteworthy contributions to this discussion, including “White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son.” However, the approach and interactive features of “Waking Up White” have gotten the attention of a number of churches, schools and other institutions that are willing to look critically at their “whiteness.”

The New York Times reported in 2015 that a New York private school (with uniformly white and wealthy students) used the book to help students think about social justice in a personal way after years of avoidance. Educators from several of the private schools treated in the report observed that their students have long lacked anti-racist role models and that the students’ options for confronting race had sadly been limited to “colorblind, ignorant or racist.”

The anti-racist initiatives in these schools had a mixed reception. Some parents objected to race-based grouping in an elementary school workshop. One workshop leader was welcomed by a black senior as warm, stimulating and helpful regarding “sub-conscious racial bias,” while some white students said his focus on white privilege made them feel uncomfortable and unsettled. One administrator stated: “This is messy work … but these conversations are necessary.”

In 2016, the diversity committee of Westport, Connecticut (93 percent white in 2010; 26,000 population; median household income over $150,000; voted 2 to 1 for Clinton over Trump), proposed that the annual essay contest in the schools have white privilege as its topic. Contestants were to treat in 1,000 words or less whether white privilege exists and what its personal and societal impact is. Most students were fine with the assignment, but some local residents were angered at the idea that race was a factor in their success and that they benefit from racism. They insisted that Westport is an “open town” and that “anyone who can afford it can live there.”

More criticism came from outside in the form of calls to local officials and attacks on the township’s Facebook pages. “Race-baiting” and “racism in reverse” were alleged. On the other hand, students shrugged off the uproar. One saw it as the start of a reasonable discussion and noted that students were free to disagree. Another called it important “because we aren’t exposed to much diversity in our town.”  For many it proved to be a wake-up call.

When Debby Irving shares her wake-up call with her readers, she uses some words from Anais Nin:  “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Irving switches us from “seeing is believing” to “believing is seeing.” It seems highly appropriate that the publisher of her book is Elephant Room Press.  She has the courage to name the elephant in the room because she is able to look honestly at the white spectacles through which she sees. It remains to be seen how many will join this “messy” but “necessary” conversation.