‘Waking Up White’ Author Will Give Tips Oct. 3 for Working across Racial Lines

BENTON HARBOR, Mich.—Debby Irving won’t be accompanied by a hot light and a good cop/bad cop duo when she brings a message to white people Oct. 3 about how they can begin to work together with black people to confront racial inequities.

But she will introduce her own method of interrogation. And it is “starting to turn the lens on ourselves as white people and really interrogate ourselves: What did I learn about myself as a member of the white race, and how does that affect my thinking and my feeling and my behaviors today?”

Such an interrogation can lead to a real awakening, as it did for Irving.

Irving, the author of the book “Waking Up White—and Finding Myself in the Story of Race,” said of her upcoming workshop: “I want people to understand what I call a paradigm shift for white people to make. Until that paradigm shift happens, we often spin wheels, and we can often create even more of a divide with what we think are good deeds and fixes.”

‘Knock ‘em, sock ’em’

In a phone interview Sept. 17 from her home office in Cambridge, Mass., Irving said the awakening tends to be rapid. It’s “like a knock’em, sock’em moment that most white people experience as a part of that paradigm shift: ‘How did I not know this! How did I not know the history!’ “

Irving’s three-hour workshop at Hilton Garden Inn is free to the public and is part of Community Grand Rounds: Healing the Trauma of Racism, a collaborative effort of Spectrum Health Lakeland and The Todman Family Foundation. (Register at https://www.spectrumhealthlakeland.org/community-grand-rounds by clicking on “Upcoming Events.”)

The title of the racial justice educator and writer’s workshop is “I’m a Good Person! Isn’t That Enough?” The subtitle: “How Power and Privilege Undermine Best Intentions.”

In her 2014 award-winning book, Irving chronicled her middle age awakening in a college course as she absorbed facts of American life that she, an educated and well-born white woman, had never encountered. These revelations were sometimes devastating, like finding out the same GI bill that had given her father a law school education and helped her parents buy their first house had also denied most black people these benefits. Finding out how neighborhoods were “redlined” and segregated was one of the many, many other uncomfortable truths. It was a grueling experience to try to fit the historical facts into the narrative of Irving’s own family history.

Still Awakening

She’s still waking up — and relishing the experience.

“I just can’t get over how wide it is and how deep it is,” said Irving of what she and other racial justice educators call systemic racism, the kind that sociologists and historians say pervades American society. “It’s just everywhere. If I look at history, it’s unbelievable. I’m reading the book ‘Stamped from the Beginning’ right now. I’m listening to it on tape because I drive a lot, and I have to keep rewinding it. There’s just so much to it.” The book she mentioned is by young African-American author Ibram X. Kendi, who just this summer published the book, “How To Be an Antiracist.”

“I just can’t get enough of this. I feel like I have a lifetime of catching up to do. The more I learn, the more I learn there is to learn,” Irving said. “And usually, just when I think I’m getting a handle on it, that’s when I get reminded that I don’t.” 

Learning new information is one thing. Un-learning old information that has framed our view of our world is an entirely different and harder thing. 

“When we read this material and we talk about this new material, I think what we are really doing is we’re rewiring ourselves,” she said. “We’re on forbidden territory, for one, and we’re learning to normalize talking about something we were told not to talk about. And our brain is having to work hard, because, for most of us, it’s not just that we’re adding new information. It’s that we’re getting information that is 180 degrees different than what we were taught. We’re not just taking in new information; we’re dismantling old information in us.”  

It’s Everywhere

How pervasive is racism in the United States? 

“There is no sector in U.S. society that isn’t touched by, saturated with, the systemic design that deadbolts racism in place,” Irving said in the interview. “It’s in our healthcare system, our education system, our housing, our lending, our food supply, our transportation system. It’s everywhere. If you want to look at the food system, you could get a Ph.D. in the history of white control around food.”

What is someone to do in the face of such a daunting obstacle?

Irving advises each person to begin where she or he is. “I think it’s helpful for people to start to really understand how it operates at the institutional level, in whatever one’s either passion area or work you’re in — someplace you are every day. So, if I’m a teacher, really understanding how it plays out in the education system is going to make sense to me. If I’m a pastor, if my church is my passion, that’s the place for me to really research and understand what it looks like.”

She talked of the wealth of information available to enlighten and guide people. “There is no sector where there is not a podcast, videos, documentaries, books, experts.”

Her Audience

“I’m trying to reach really well-intentioned, earnest white people who would do better if they knew better,” Irving said.

And what are they doing wrong? she was asked.

“We white people are often, without even knowing it, caught in a savior mindset.” She illustrated this by imagining white people saying, “‘My job is to help and fix this group or that group,’ as opposed to ‘My job is to understand the system so I can leverage my privilege and challenge it, and disrupt it, and dismantle it.’ 

“And then the other thing that we often as white people do is think we should be really appreciated for what we’re doing” in helping black people. She imagined someone thinking: “They’re going to be so excited when I show up from the white and wealthy side of town. They’re going to be so appreciative; they’re going to be so thrilled when I show up. 

“And that isn’t necessarily the reaction,” Irving cautioned.

“It’s scary. There’s a lot of trust that has to be built, because the history of white people is to destroy communities of color—even when good intentions are implied.” She cited the story in her book of how white society, beginning in 1879, forced Native American children into boarding schools, largely robbing them of their culture in an attempt to assimilate them into the dominant society.

Uncomfortable Conversations are Needed

White people who want to help across racial lines would do well to “find people of color in the community and figure out how to support them and partner with them and be ‘co-conspirators,’ is the term I love,” Irving said. She made clear it is unwise—and certainly insulting—for white people to assume they know what people of color want in their community.

But, before joining in action enlightened by knowledge, Irving would first advise some good, deep, and, inevitably, contentious conversation in a guided group setting of both black and white people.

“You can’t move from talking to action until we really build our conversational skills,” she said. “The reason it’s so needed is because most white people, at this point, in 2019, have been raised in a color-blind era, where we’re taught not to see race, which means we don’t talk about it, which means we don’t have the vocabulary. And also, part of dominant white culture tells us to have good manners and not rock the boat, which means that we are often lacking conflict-navigation skills, because we’ve been trained to just avoid it.”

Unearthing systemic racial barriers and disrupting the status quo equal boat-rocking, and that equals turbulence. Cross-racial group conversations will at times invariably lead to contentious exchanges, Irving said, “because the people who know where the racial barriers live in a system—or sometimes they’ll call them racial pain points … are the people who feel it, and those are the people of color.”

White people need to learn “to build the emotional capacity to weather” these contentious conversational passages as a way of navigating conflict, Irving said. 

“And so white people need to learn to be quiet and settle their bodies and listen and believe when people of color say, ‘This is a problem, and I see a different way around this.’ She said often white people will “kick back” and deny they have white privilege or assert they are right, saying, “But this is the way it’s always been done.” When that happens, it’s their “old superiority” attitude emerging, she said. 

“The reason interpersonal stuff is so important is because people of color need to know they can push us white people (in conversation), and that takes a lot of trust.”