‘Waking Up White’ Author Invites White Audience Members to Look Inside

By TED HARTZELL

BENTON HARBOR, Mich.—You don’t get much whiter than Debby Irving.

Her husband Bruce attests to this on the jacket of her book, “Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race.” With tongue in cheek, he says of his wife’s awakening in the last decade and desire to share her race revelations with other white people: “It couldn’t have happened to a whiter person.”

Before an estimated audience of 225 people in southwest Michigan, Irving did a lot of white confessing. She owned up to a gilded and cozy past in Winchester, Mass., a past so steeped in everything white — the community’s wealth, overall power structure, school system, amenities and so on — that she inevitably came to conclude as a little girl this was the way the world was. Images from the world outside her prosperous family home only reinforced this cultural whiteness, whether they were Norman Rockwell paintings, TV sitcoms like “Father Knows Best” or, in the 1970s, the nightly perp walk on Boston television news of yet another black male suspect being shoved by a white cop into a police car. 

Everyone has a belief system that develops quite early in life, said Irving. After the first several years of our lives, “All we’re going to do is collect evidence to support what we already believe.”

Everyone has a belief system that develops quite early in life, said Irving. After the first several years of our lives, “All we’re going to do is collect evidence to support what we already believe.”

A few times in her three-hour workshop Oct. 3, Irving invited her mostly white audience members to do the “deep work” of confronting their own racial belief systems. Some of this self-revealing work took place during her workshop as she gave people time to talk with others at their tables in the large banquet room. Irving said this introspective work would be uncomfortable at times, but ultimately rewarding for the individual and the wider community.  See accompanying story “Tips for How White People Can ‘Wake Up’”

 

Her ‘Why’? Restoring Community

“My ‘why’ in this work is not just about justice,” said Irving, who calls herself a racial justice educator. The American idea that each person operates independently as a “rugged individual” is a damaging one. “We’re all operating as these disconnected human machines, and that’s just not true.” Instead, “restoring community” is essential. “We’re completely bound up with the whole community’s ability to thrive. That’s why I’m so excited that’s also the approach you’re taking here.” 

Irving was referring to a project called Community Grand Rounds: Healing the Trauma of Racism. It is a collaboration between Spectrum Health Lakeland and the Todman Family Foundation, and it was the project’s organizers who invited Irving to Benton Harbor. 

Community Grand Rounds (CGR), which began in spring 2018, is bringing expert speakers to southwest Michigan, hosting showings of documentary films and spawning small-group discussions called Brave Talks. Irving’s book will be the subject of these groups’ first so-called community read. CGR leaders want all this learning to yield ideas from the community to help close the health gap in Berrien County between black and white residents.

CGR’s mission is largely to share with both medical and lay people the latest scientific information on how the chronic stress of racism — as a cause distinct from such things as bad lifestyle choices or access to health care — is contributing to worse health outcomes and shorter lives for black people. The biological damage can even be passed on genetically to children and grandchildren. In Berrien County, the biggest gap in life expectancy is 19 years between the predominantly black neighborhoods in and around Benton Harbor and the predominantly white area across the river of Lincoln Township.

 

Reality Knocked at 49

Irving’s workshop departed from the biological, neurological and psychological emphasis of most other CGR presentations. She spoke largely as a former longtime public schoolteacher. And she spoke as someone who hadn’t awakened to her white privilege in the 25 years from her early 20s to late 40s while she absorbed what she could of diversity training and raised money for programs for predominantly black inner-city youths and their families.

Reality knocked her on the head in 2009 at age 48. A graduate-level course, “Racial and Cultural Identity,” taught her she had a racial identity, after all, when she thought race only applied to non-white people. And it exposed her to unsettling truths about her dominant white culture.

A graduate-level course, “Racial and Cultural Identity,” taught her she had a racial identity, after all, when she thought race only applied to non-white people.

Irving acknowledged in Benton Harbor, as she has repeatedly, that the individual lives of white people span the spectrum, depending on myriad conditions as they do for anyone, including wealth and family situations. Everybody has multiple identities, such as race, gender, age and physical ability. Yet she maintained whites are indeed united by universal cultural norms, of which they are often unaware, that were planted in the very beginning of this nation.

 

White More Than Skin Deep

“When I use that term (whiteness), I just don’t mean the optics of whiteness,” she said. “I mean all of the values and attitudes, what stands for good and bad, and right and wrong, and appropriate and inappropriate. And, even, ‘normal’ in white spaces is the idea that you can split life into good, bad — into a binary in the first place, or that life is linear. These are all these attributes that are embedded into white culture.” 

The judgments can apply to things like hairstyle or how to say hello to someone or how to celebrate a touchdown, or even how to engage with a patient in a health care setting, Irving said. Whatever individual or group holds the power defines these subjective qualities, and she said the people most often in power have been white. But these binary distinctions don’t recognize the reality of life, which tends to be “much messier and grayer” than the simple “either-ors.”

 

‘Swimming in’ Whiteness

Irving offered her own childhood as symptomatic of how people absorb the messages of what it means to be white. It was a “whiteness that I was swimming in without knowing it.” 

The nostalgia — for whites, anyway — of mid-20th-Century Norman Rockwell paintings fit in quite conveniently with life for the young Debby Irving in Winchester. White people were doing everything everywhere in her life. “It’s all I’m seeing. I’m a little kid. This is all I know,” she said. Life was protected and secure and full of promise for the future. 

She doesn’t recall anybody exactly saying “the playing field is level,” but that is definitely the message she received as a youngster.

She doesn’t recall anybody exactly saying “the playing field is level,” but that is definitely the message she received as a youngster. She said this unspoken but ever-present belief ranks right up there with “life, liberty and justice for all” and “from sea to shining sea.” 

The ideal that success inevitably follows hard work formed part of the foundation of her life. She found confirmation of the creed in people around Winchester who, like her parents, were doing fine financially. America seemed to be a safe harbor for people all around the world. They could come here and grab hold of The American Dream, if only they worked hard enough. This world seemed to be ruled by white men, who were at the top of every institution and even on all American currency, leading Debby to believe men should be in charge because they were apparently biologically superior.

 

Be Cheery. Don’t Talk About Race.

Politeness — oppressive politeness — ruled in this rarefied white atmosphere. “Good people are cheery people” was one message she absorbed. “Buck up, soldier on” was another. For acting up frequently and expressing her feelings, Debby got sent to her room a lot and developed deep shame. She learned to suppress her feelings and conform, though the price was “pretty severe depression and anxiety” in her late 20s and early 30s. Unable to understand herself, she also couldn’t understand and empathize with other people. When the “other” was someone of another race who said they were experiencing discrimination, she tended to think of them dismissively. 

Irving’s parents also taught their children to be “colorblind,” making it hard to talk about race in her home. “We also had something that contributed to never, ever learning about racism, and that is that we have this saying: ‘In polite company we never discuss politics or religion.’ If you don’t discuss politics or religion, you will never, ever get to racism, because it is foundational to the invention of race, and the implementation and design of racism to hold us all in our place,” she said. “So that created a massive information vacuum for me.”

Living in her bubble also taught Irving about who was safe and who was unsafe. In retrospect, she thinks it likely the unsafe people for her included those black men in the ‘70s she saw on TV being forced to do the perp walk. She now wonders “if I’d already bought into the belief that black men were criminal, black men were scary, black men deserve to be taken off the streets. And I can take it a level further as a white woman, that (at the time) I feel a sense of relief that my white womanhood was being protected. That’s a very, very deep part of racial messaging in the United States.”

 

‘Civilized’ vs. ‘Savage’

She learned from the dominant white culture about who was civilized and who was savage. The only people who seemed to be truly civilized were Europeans or their white American descendants. Among the “savages” were the African cannibals depicted in one of the “Babar’s Travels” series of children’s books Irving loved as a child, and as a fourth-grade teacher was using in a classroom until an African-American boy came to her and said the book was racist. 

The drawing the boy pointed out, of the cannibals attacking the story’s protagonists, the gray elephants, was a drawing Irving thinks she probably looked at “hundreds and hundreds” of times as a little girl. It was one of her very first exposures to people who looked different from her. What message did she get then? She was certainly “getting messaging that says ‘subhuman, savage, dangerous,’” Irving told her audience. Because things don’t enter our belief systems “in a two-dimensional way” but are “very animated and full of emotion,” she now thinks, “I bet this scared me a little bit.

“So, think of this: We’ve got civilized and savage, and civilized and savage. And that is such an old, old promoted myth in the United States,” she said. As someone almost 60 years old, Irving said, “I’ve seen various groups cast in that dangerous, ‘other’ role,” but “I’ve never seen so many groups simultaneously — racial, ethnic, religious groups — simultaneously cast in the role of the dangerous ‘other.’ That’s the moment we’re in right now.”

 

Doing the Hard Personal Work

The anecdote about looking at how the Babar children’s book probably affected her as a child is instructive to Irving, because ”I know this is what the deep personal work (of introspection) looks like” when it comes to a white person’s racial identity.

“We can’t go back and have another childhood,” she said. “We can’t put in a new hard drive. But we can … write and we can rewrite software for the rest of our lives. This helps us override faulty pieces of our hard drive, our belief system. I came out of childhood with an unbelievable faulty belief system — hard drive — despite the fact I had one of the best educations money can buy.”

“We can’t go back and have another childhood,” she said. “We can’t put in a new hard drive. But we can … write and we can rewrite software for the rest of our lives. This helps us override faulty pieces of our hard drive, our belief system. I came out of childhood with an unbelievable faulty belief system — hard drive — despite the fact I had one of the best educations money can buy.”

The faulty beliefs Irving said she absorbed as a little girl, and which were constantly reinforced until age 48, are symptomatic of the messages all Americans are exposed to, she said. Although people have offered various objections to her observation, Irving insists Americans are exposed to messages all the time holding some people are more valuable than others.

 

‘Deep, Deep, Deep Conditioning’

“We’re exposed to these ideas again and again and again in ways we don’t even know we’re being exposed … and it gets into our subconscious way before we’re old enough to start to discern it. The way this shows up is deep, deep, deep conditioning,” she said. 

“That’s one thing about this work. It’s not just about individuals. It’s much more about this giant social role that we’re all born into, so that we all take our proper place in the society.”

“That’s one thing about this work. It’s not just about individuals. It’s much more about this giant social role that we’re all born into, so that we all take our proper place in the society.”

Irving now knows the racial teachings that seeped into her being as a child led her as a teacher to have lower expectations of her black students. For American society in general, such racial messages lead to serious, everyday differences in how black and white people are treated. Irving alluded to studies showing how, in the health care setting, patients of color who register pain are not taken as seriously as white patients and not given any or enough of the right painkillers, and how white patients in the emergency room tend to “leapfrog” ahead of people of color who have been waiting longer.

The health outcomes resulting from such disparities are “extreme — even from good people” who are health care professionals, she said.

 

Shock Over the GI Bill

The beginning of Irving’s awakening at age 48 included learning how the GI Bill, a leg up for so many white World War II servicemen and their families for houses and college educations, had almost entirely excluded from benefits the 1.2 million black servicemen, plus Latino, Asian and Native American servicemen.  

She noted how policies like racial quotas in higher education, the razing of black neighborhoods in cities across the country, and housing segregation by race enforced by redlining lending practices were among the forces creating two “starkly different worlds.” These worlds, one white and one black, tend to have vastly different conditions of transportation, food, recreation, air quality and public education. And she said the segregated housing patterns of many decades ago “are remarkably consistent today.”

 

‘Whitewashing’ History

Irving was a history major as an undergraduate and along the way she got an MBA. But in earning these history and business credentials, she did not learn of so-called Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the early 1900s. She said this 40-block area of African Americans was so prosperous and thriving that the white people around it became envious. In Irving’s telling of the story, the catalyst for what is now called the Tulsa Race Massacre, and has also been called the Tulsa Race Riot, began over the untrue rumor of a black teenage boy assaulting a white teenage girl. This became the excuse for white rage and the destruction of this black section over a furious two days, May 31 and June 1, 1921. She said the white-on-black violence included fire bombings by white residents and Ku Klux Klan members, support of the whites by the police and National Guard, and even bombing by U.S. military planes.

(To supplement what Irving said, an online search shows the Red Cross estimated 1,256 houses were burned and 215 others were looted but not burned in Tulsa. In 1997, the state of Oklahoma established The Race Riot Commission, which a few years later estimated between 100 and 300 people were killed and more than 8,000 people were made homeless by the rampaging mobs in 1921. In 2018 the commission was officially renamed the 1921 Race Massacre Commission.)  

Irving said until Sept. 11, 2001, the Tulsa massacre was considered the No. 1 act of domestic terrorism on U.S. soil, “and most people don’t know about it.”

“I think it’s extraordinary. I go all over the country, and I can be in a room of 500 people and nobody knows about Black Wall Street,” she said. “How hopeful would it have been to me, as a little white girl, to know that all kinds of people could set ambitious goals and live into them, achieve them.”

Leaving out such crucial black history is called “whitewashing,” Irving said. She encouraged educators in the room to make sure such history is “un-erased” and taught in school.

Leaving out such crucial black history is called “whitewashing,” Irving said. She encouraged educators in the room to make sure such history is “un-erased” and taught in school.

The Rosa & Martin of Myth

Irving turned to two key figures in the civil rights era to talk not about the erasing of black history, but certainly what could be called its sanitizing.

She said most adult Americans are familiar with the passage from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 about yearning for the day when people will be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.

“It’s true he said that. It is a beautiful aspiration. It’s also really a comfortable piece of his entire body of work for people who want to be colorblind … (as if) we’re already there, like you can just will that into being,” Irving said. “The fact of the matter is he has a brilliant body of work,” including an understanding of how racism, militarism and poverty work together synergistically.

Superficial history also does an injustice to the Rosa Parks story, belying the intricate planning for the yearlong Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott in 1955-56 and how it came about. Like other points of black history, Irving was a “sitting duck” for the superficial version that Parks simply got tired one day and didn’t want to yield her seat at the front of the bus to a white person.

Accounts usually omit the fact that Parks was a highly trained organizer. She fought for legal recourse, including abortions, for black women raped by white men in the South, Irving said.

‘In My White House’

Irving read the superficial version of the Rosa Parks story to her daughters at bedtime. “And I thought I was such a good person, talking about Rosa Parks in my white house,” she said wryly. She also introduced that version into her public school classrooms, repeating the myth.

The real story is far richer and more powerful, said Irving, and needs to be taught in American schools.

“There was nothing feeble or haphazard about what happened.” Instead, “the day she steps onto that bus in Montgomery is the culmination of months and months of late-night meetings,” Irving said. “It’s a completely, brilliantly choreographed moment in history.”