Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race
published in 2015 by Elephant Room Press
“I did what felt easiest. And true to any self-perpetuating system, the path of least resistance served to maintain the system. As I further immersed myself in a monocultural world, the playing field continued to look level, and opportunities to raise my racial awareness stagnated” (76)
This book has the feel of a book you would read in anthropology 101. After reading it you would change your major to anthropology eager to study the incredibly unaware-of-itself white race that seems impervious to reading obvious clues to its own way of being in the world. Finally, a tribe that hasn’t been studied and categorized by white men! The last frontier?
Debby Irving wakes up from a 48 year slumber when she returns to college to do graduate work. Her first class on “racial and cultural identity,” she writes, opened her eyes not to other people’s cultures and identity, but her own white culture and white identity, which she never realized she had: “Not thinking I had a race, the idea of asking me to study my ‘racial identity’ felt ludicrous” (30). Irving shares her awakening to racial inequality exploring and excavating what she calls the other side of race, white privilege in our country. She is careful not to blow everything up with her first publication, although, there is a lot of shattering of commonly held American self-righteousness. For instance, Irving states that before she took the class:
“I believed every person could make it in America, if just given the opportunity” (30).
Perhaps, her confession is bit sly on her part, because most Americans would say: I believed every person could make it in America, if they were willing to work hard! And, yes, they would say it emphatically.
However one says it, though, here is where she begins: with that big American “if clause”; throughout the book she delicately shows us that not all of us are “just given the opportunity.” In fact, the system more often than not, sustains racism in a very simple loop, which is hard to undo and goes something like: you will not get the resources you obviously need, and then you will fail, and then you will get less resources, which means you will fail again, having failed and proven you cannot be trusted with resources, it will be easy to make the case that you should be given less or even forgotten altogether, and so on…. And, this is all supported in society by an IF Clause, which for any who have studied language, especially one that is not their own, knows is the subjunctive mood, indicating that this is not reality about which we are speaking. So, using an IF Clause means you can speak generously about things that are not really happening to you… like inequality … because you believed something would be true, were a certain thing, like opportunity, given. Basically, Irving points out from the beginning, she believed in something false, and language points out through its obligatory constructions, how our culture perpetuates the falsities. Once we have the tools to examine our beliefs, then we can open our eyes to what is being said, and what is meant by what is being said.
Irving is careful in her presentation as she takes us through her journey of self-shattering-reflection, but she does not hold back on her insights once she learns how to think about her experiences differently. Throughout the book she reflects on conversations or events involving her parents, siblings and extended family, but she never shames them, which allows their vulnerability to remain, not as a weakness, but as a path to understanding. When she relates, for example, her mother’s response to her question as a child about “whatever happened to all the Indians?”(3), her mother’s “they could not handle drinking” (4) is somewhat typical. My own parents would have probably said the white man did a terrible thing to them, and even added, it’s a shame, but would never be able to connect the fact that the white man is still doing terrible things to indigenous people or that indigenous people contribute more than just casinos to this world.
Irving’s mom says a library full in one brief response. She unwittingly characterizes Indigenous Americans as savages, which completely exonerates any misdeeds by the Europeans who arrived in order to find riches or freedom. When she tells her daughter the “Indians” could not handle liquor she unintentionally reveals our “post-alcoholic culture,” one which, as physician and clinician, Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk describes, in an interview with Krista Tippet of OnBeing, is not in tune with its body, and used/uses alcohol and drugs to deal with distress. We do have real trouble with bodies, our own, and others, and throughout the book Debby Irving demonstrates how it is all really out in the open: in our language, but unfortunately we lack insight into our own bad habits.
Waking Up White, therefore, is highly relatable, and touches on many aspects of our culture that we simply do not know how to approach, even seemingly minor offenses such as how privilege plays out in shopping. As a white woman she explains how she could go around in her sweat pants and shop at thrift stores with absolute ease and no worries about how she looked. It was an eye-opener to me to think a secondhand clothing store might be considered a privilege. But there is something to her frankness where frugality is concerned. As she writes:
“Families like mine drove cars until the engine’s last breath, patched up elbows of old sweaters to extend their wear, and reused their morning teabags throughout the day” (9).
Yet, Irving’s family enjoys second homes, ski vacations, and the best private education. To sum it up, they enjoy the best of both worlds, and prove that yes you can eat your cake and have it too! People of any other color, on the other hand, strive to look not so poor, which, in the long run, puts them into debt and opens them up to criticism about their money spending priorities.
After we wake up, What do we do when we realize we have some capital related to our skin color? Also, is there a danger of intellectualizing the coming to terms with whiteness as privilege?
Irving writes at the end of her book:
“I can’t give away my privilege. I’ve got it whether I want it or not. What I can do is use my privilege to create change” (249).
Irving herself has become more of an activist and advocate, and as she tries to build better relationships with people of color, however, she comes close to undermining her position when she concedes she cannot do much to reverse her privilege.
How ought we proceed when we know we are privileged? Is it enough to understand we have trampled on other people’s rights for years, and then walk into our comfortable homes in our comfortable neighborhoods and continue to enjoy what we know to be underwritten by another race? Debby Irving makes the case that we must understand our privileged side just as much as we must look outside and have empathy:
“It’s not enough to feel empathy toward people on the downside; white people must also see themselves on the upside to understand that discrimination results from privilege” (73).
Beginning to understand our privileged side will draw us close, in my opinion, to how we give from our privileged side. What does it mean to be giving when you are white and wealthy? She hints at the question of our so-called generosity when she shares with us her experience of bringing music and dance to inner city neighborhoods in Boston:
“I would have told you at the time I was doing it for them, but as I think about it now, I wonder how much of what I was doing contributed to my ability to justify all my new acquisitions and achievements. Did I imagine it virtuous to live off my riches and give to the poor?” (106).
I think we do imagine ourselves to be virtuous whenever we give to the poor or walk into a classroom in the inner city, or even when we visit prisoners, nursing homes, group homes or any other form of organized segregation. We say it is because it feels good to give, but as Irving points out, there is a sense of the “virtuous” that we receive which enables us to continue living as we do.
We always get to go home. As Irving points out: White people can choose to walk away:
“I can choose not to have a single cross-racial relationship. I can choose not to talk about race. And I can choose not to learn the beliefs, customs, traditions, and values of racial groups other than my own” (79).
How do we share? Whether we are instructing a child about sharing a toy, or thinking about educating the next generation or trying to come up with better environmental relationships, we need to decide if it is okay to say: I simply cannot change my habits, but I can give you some money for your problems. Clearly, we cannot change our past privilege, but we can completely eradicate our present privilege. We can say we are all in this together; rather than only the strongest, and whitest, survive.
Irving’s book is especially important now when we have seen an opposing force of whiteness declaring itself to be a victim of all races. We need to question our way of life, and what we take for granted as ours.
If we look at the Dakota Access pipeline whose destination is through Indigenous American land or if we look at the current tax bill, which has a provision that will open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil and fracked gas drilling thereby trampling, yet again, on Indigenous rights and on the air, water, soil, trees, plants, animals, we can see that since landing here in the United States we really have not changed our habits or appetites much. If we want something, we take it. And, if we want to be generous we are careful about our generosity. As Irving points out with regard to the beneficiaries of the G.I. Bill. Walking into her class on racial and cultural identity she is ready to extol the G.I. Bill as America at its finest. Shatter. The truth: mostly white men benefited, she learns.
“My father’s law school education had been paid for by that bill. My parents’ first home had been subsidized by it. …
“But all of a sudden, the film starts talking about the bill not being accessible to black Americans” (32)
So Irving learns over and over again that everything she learned from her race, which lived in an exclusive white upper-class suburb, might not have been the way things actually were for everyone else.
As the Buddha has written: “Nothing is at it appears.”