Waking Up White, by Debby Irving.
Waking Up White, by Debby Irving. Elephant Room Press (2014), Paperback, 288 pages.
A valuable autobiographical account of one woman’s realization that her own whiteness was a social category that lies at the core of the privileges and resources of her life.
Debby Irving was born in 1960 and grew up in suburb of Boston, a cocoon of pride, affluence, and whiteness. As a child she learned the virtues of optimism and hard work, and assumed that anyone could succeed if they tried. In 2009 at 48, a mother and teacher seeking a Master’s degree, she began to be aware of the reality of race structuring her live. Amazed and incensed at what she discovered, she has written this book to encourage others to see that whiteness and white supremacy are invisible realities that we who are white must face and understand.
I knew I needed to read this book when I saw its cover with its picture of little blond-haired girl who very well could have been me. Unlike Irving, I grew up near enough to the South to know African Americans, but the ones I knew were all servants whose duty it was to help care for me. As she points out, each of our paths is unique, but similar in a society that devalues some of its members on the basis of skin color. Like her I had to unlearn much of what I was taught as a child about race.
Irving does an excellent job ofexplaining the factual and conceptual basis of race, as they have come to be understood since the 1970s by academics and activists. Race is a category created by human beings which confers benefits on some while making life harder for others. Racism is structural violence, often invisible in our society, that continues to define whites as superior to people of color. Racism is not something evil individuals think and voice, but a hierarchy that rewards those who are white. Because of racism even people, like Irving and myself, wanting to “help”others, often fail to treat them as equals. She points out, correctly, that attempts to separate race and class or to prioritize one over the other are useless because our class standing itself is heavily influenced by our racial identity. For Irving, discovering the reality of race helped her put down traits like perfectionism and repression of feelings that she had learned from her family.
I strongly recommend this book for individuals and groups uneasy and curious about race or for those who don’t understand how their efforts to “help” blacks backfire. Those who have been attentive to racial issues will find little new in her book.
But, cynically, in today’s world, I wonder if the audience for a book like this is still there. The views she tells of having held about white superiority are ones I hear regularly in the news today. The ability of some African Americans to have opportunities and authority once exclusively the possession of whites seems to be threatening to those who fear the loss of their own status. President Obama’s blackness seems to have made it fashionable in some circles to express hatred of blacks. Can we so easily end the structural violence that continues to hold so many blacks in hopelessness? Is the ability to write a book like this yet another privilege of whiteness?
When I finished this book, I deliberately turned to one by Nadine Gordimer who provides a more complicated and chilling view of racism and the complexities of struggles to end it. Review to come.