Book Excerpt: ‘Waking Up White’ by Debby Irving

Last modified: Thursday, September 17, 2015
In “Waking Up White,” community organizer and teacher Debby Irving shares her struggle to understand racism and racial tension in America. Irving will discuss the book at Gibson’s Bookstore on Friday at 7 p.m. The following is an excerpt:

Not so long ago, if someone had called me a racist, I would have kicked and screamed in protest. “But I’m a good person!” I would have insisted. “I don’t see color! I don’t have a racist bone in my body!” I would have felt insulted and misunderstood and stomped off to lick my wounds. That’s because I thought being a racist meant not liking people of color or being a name-calling bigot.

For years I struggled silently to understand race and racism. I had no way to make sense of debates in the media about whether the white guy was “being a racist” or the black guy was “playing the race card.” I wanted close friends of color but kept ending up with white people as my closest friends. When I was with a person of color, I felt an inexplicable tension and a fear that I might say or do something offensive or embarrassing. When white people made blatantly racist jokes or remarks, I felt upset but had no idea what to do or say. I didn’t understand why, if laws supporting slavery, segregation, and discrimination had been abolished, lifestyles still looked so different across color lines. Most confusing were unwanted racist thoughts that made me feel like a jerk. I felt too embarrassed to admit any of this, which prevented me from going in search of answers.

It turns out, stumbling block number one was that I didn’t think I had a race, so I never thought to look within myself for answers. The way I understood it, race was for other people, brown- and black-skinned people. Don’t get me wrong – if you put a census form in my hand, I would know to check “white” or “Caucasian.” It’s more that I thought all those other categories, like Asian, African American, American Indian, and Latino, were the real races. I thought white was the raceless race – just plain, normal, the one against which all others were measured.

What I’ve learned is that thinking myself raceless allowed for a distorted frame of reference built on faulty beliefs. For instance, I used to believe:

∎ Race is all about biological differences.

∎ I can help people of color by teaching them to be more like me.

∎ Racism is about bigots who make snarky comments and commit intentionally cruel acts against people of color.

∎ Culture and ethnicity are only for people of other races and from other countries.

∎ If the cause of racial inequity were understood, it would be solved by now.

If these beliefs sound familiar to you, you are not alone. I’ve met hundreds of white people across America who share not only these beliefs but the same feelings of race-related confusion and anxiety I experienced. This widespread phenomenon of white people wanting to guard themselves against appearing stupid, racist, or radical has resulted in an epidemic of silence from people who care deeply about justice and love for their fellow human beings. I believe most white people would take a stand against racism if only they knew how, or even imagined they had a role.

In the state that is somewhere between fear and indifference lies an opportunity to awaken to the intuitive voice that says, “Something’s not right.” “What is going on here?” “I wish I could make a difference.” In my experience, learning to listen to that voice is slowly but surely rewiring my intuition, breaking down walls that kept me from parts of myself, and expanding my capacity to seek truths, no matter how painful they may be. Learning about racism has settled inner conflicts and is allowing me to step out of my comfort zone with both strength and vulnerability in all parts of my life. Racism holds all of us captive in ways white people rarely imagine.

Racism is not the unsolvable, mysterious tug-of-war I once thought. There is an explanation for how America got so tangled up with racism. Ironically racism, the great divider, is also one of the most vital links we share, a massive social dysfunction in which we all play a role. Perhaps the greatest irony for me is this: After all these years of trying to connect with people I was taught to see as different and less-than, I have learned that the best way to start is to connect with parts of myself lost in the process of learning to be white. As my white husband said to me recently, “It couldn’t have happened to a whiter person.” I invite you to use my story to uncover your own, so that you too can discover your power to make the world a more humane place to live, work, and thrive.

(Excerpted from “Waking Up White” by Debby Irving.)