Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race
by Debby Irving
I was intrigued by the synopsis of this non-fiction book and jumped at the chance to review it for TLC Book Tours.
In recent years, I’ve found myself becoming ever more conscious of classism and the accompanying attitudes of condescension towards those not belonging to the “desirable” class. It all hits me in a somewhat raw place because although in my adulthood I’ve joined the ranks of the upper-middle class, I always feel like something of an outsider because my roots and background are decidedly lower-middle class, and I’m very conscious of the great degree to which the class ranking most of us end up with has to do with advantages and disadvantages we are born into rather than “earn.”
“I’ve often heard people debate the entangled relationship between race and class. ‘Which one is the real issue?’ people ask. ‘Is it race or is it class?’ I’ve wondered myself how my socioeconomic advantage versus my skin color advantage shaped my life and skewed my worldview. I’ve come to believe it’s not an either/or issue. Both are real, and both matter. Trying to determine which one is the ‘real’ issue does a disservice to both. Concluding class is the real issue would give me permission to avoid thinking about race. Similarly, assuming race is the more significant issue overlooks the complications faced by white people caught in a vicious cycle of poverty. Both can trap people in a kind of second-class citizenship. If you can’t get the education you need to get a job to pay for healthy food, medical care, transportation, and a home in a neighborhood with good schools, then you can’t educate your children in a school that will prepare them for a job that will . . . and so on. Any cycle that traps someone in a state of perpetual disadvantage is the real issue for the person experiencing it.
“And yet, class and race are inextricably linked. Because class has long been easier for me to understand than race, this book focuses on the more elusive role skin color has played in my life. In grappling with whiteness, I’ve tried as much as possible to tease out and examine the race factor.”
In Waking Up White, Debby Irving recounts her odyssey to delve into issues of race that over the course of her life impacted relationships and her worldview in ways that she wasn’t able to understand until she began to actively learn about race – including whiteness. Having grown up in an affluent world populated almost entirely by white people, Irving grew up with the belief, like many people, that success in life depends solely on one’s own merit and determination, and the opportunities available in America are available to everyone. One of her first wake up calls was when she discovered that her father, who had fought in WWII, was able to buy his first home and attend law school courtesy of the GI Bill, but that the vast majority of black men who fought in WWII were denied the benefits of the GI Bill, and that in the post WWII era as housing developments exploded across the nation, neighborhoods were “redlined,” preventing people of color from moving into white neighborhoods, thereby virtually guaranteeing a cycle of more affluent neighborhoods being populated by whites and poorer neighborhoods by blacks, Hispanics, and other non-white minorities. Although the practice of “redlining” may no longer exist, the cycle certainly still continues today, with the vast majority of middle-class, upper-middle class, and affluent neighborhoods across the country being populated mostly by whites, and lower-middle class and poor neighborhoods by non-white minorities. And then we have the audacity to make moral judgments about the people who populate each type of neighborhood.
“White has long stood for normal and better, while black and brown have been considered different and inferior. Social value isn’t just a matter of feeling as if one belongs or doesn’t; it affects one’s access to housing, education, and jobs, the building blocks necessary to access the great American promise – class mobility.”
Irvine acknowledges that for the longest time, she believed as many of us do – that “racism” means being openly intolerant or hostile concerning those of different races. Most of us do not believe ourselves to be racist and would be indignant at the suggestion that we might be, but the truth is that whether we buy into and/or perpetuate stereotypes, or hold some nebulous belief that “they” would be better off if they could just be more like “us,” most of us are racist in one way or another, to varying degrees. Perhaps the most insidious form of racism is failing to recognize and acknowledge white privilege.
“My ancestors did sacrifice and work hard, and I am a diligent worker. But no longer could I deny that my life has been borne on the wings of whiteness. I’ve had an unfair advantage since before I was born. Just as time has compounded disadvantages for people living on the downside of systemic racism, it has compounded the advantages I and other white people enjoy. My life is built on family members able to get citizenship status without a fight, land grants for free, GI Bill benefits, low-rate loans, good education, and solid health care. Each generation has set up the starting point for the next, perpetuating the illusion that white people are more successful, not beneficiaries of an inequitable system.”
“Discrimination and privilege are the flip sides of the same coin. What must make it so infuriating for people of color is the double whammy that white folks, unaware of their skin color advantage, pose: To really get racism, a white person must get both pieces. It’s not enough to feel empathy towards people on the downside; white people must also see themselves on the upside to understand that discrimination results from privilege. You can’t have one without the other . Like a seesaw, the upside and downside are joined together.”
There are really so many quotes I could pull from this book; I was dog-earing pages and highlighting passages from beginning to end. Extremely well-written, thought-provoking, and eye-opening, I want all of my white friends to read it. I want my kids to read it at some point. I think it’s a book that needs to be read, and a conversation that needs to be had, by every American.
To read more about Debby Irving and race, check out her website: debbyirving.com.