Waking Up White: And Finding the Story of Race by Debby Irving
Publication Date: January 16, 2014
Waking Up White is the book Irving wishes someone had handed her decades ago. By sharing her sometimes cringe-worthy struggle to understand racism and racial tensions, she offers a fresh perspective on bias, stereotypes, manners, and tolerance. As Irving unpacks her own long-held beliefs about colorblindness, being a good person, and wanting to help people of color, she reveals how each of these well-intentioned mindsets actually perpetuated her ill-conceived ideas about race. She also explains why and how she’s changed the way she talks about racism, works in racially mixed groups, and understands the antiracism movement as a whole. Exercises at the end of each chapter prompt readers to explore their own racialized ideas. Waking Up White’s personal narrative is designed to work well as a rapid read, a book group book, or support reading for courses exploring racial and cultural issues.
Debby Irving has written an enlightening, boldly honest, and refreshing narrative that describes her awakening to her own whiteness and her personal transformative journey to understand the complexity of systematic racism that is still perpetuated in society. In the preface of the book, Irving reminds readers how important it is to dismantle racial barriers and inequalities that have become entrenched in America’s historically white dominated culture.
“Racism crushes spirits, incites divisiveness, and justifies the estrangement of entire groups of individuals who, like all humans, come into the world full of goodness, with a desire to connect, and with boundless capacity to learn and grow. Unless adults understand racism, they will, as I did, unknowingly teach it to their children.”
In the first part of the book, Irving defines herself as 100% New England WASP and then spends a great amount of time describing her roots, family values, and the affluent lifestyle she had growing up. Her self-awareness of her background and ancestry were the first steps in a “racial learning journey” that required her to step out of her comfort zone and closely examine the beliefs she internalized growing up in a monocultural cocoon of whiteness. One of the major points she emphasizes in the book is that “Understanding whiteness, regardless of socio-economic class and ancestry is the key to understanding racism.” While my background differs significantly from hers, I could still relate to her naiveté and the outrage and shock she experienced when she discovered the “invisible skin of white privilege” had afforded her so many more opportunities than those of people of color.
What I appreciated most about this book is that Irving delves beyond the simplistic definition of racism as prejudice or discrimination against people because of their race and provides insight into the social construct of racism. She uses examples from history, describes the results of race-related sociological experiments, and includes anecdotes from her own life to support her claims. I admire Irving for her unabashed honesty in describing some painfully humiliating experiences in her journey toward understanding.
The last section of the book describes some steps we can all take toward creating an inclusive, multicultural environment and how we can move beyond the anxiety and ineptness we may feel when we try to talk about race. Another major point that resonated with me is how easy it is to judge another person’s experience from our own ethnocentric vantage point as opposed to taking the effort to imagine what it may be like to walk in someone else’s shoes.
The book offers lots of opportunities for self-reflection through the discussion questions posed at the end of each chapter, which encourages readers to become thoughtful and active participants in the reading process. I certainly learned a lot about my own white ethnicity and how it has impacted my understanding of racial differences and the divide that continues to separate us.
This is a book I would I recommend to others and can see myself re-reading in connection with my own quest for personal growth.
Source: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest and fair review.
Debby (Kittredge) Irving has worked since the 1980s to foster diversity, inclusiveness, and community-building. As general manager of Boston’s Dance Umbrella and later First Night, she developed both a passion for cross-cultural collaborations and an awareness of the complexities inherent in cross-cultural relationships. She has worked in public and private schools as a classroom teacher, board member, and parent. Her approach is to use authentic dialog to connect people through shared interests and divergent backgrounds. A graduate of the Winsor School in Boston, she holds a BA from Kenyon College and an MBA from Simmons College. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband Bruce where they are raising two daughters and an assortment of pets. (from Goodreads Profile)
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