CRREWview | A book review
Waking Up White: and Finding Myself in the story of Race | Debby Irving
Reviewed by Suzie Hodges
Waking up White is a racialized memoir of one white woman’s journey to discovering whiteness and understanding its impacts on people of color. On this journey the reader will follow her through the emotional path that winds between confusion, frustration, guilt, fear, understanding, and, ultimately, comfort in whiteness. Because the teaching force is over 80% white, this is a book that should definitely be read as a staff or a PLC with teachers who are beginning their journey, or don’t even know there is a journey to take.
“Not thinking I had a race, the idea of asking me to study my ‘racial identity’ felt ludicrous. On top of that, I reasoned, the subject of race was not new to me. After all, I’d had a twenty-five year run of creating opportunities to bring together different cultural groups and serve underserved populations. I’d raised money...Typical of a long-standing pattern of thinking I knew more than I actually did, I felt skeptical that examining myself could further my understanding of others.”
The book begins with a description of Irving’s upper-middle class New England beginnings; summers at the beach, winter weekends in the mountains, her hard work paying off when her dad has a connection that gets her a job, and young curiosity about race and inequities being squashed by her mother because, “we don’t talk about that.” Her very white youth brought her up to be a very white adult with a “White Knight” complex and a yearning to help those less fortunate. In this memoir we learn that she didn’t have a black friend until she was in her 20s, she graduated from college without student debt and a car paid for by an inheritance, and she was put into positions of power where an understanding of whiteness would have been beneficial to all she served.
When you wake up at 3 am and go right back to sleep
“Had I known that learning about systemic racism, understanding whiteness, and practicing the art of cross-racial conversation lay in wait for me, perhaps I would have taken the plunge years earlier. Instead, my ignorance acted like a charger cord for the cross-racial Zap factor, setting me up to avoid, avoid, avoid and perpetuate, perpetuate, perpetuate.”
Much of Irving’s growth and forward movement on her journey is attributed to a course at Wheelock where she went for graduate school. This is where she began to wake up. The course pushed her thinking, her comfort, and how she saw the world. She succinctly and clearly explains how whiteness made her a “good white person” who perpetuates the status quo and racism simply by living a good, well-meaning life in a white world built by white people for white people. It is these good white people who are her audience. The ones who cannot believe they are racist simply by being white. In this portion of her journey she begins to see that how she navigates through the world with her white view negatively impacts people of color - this is where she begins to see that there are multiple ways of being in the world, and while she believed that the white way was the normal way that all people don’t strive to be this way.
Awake, but still sleepy
“Acts of charity for people I was taught to see as inferior fed right into my belief that the white race was not only better at achieving but an exceptionally generous and moral breed on whom others depended. Missing from the storyline was the part about how the land grant my family used to settle the town had been a catalyst for the demise of Native peoples.”
In the class at Wheelock she began to see how the government and other systems put into effect obstacles meant to keep people of color out of the “melting pot” she spent much of her life believing was for all people (who fit into white culture). Here she learns about the GI Bill, redlining, housing covenants, gerrymandering, lending practices, colorblindness, microaggressions, and much more. She also learns that race isn’t even real! While she is learning all of this she feels the need to reach out to her friends of color to learn more and learns that this is a journey she will go on alone, or with other white people.
Totally awake and can’t go back to sleep
“How can racism possibly be dismantled until white people, lots and lots of white people, understand it as an unfair system, get in touch with the subtle stories and stereotypes that play in their heads, and see themselves not as good or bad but as players in the system? Until white people embrace the problem, the elephant in the room - and all the nasty tension and mistrust that goes with it - will endure.”
In the end, she realizes that this is a journey to never be complete, to always be focused, and to bring along other white people. She discusses both the inner and outer work necessary to carry you through the journey. She shares assumptions of white culture that she sees clearly as a way to keep white supremacy a foundation of the United States, such as meritocracy, either/or, rugged individualism, and fair means equal. For Irving, being awake means never getting to rest because you are constantly working to interrupt racism, educate others about white supremacy, ally yourself with oppressed and marginalized people, and work in solidarity with others to crush white supremacy. The work is hard, but imperative and will keep you up at night, never going back to sleep.
This book has many great analogies and anecdotes to help a sleeping or sleepy white person begin their journey. For one thing, it shows that while this journey seems lonely and scary, others have done it and it is worth it. It also offers great activities to do while on the journey as each chapter ends with a question or something to do. All that said, I do think that it may seem a little too simplistic for some who may already be awake.
As CRREW is a collective of teachers for teachers, this book would be a great jumping off point for white teachers to discuss their role in the classroom and how their whiteness impacts students of color. The book makes it clear that as white people who have been conditioned and raised to feel superior, white people don’t look at the world through other lenses enough. It is important for teachers to see that there are multiple ways of being, seeing, and learning and to use that knowledge to consider discipline policies, assessment strategies, building relationships with students and families, and questioning themselves when assuming a student isn’t doing well instead of putting it on the student. Put this on your summer reading list!