I have been reading and writing a lot about race lately. The Black Lives Matter movement got me going. Trump’s presidency stoked the fire of urgency. Over winter break I finished, Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving. I highly recommend this book. In fact, I wish every white person would read it. Irving does such a good job highlighting issues of race that people of color deal with every day, but to which we white people remain oblivious. Irving’s tone is not teacherly or patronizing, even though she is a diversity educator. Instead, she is autobiographical and self-effacing. She shares stories of mistakes she has made in her efforts to become a more racially-aware person. Some of these stories made me cringe, because I have made similar mistakes. But the only way to learn is to face these mistakes. Here are just a few of the valuable lessons I gleaned from this book:
White people need to educate other white people about race. Honestly, before reading this book, I thought I could only learn about race from people of color. (I’m embarrassed and ashamed to have just typed that sentence.) White people often fail to recognize that “white” is also a race that we need to understand. If we can understand whiteness and white culture, then we can better understand the challenges we pose to people of other races when we expect them to act like us, speak like us, learn like us, etc.
Irving, whose suburban upbringing was a lot like my own, helped me identify a variety of beliefs and behaviors indicative of white culture, such as: conflict avoidance, emotional restraint, a sense of urgency about time, a habit of asking social locator questions like “What do you do? Where are you from? Where did you go to school?” to determine what box we should put people or gage the level of success they have achieved. I am guilty of this white judgmentalism and am determined to break this habit of asking “social locator” type questions.
Fair does not mean equal. Equality starts with equity. “Equity,” Irving writes, “means both holding people of differing needs to a single expectation and giving them what they need to achieve it.” In other words, equity is a way to level the playing field and equality cannot be achieved without it. She illustrated her point with a hypothetical: If there was a test that involved students writing their answer on a line on the board—a line five feet above the ground—what would you do for the shorter students who couldn’t reach the line? You’d make the test equitable by giving the shorter students a step up so they could meet the same expectation as the taller students. Such steps—like affirmative action—level the playing field to make it more equitable.
When it comes to racism, there’s no such thing as neutral. Irving writes, “When it comes to racism, there’s no such thing as neutral: either I’m intentionally and strategically working against it, or I’m aiding and abetting the system. As historian and activist Howard Zinn said, ‘You can’t be neutral on a moving train.’” Irving correlates this idea with her antibullying training as a teacher. “Antibullying pedagogy describes three distinct roles: (1) bullies, (2) victims, and (3) bystanders,” she writes. “Traditionally the approach has been to reprimand the bully and console the victim while ignoring the bystanders, those who witness but neither partake in nor stand up to the bullying. More recently, however, educators and psychologists recognized that the real power rests in empowering bystanders to become allies in the fight to eliminate childhood bullying.”
I am convicted by Irving’s words, realizing that I have lived most of my life as a bystander, as someone who has aided and abetted the system of racism because I was SO unaware and because I lacked the courage to do anything about it. Irving shares that her ultimate goal is to interrupt racism, advocate against it, and educate without doing more harm than good. Even though I know I will make lots of terrible mistakes, I’m committed to this goal as well. The burden to right this wrong is on those of us who benefit from this unfair and inequitable system. Will you join me? Reading “Waking Up White” with your friends, co-workers, or church groups is a great place to start.
[The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Co-Moderators, Rev. T. Denise Anderson and Rev. Jan Edmiston, have invited churches to read and study this book. They’ve also published this curriculum to guide and encourage your study.]
Last Sunday, during a program at my college about how to create needed social change, I observed a few of the white students tuning out. One fell asleep. Another started texting a friend. Another tried to pay attention, but her eyes kept wandering to the floor, the window and the faces in the room other than the presenter. The students of color, on the other hand, were engaged in the topic. They asked and answered questions and contributed to the discussion.
After this observation, I decided to lead a program on privilege thinking it would be helpful for more of our white students to understand the social, economic, and political advantages they have over people of color. When I shared my idea for the program with one of my more thoughtful white students, though, she told me that her peers were tired of talking about privilege. “It’s everywhere, Teri. Sure, it’s important. But people are just tired of talking about it.” I was grateful for this student’s honesty, but also wondered how I could stoke the fire of this important conversation. I decided to go ahead with my program.
In my planning, I came across Peggy McIntosh’s essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” McIntosh (who is white) helpfully unpacks the invisible knapsack of unearned assets she can count on cashing in every day, but about which, she says, “she was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.” Because of the color of her skin, McIntosh says she can count on the following:
This last example helped me better understand the disinterest and weariness of my white students. There are no real consequences for a white person’s apathy, disinterest, or weariness of talking about privilege. In fact, the system of white dominance and white supremacy that our country has been built upon rewards such passivity. If white people remain oblivious to our unearned benefits, then we cannot be expected to share, give them up, or work towards a more equitable system. It’s hard to hold an oblivious person accountable. Thus, the system of white dominance is perpetuated.
Through the programs I lead and the relationships I develop, I hope to keep this conversation going. I hope to keep learning how I can live faithfully with the unearned assets I have inherited and encourage others to do the same. Jesus keeps calling me to the most disadvantaged. Although it’s painful to acknowledge that my unearned advantages play a significant role in keeping others disadvantaged, I’ve got to face that harsh truth to have any hope of righting what is wrong.
[Feature Image: Elias Schewel]