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Read This Memoir on Understanding Whiteness

Posted on 28 February 2014 by Barbara Beckwith (55)

If you’ve been enlightened by Tim Wise’s White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, or intrigued by my white privilege-related essays, do read Debby Irving’s memoir, Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race, just out in 2014. The book’s cover is of a happy little girl at dinner, surrounded by silver, crystal, and gauzy curtains. The word WHITE stretches across the width of the book’s cover; the subtitle makes clear that although race isn’t real, biologically, the stories we tell ourselves about “race” result in powerful and damaging realities. Irving looks back at incidents in her life from age five on, as a way to understand her own race and class privileges, of which she was unaware until well into her 40s. When she did learn about race and class privilege, she didn’t do so entirely on her own. Throughout her memoir, she acknowledges the range of people she learned from, and profiles each in the mentor section of her website, She’s frank about her stereotyped thoughts; even as an adult she catches herself feeling mistrustful of her new chiropractor when she sees that he is a person of color. She examines her racial and class privilege in every area of her life but also learns that, since “nearly all of my thoughts are born of the culture in which racism is embedded,” it makes no sense to wallow in guilt. Irving manages to be witty about her own shortcomings, including missteps in speaking up against another’s racism: “I got all puffy and angry like I thought an anti-racist activist should.” As for class privilege, she learns most from her husband Bruce: his “talking to the nuns” story is particularly both funny and apt. She’s a great story teller, writing as if she’s talking directly to you. Her metaphors are as illuminating as Peggy McIntosh’s image of an invisible backpack full of unearned privileges, which white people carry wherever they go. Irving compares her years-long avoidance of authentic interaction with people of color to the electrical fencing systems people use to “zap” their dogs to train them to stay in the yard. “For decades the racially charged Zap sent me scampering back to my comfort zone. Rather than examining the source of the social tension I felt around people of color, I retreated to my social comfort zone – other white people.” I couldn’t put her book down because her stories made me think about similar incidents in my life. She ends each chapter with questions, in effect, asking the reader: “I’ve showed you mine, now you show me yours.”

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