Waking Up White is the second book in our RevGals anti-racism project. I encourage you to also read the posts and discussion about the first book, Trouble I’ve Seen, though of course it is not a pre-requisite for this book. In fact, Waking Up White is intentionally written for those of us white people who need to go back to the beginning and consider how we got here in the first place.

The discussion of this book will happen in sections, so this week we have the introduction and section one, “Childhood In White” which includes the first five (brief) chapters.

“I thought all those other categories, like Asian, African American, American Indian, and Latino, were the real races. I thought white was the raceless race–just plain, normal, the one against which all others were measured.”  (from the introduction)

Little Teri

Several months ago, I heard a white person (of my age–late GenX) tell me they didn’t have a race or culture. I think my mouth may have physically dropped open. I confess it had never occurred to me that I didn’t have a race or culture. Perhaps this is because I come from a family that had only been in the USA for less than a hundred years when I was born, and because so much of my family was German…I grew up being told that I needed to be very careful how I thought of myself and others because I looked just like the ideal Aryan girl–dark blonde hair, fair skin, green-blue eyes. I can’t even remember the first time my parents and grandparents began to tell me that my coloring was never ever to be thought of as superior, no matter how many people might treat me better than others because of it.

I think this facet of my childhood life, which I am beginning to see was an oddity, is its own form of privilege. I am constantly surprised and frustrated that other white people don’t see what has been self-evident to me since before I could read. And then I have trouble holding a rational conversation when people say things like “white isn’t a race” or “I’m just normal.” But I am trying, and Irving’s book is helpful.

As she reflects on her childhood, Irving tells stories of the type we all need to learn the courage to tell: stories that cast both her family and herself in an unflattering light, but form the backdrop for a biased worldview. She talks of her mother’s explanation of “what happened to the Indians” and how horribly incomplete and biased it was, and also her own passive acceptance of everything she was told as she grew up in her wealthy white suburban life. She writes about her family background, her social circle, and economic location as realities that formed her understanding of “normal” and her beliefs in the quintessential American Dream. She says, of family stories told at dinners and holidays and summers at the cabin:

“Tales of Mayflower settlers and other early American ancestors suggested to me that America provided a kind of neutral template on which anyone could design the life they chose. Not only did those stories affirm my place in American history; they translated into a sense of confidence and ability that took hold from an early age.”  (chapter 2)

She goes on to discuss how “negative” emotions were not allowed–especially anger. And she notes the “tragedy that over time my natural curiosity, open mind, and loving heart dulled, keeping me from confronting wrongs I never knew existed.” (chapter 1)

This is exactly where many white people find ourselves–unconscious of the depth of wrongness in the system, and our complicity in it even though we did not construct it; unconscious of our own race and culture (and sometimes our class) and how that affects our worldview and our expectations of ourselves and others; unconscious of the ways our own minds and hearts have been dulled, and so unable to open and sharpen them again until we do this hard work that Irving begins in the book: looking honestly at our own stories, and the stories of our family, digging into both memories and real history, and placing ourselves in the arc of the American reality so that we can better participate in bending it toward justice.



Questions for reflection and conversation  (note: there is a question for reflection at the end of each chapter, and you are most definitely invited to answer those in the comments too!)

  1. As you think back on memories of your childhood, where are people of a different race, culture, or class than yours? (For Irving, they are in a mural and in books, for instance–that counts!)
  2. What stories does/did your family tell about who you are (as an individual and as a family)? What morals or lessons did you take away from those stories, and how (if at all) do they make room for people whose experience of life is very different?
  3. In chapter 3, Irving notes that some may think her story is more about class than race, but then she tells two stories including one about a white man who shoplifted his way to college tuition, and one about a black historian celebrating being given the Presidential Medal of Freedom and being mistaken for a servant in the dinner club. When you hear stories like that, what do you feel? (not just what do you think!) Have you personally experienced or witnessed moments when expectations were clearly formed based mainly on skin color?
  4. In chapter 4, Irving says “In the same way I was trained to make myself visible and seek opportunity, many children of color are trained to stay under the radar and avoid suspicion.” This is a massive gap in the way people see and navigate the world, and a major player in the white culture’s sense of how “they” just need to work harder to be like “us.” Have you experienced this gap, or fallen into the trap of encouraging people of color to just fit in better to white culture? How have you seen this play out in your own relationships, work environment, and friendships?
  5. The self-understanding created by Irving’s family stories, relentless optimism, and repressed emotions leaves no room for people whose experiences of the world are markedly different, who have reason for outrage, or who don’t reap the rewards her family has seen. Are there parts of your own identity that crowd out the possibility of other, equally valid, experiences and reactions?

“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 of class mobility.” (chapter 3)

This is why we do this work: because not only is there no reason for white to be normal and better, but also the insidious racism of majority culture is actively harmful to our sisters and brothers, and they deserve our best effort in dismantling the structures that have bound us all for so long.

Please join the conversation in the comments below, and/or in our Facebook group!

About the RevGals Anti-Racism Project: As a majority white organization incorporated in the United States, the leaders of RevGalBlogPals feel called to confront systemic racism in the U.S. As a global ministry, we feel called to oppose minority oppression and racial injustice in all nations. We hope this book discussion will be a step toward awareness and away from unconscious centering of whiteness.

RevGalBlogPals encourages you to share our blog posts via email or social media. We do not grant permission to cut-and-paste prayers and articles without a link back. For permission to use material in paper publications, please email revgalblogpals at gmail dot com.

4 thoughts on “RevGals Anti-Racism Project: Waking Up White, week 1

  1. As a little girl in the 50’s i remember there was one black girl in my K class. We held hands in class for a friendship circle. I recall vividly noticing her hands feeling different from mine. I asked my parents why did they feel different …
    I don’t remember their explanation. But I choose to think it was kind and simple because I remember it with a gentleness by it.
    I have a thing about photographing hands. Babies and grandparents all configurations.


  2. Growing up in Tidewater, Virginia, I was a little girl in the 1960s, when a lot of change was taking place. At the same time my dad was working in the state legislature to move Virginia toward integration, the only black people I knew were Catherine, our maid; Henderson, the janitor at church; maids who worked for my friends’ families; and a handyman who did work for people in our neighborhood. I adored both Catherine and Henderson, but imagine that a little girl in that era went around calling a grown woman by her first name and a grown man by his last!

    Because my parents had hope that integration and the Civil Rights Act would really change things, they never explained racism to me. They did intentionally protect me from overtly racist relatives. I was 12 or 13 when I first heard one of those grown-up cousins tell a blatantly racist joke. His thoughts were not unlike the racist messages posted on social media this week about Mrs. Obama. I remember being genuinely shocked.

    My grandmother was a Laubach Literacy missionary in Japan, and because of her contacts, we knew many Japanese people and had a series of young women from Japan live with us as (quasi) au pairs. I got some class education from my mom as she realized that the young women from upper class families had no idea how to help around the house or take care of my brother and me, while the one who was from a more working class background had been a huge help. Accurate or not, this became one of my impressions of Japanese culture and Japanese women in particular.

    I also grew up knowing some Native American people through my mom’s best friend, who had been a teacher on a reservation and brought a series of young people East to try and educate them and get them out of a difficult family milieu (they were all related), and even as a child, I heard the whispers that the family was particularly susceptible to alcohol. One of the last young men mom’s bf took in was my age, and he died young of complications related to addiction, reinforcing the narrative for me.


  3. Though I grew up in the same area as Irving, my experience was vastly different. I was from a large, working poor family. My father was an open racist. My Ivy league educated mother was afraid of him and kept her opinions to herself.
    The only emotions allowed to be expressed in our house were rage and indifference. Crying for any reason was forbidden. Laughter had better be kept to a very quiet level. Politics was often argued about loudly. My father despised Nixon, and my mother despised Kennedy.
    The first time I ever saw a person of color was in 1969 when one of my brothers was institutionalized for Schizophrenia and we drove to the city to visit him; there was an African American guy who was on the same floor. I was awestruck; THIS is what all the noise about race was about?! This guy was gorgeous, funny, smart, and charming… and I had an instant crush on him.
    On the way home, my father berated this guy and I scolded him. It didn’t end nicely; let’s just say I have NEVER been able to keep my mouth shut about injustices and I paid a heavy physical price for it. Later, I asked my mother why she didn’t say anything. Her only response was that if I was smart I’d follow her example next time. I responded to her that my father was wrong and someone had to make sure he knew it….
    I was anything but sheltered. But we lived in a very white area.


  4. I grew up partly in Japan (pre-school) and Taiwan (upper grades elementary). In a military community in the former and a missionary community in the latter, we did not mix much with the local population, though we had maids, and we loved our Japanese maid. In Japan my best friend was half Guamanian, half African American, but it was her mother from Guam we talked about, not her black dad. My parents’ closest friends were latino. In Taiwan, the school was not just English language, but an American school. I remember finding it strange that my German and Finnish (missionary kids) and Japanese (business mens’ kids) friends had to learn American history. I also struggled with things like our friends who ran a children’s home, but lived separately from it. e.g. Their kids had bedrooms; the children’s home kids slept in dormitories. We also lived in semi-rural Missouri where everyone was white and a tiny town in Nevada with a few Latinos who pronounced their names as “American” as possible. We lived in Hawaii for a year where race is very interesting, and we were again the minorities. We heard that we would be put down for being white, but did not experience it. Both my brother’s and my closest friends that year were Hawaiians of Asian descent. Finally, settling in California when I was a high school sophomore, I found the immigrant kids the easiest ones to make friends with, so my closest friends that year were Chinese, Indian, and Brazilian. But the African Americans in my life have been few and far between, and with the exception of a couple Latina women, my friends now are all white. And I don’t know what to do with that. My kids are growing up in a diverse community and the students I teach are diverse, but the church is mostly white and that’s where I have made friends.

    My parents were adult converts in the Jesus Movement of the 70s, so most of the stories I grew up with were about being “Christian”, and not being appearance-oriented and materialistic like my dad’s family or liberal, free love hippies like my mom’s (though that was more acceptable than the other). I suppose the biggest lesson I learned was that because we were born again Christians, we had a new family, and everyone who was Christian could be part of that family and those who weren’t, were not part of our true family, even if they were part of our family of origin.

    Incidents such as the one described make me wince. They make me angry and cry out for fairness. I have really never gotten over my childish desire for fairness. This may be tangential, but it has bothered me a lot: at an 8th grade promotion in southern California last year, where they had students who were bilingual and on their way to a bilingual seal on the their high school diploma stand up and be recognized, one of the two people who was reading names made no effort to pronounce the Latino/a names correctly. It felt deeply disrespectful and easily corrected (there are plenty of Latino/a administrators and teachers in our schools who could have been the ones to read the names).

    When I finished telling my mother-in-law in Idaho about a young African American man who was headed to Boise State to play football and was a high school football star and who had grown up in a dual immersion program so was fluent in both English and Spanish, she asked me if he spoke “proper English because that’s very important and helps a lot.” I was floored. I couldn’t even respond. Moments like that remind me of the things I forget living in a diverse part of the country. But I’m not great. As an educator, I know our model for what makes a “good student” comes straight from the white, protestant work-ethic. We have lots of programs to help first generation college students succeed, but a lot of that is teaching them how to be like us.

    I can make assumptions about people who have not been to college. I have a good friend who is widely read and super smart and never went to college, and she had to tell me probably 3 times before I finally remembered and stopped making comments as if she had gone to college, as if every smart person goes to college, because in my narrow, education-oriented worldview she must have and they do.

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