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)
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!)
- 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!)
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.
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