This week covers “Midlife Wake-Up Calls”, chapters 6-11 (approx. 40 pages).
How do you feel about pain?
Let’s assume that, in general, you don’t like pain.
Which bothers you more- the idea of you being in pain or the idea of someone else being in pain?
Do you have additional questions, perhaps is the person is pain close in relationship to you or close in proximity? Does it make a difference to you to be able to choose that someone else is in pain, but far away from you? In fact, if you want, you can make it so that you rarely have to see or interact with the person who is experiencing the pain.
Now what if the choice is that you might be a little uncomfortable or that a person you don’t know, and with whom you can be prevented from interacting, will experience pain? What do you choose?
In the section “Midlife Wake-Up Calls”, Debby Irving realizes that many generations of white people chose, deliberately, the pain of others over their own discomfort. The idea of learning and accepting that melanin does not actually amount to any kind of real, scientific, measurable biological difference between human beings was anathema. Physical, fiscal, and fickle American realities were entirely structured around the idea that white was right and might.
In order to keep a racial and class system that is based on a “pigment of the imagination” (p. 66), white men and women had to accede to the inequities of the distribution of the GI Bill, the benefits of the Social Security system, business and financial means and connections, and the glorification of “Manifest Destiny”. Irving found herself wrestling with and grieving over the truths that had unknowingly paved and smoothed the path of her life, while tripping up so many others. She is nearly half a decade old when she first hears of red-lining and blockbusting, real estate practices that essentially ghettoized black Americans and purposely created financial hardship and ruin.
With her eyes opened, Irving begins to grapple with the idea of “headwinds and tailwinds”. Privileges are tailwinds. They lift one up and accelerate one’s progress, beyond or without one’s acceptance, request, or recognition. Prejudices are headwinds. They impede progress and hamper effort. They may be hard to measure and the distress they create is behind the people who are trying to move- making them harder to see, but easier to feel.
The biggest problem with America’s idea of racial categories is that they’re not just categories: they’ve been used to imply a hierarchy born of nature. (62)
The headwind of racial biases has caused untold damage to American culture, neighborhoods, economies, and our national psyche. Our inability to grasp, ponder, and rectify this painful reality is due to the fact that we continue to say that we would rather someone far from us experience a little pain, rather than sit with our own internal discomfort. Reckoning with the vast racist inequities of American history (and the way we talk about it) is necessarily uncomfortable. Being drained of a poison hurts. Swallowing the antidote- that as white Americans, we are born with a tailwind that we do not want to relinquish (and that some among us believe we deserve)- is a bitter pill.
The rise in white nationalism that we are currently experiencing is entirely based on a social and societal construct that being white- at any class level- was better than being black. Facing people of color (and women) who reasonably want and expect to be treated as equals and afforded equal opportunities means that the mental hierarchy of many men (and some women) has to be undone. Very few people sign up for psychic pain. Thus, they fight and resist this truth. They lash out at those who insist upon it and fight for it.
Dismantling white nationalism requires all white people to do the work that Irving starts in this chapter. Looking at the truth of American history, having real and honest conversations about inequality, imperialism, barriers, gentlemen’s agreements, and a lot more. These conversations must happen with children, partners and spouses, friends, family members, co-workers, fellow congregation members, community leaders, and across all platforms. It will hurt, but it cannot wait. White people have outsourced this pain long enough.
There are questions at the end of each chapter that you are encouraged to use for your own reflection and in the comments. In addition, here are some other thoughts:
1. Irving was very surprised to learn about the extreme inequity in distribution of the GI Bill to black soldiers after World War II. When she told her husband about what she had learned, he doubted her facts until he researched the issue for himself. Did you know this information before reading about it in this book? If so, how and when did you learn about it? How do you think most Americans could come to learn and understand this aspect of our history?
2. In ch. 6, Irving details her history of trying to “help” children and adults from backgrounds different from her own. Later she realizes that “helping” actually meant “making more like her”. In other words, the work in which she was engaged was, intentionally or not, attempting to make minorities act more “white”. How does the framework of social engagement and assistance through charitable and educational entities contribute to racism in America?
3. Irving repeats the information that blew her mind: there is more diversity within different ethnic groups than across them. What does that mean to you? How would you communicate that across the Thanksgiving table?
4. White nationalism has never been absent from America, but its adherents are certainly feeling a certain amount of liberty in public expression these days. It is important to realize that this is a movement of emotion and power, not facts. Some people never let facts get in the way of a good argument or their desire for power. How can we use the language of headwinds and tailwinds to disrupt this narrative and where?
5. What is an uncomfortable realization you had about yourself or your own history during the reading of this section?
This week in the United States, we mark a holiday that should actually be fraught with wrestling with our history of whiteness, decimation of native populations, denigration of non-white societies as valuable or complex, and manifest destiny. Ironically, our failure to fully contend with this things over the past 200 years means that we are still reaping and suffering from them today. Historical acid reflux… mmm, pass the sweet potatoes.
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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