This week in our discussion of Debby Irving’s Waking Up White, we address Section 3, “Why Didn’t I Wake Up Sooner?” Irving builds the case that as white Americans, we lack a vocabulary for race. We have been encouraged, sometimes consciously and other times unconsciously, to identify others *by* their race while considering ourselves to be outside those categories.

Not having a label for white people reinforced for me the idea that white populations are the norm, raceless and ethnicity-less. (p. 89)

When the culture is designed to set us off to advantage, of course we look good, like my late mother-in-law, who filled her home with dim lighting that did not accentuate her aging complexion, sort of a whole-house filter on the lens of life. Media colludes by amplifying the “normal” that is really cultural supremacy, so unless we hear the stories of other people whose lives are different than ours, we may have no idea what goes on in the world they inhabit. To illustrate this, Irving relates the story of a black woman who is told the local store does not take checks, when they accept them regularly from her white husband.

We are selective in what we see. Can we put ourselves in the place of a grocery shopper trying to reach an upper shelf from her wheelchair?

Privilege is a strange thing in that you notice it least when you have it most. (p. 71)

White people (or able-bodied people or straight people) have to understand discrimination in order to understand our privilege. Irving recommends watching the video, True Colors, broadcast on ABC in 1991. Upon seeing it in a class in 2010, she assumed things had improved, but classmates pushed back.

UCC Clergywomen in Arizona
UCC Clergywomen in Arizona

In the chapter “Zap!” Irving relates a conversation about the use of titles and formality as a sign of respect, specifically in relation to calling President Obama “President” rather than simply using his surname. Would she have called a white President only by his last name? I know I have done it both ways, depending on how I felt about whichever president was in question, but that I have been inclined to always use President Obama’s title. The importance of acknowledging the titles of people whose race might otherwise “allow” for disrespect was trained into me by my parents, yet my own approach is “casual privileged,” much like Irving’s. I encourage parishioners, even children, to call me by my first name with no title, so I was surprised when keynoting at an event for clergywomen in my denomination to hear the other keynoters referred to by attendees as “Rev. Traci” and “Dr. Sharon,” and to hear them say “Rev. Martha” to me. I have served in overwhelmingly white geographic areas, and it was a new thing for me to attend and speak at a much more racially inclusive event. I quelled the urge to say, “Just call me Martha” and paid attention to the way I referred to others in that context.

Family and national history are both formed by who is telling the stories. I am made aware weekly if not daily that there are parts of our national history I was not taught and have not learned, despite thinking of myself as widely-read and well-informed. We have different levels of education, from 4th grade state history to undergraduate majors to just tuning into “Drunk History” on Comedy Central to watch Lin-Manuel Miranda. And we can be inclined to invent our own histories for other people based on our limited knowledge, as if we are all logos or stereotypes. Irving encourages us to deconstruct those stereotypes, to listen to the stories of others in the first person and not dismiss them. In this time when “identity politics” is being maligned, it’s more important than ever to be active in this work.

  1. In what ways have you considered white culture to be above or outside categories of race?
  2. Think about your family’s typical Thanksgiving menu. Do you know its history? Do you figure everyone everywhere eats the same meal? My life has been opened wide by seeing black friends post about their Thanksgiving dinners. Check out the hashtag #blackfamilyThanksgiving on Facebook or Twitter.
  3. Where do you get your information about American history? Have you ever learned more about something you thought you knew well, only to discover that your “truth” was distorted?
  4. Have you recently read a first-person narrative by a person of color, describing his or her life? What did you learn?

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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