Where were all the black moms and children? Three blocks from my house sat Rindge Towers, three enormous subsidized apartment buildings full of families of color. Why weren’t we going to the same playground? Were they, like the First Night boy, uncomfortable around crowds of white people? Were my friends off-putting to them? Was I? How could I be scary to anyone? – Debby Irving, Waking Up White (p. 122)
Debby Irving and I are about the same age, and while I grew up in the South, I raised my children in Portland, Maine. This week’s section of the book deals with her parenting and teaching years, her conflicting desires to see her children experience a more diverse community than she knew growing up while she still had not confronted the systemic racism that advantaged her and them. These chapters are painful to read, in part because Irving unspools her own awakening at an excruciatingly slow pace and in part because they remind me of my own parenting experiences.
All three of my children attended the same elementary school in Portland, noteworthy at the time my oldest started kindergarten in 1991 for having the most socio-economic diversity among elementary schools in that small city. There were two classes in each grade, and it became apparent quickly that the kids who came on a bus from a more urban neighborhood were in one class along with the apartment-dwellers from closer by, while the kids of professional parents who lived in single-family homes in a charming neighborhood of dead-end streets would end up in the other.
I volunteered in the classroom regularly, and one day a teacher confided to me, “The mothers who live in the nice neighborhood across the street have a kaffeeklatsch every year and decide which teachers to request in each grade. I don’t know why I am never on their list.”
Portland was so white at the time that the issue was not one of race, but of class. (Racial diversity would increase due to immigration in the coming decades.) I didn’t need to hear it twice to figure out that the moms who lived in what I came to call “the Country Club” were taking advantage of a secret pact with the principal. If they got what they wanted, they supplied needed volunteer power.
I wonder how I would have felt if I hadn’t been aware of my “difference,” living in a rented two-family house on the other side of “the tracks?” Would requesting have seemed like a perfectly natural thing to do? I remember feeling I had nothing in common with the “Country Club” moms, but I also felt different from the moms on the playground who had not been to college.
Though I had made a shift from wanting to help and fix people of color to wanting to develop my own ‘diversity’ skills, I didn’t get how problematic my approach still was. far from the important work of understanding systemic racism and its impact on my life outcomes and perspective, my new aim was to understand some magical set of cross-racial manners. (p. 126)
In the elementary school her children attended, Irving began to interrogate the outcomes for children of color, particularly boys. The way she tells her stories allows a reader whose experience is similar, or who perhaps hasn’t reached similar moments of recognition, get to understanding at a moderate pace, but is admittedly frustrating to me. For instance, I cringed at her initial reaction to concerns about the Halloween parade (p. 139). How could you live in a diverse community like Cambridge, with immigrants who are not Christian, and never consider that newcomers’ religious practices might differ from those of white, quasi-Christian American ones?
Chapter 26, “Surviving Versus Thriving,” describes the work of Jane Elliott, who began teaching students about discrimination in response to the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I want to point out that Irving and I are both in the age bracket Elliott began with, before moving on to conduct similar work with adults. (Read more about her work here.) The temporary reaction she elicited from subjects of her exercises are of course only a tiny fraction of the kind of psychic and physiological response to the stress of discrimination experienced by People of Color on a daily basis. The story of Jared in chapter 27 illustrates how the system of discrimination prepares children to think of themselves as naturally successful or doomed.
White friends, Irving concludes this section by identifying herself as the elephant in the room when it comes to conversations about race. Her background, education, and social expectations made difficult conversations seem impossibly embarrassing. How do we find a way to be vulnerable without being fragile, to be humble about our ignorance without asking our friends of color to do our work for us?
- As a person raised to believe there was etiquette for every situation, though mine with a Virginia flavor, I cringed with recognition many times throughout this section. Irving asks us to explore the rules we have for social interaction and examine how they might hamper authentic conversation and relationship. Can you name some basic social rules that go back to your childhood?
- If, like me, you cringed, what was the passage that made you want to write, “No!” or “Ouch!” or “Aargh!” in the margins?
- What expectations did you have for your life as a second-grader?
- Can you name a time when you recognized you had an unearned/undeserved advantage?
Please join the conversation in the comments below, and/or in our Facebook group! If you are interested in a video chat discussion of the book, mark your calendar for Wednesday, January 18, at 2 p.m. Eastern time. Details will be available in the New Year.
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