Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free. – Jesus, John 8:32
The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable. – James A. Garfield
Denial of white privilege (or any privilege) is putting your social comfort over your neighbor’s ability to live in truth. – Julia Seymour
In the section of Waking Up White called “Inner Work”, Debby Irving grapples with how she has internalized the realities, privileges, and teachings of whiteness for her whole life. Like most white people, she did not absorb these lessons as “the way white people do things”. Instead, they were imparted to her and learned as “the way things are done”. This seemingly simple framework is actually one of the first and largest hurdles for white people (or dominant cultures) to recognize and comprehend. Whiteness isn’t the absence of race- it is a racialized way of being in the world, one that has been privileged in appearance, cultural transmission, ways of speaking and acting, and whose racial story/history has been elevated as “the truth”.
On page 238, Irving creates a list of behaviors and beliefs that she had thought were cultural norms or at least American mores, only to come to understand that they were actually white [American] acceptable ways of being. While there is some classism evident in the list, the truth is that this list applies specifically and significantly to whites in the dominant culture. This list is not only descriptive, but it remains prescriptive as expectations for those who wish to “succeed” in American culture.
The list includes things like competitiveness, belief in one right way, defensiveness, and valuing formal education over life experience. The item that really flagged my attention was and is “right to comfort/entitlement”. Right to comfort. Right to comfort. Since reading it, I’ve rolled that phrase around in my head again and again.
It seems to me that we have seen an enormous drive toward that “right” in past few years. Black Lives Matter makes people uncomfortable. The apparent diminishment of American exceptionalism makes people uncomfortable. A black family in the White House makes people uncomfortable. Black men, women, and children moving freely in public or even being allowed to make bad choices without dying clearly makes people uncomfortable.
For most people who are on their way to being woke, there is a constant in the feeling of discomfort in realizing the extent of white privilege and how one has benefitted unknowingly and knowingly from that system. For other white folk, the denial of white privilege or the system of oppression requires vociferous support because it is easier than feeling uncomfortable. Across classes, there are white people who have been nursed at the cultural teat of white supremacy. To acknowledge and wean one’s self from that is to admit to having imbibed poison for years and, at some point, intentionally.
It becomes connected to feeling like one is or must reject one’s parents or grandparents or the “history” that formed one’s own story. Is it better to continue to build on a lie (or lies) for the sake of one’s own comfort? Does the story of our forebears as “heroes” matter more than the truth of sins committed against people of color and the way those sins still impact the lives of their children today? People at the top of the cultural mountain cannot call down to people at the bottom and say, “Put the past behind you”, all the while pushing boulders down.
This section of the book is a bit of a hamster wheel of Irving’s inner turmoil as she wrestles with the discomfort and pain of comprehending the height and depth and breadth of white cultural dominance and how it impacts and hurts people of color. With each lesson, she moves forward, but never quite as far as she hopes. The truth is that unlearning a lifetime of lessons taught through culture, family, and education takes the rest of one’s lifetime. And there is comfort in that truth, if we are willing to embrace it.
1. How would you describe your own reaction the first time you heard of white privilege or white cultural dominance? What was the example or situation that revealed that truth to you? If you still push back against the terms, please articulate how you’re wrestling with these things.
2. On page 241, Irving says, “I’m not an active snob, just a well-programmed passive one.” What kinds of snobbery exist in your life? Have you overcome any kinds of “boxes or ladders” in your thinking? Which ones still exist?
3. In chapter 38, the story of Rosie is Irving’s illustration for how she had been taught and expected all students to learn in the same way and to function in the classroom in the same manner. Do you have any experience like this in your life? Consider your church or community congregational context? What is the behavioral expectation for the majority of gatherings? Is it communal? Sage on the stage? Facilitated discussion? Freeform activity? What might be gained from considering different modes of activity on a regular basis?
4. Do you believe there is a cultural preference for comfort over truth? Please say more about your perspective.
5. In ch. 40, Irving realizes that many of her conversation starters are based around white values (work, social acceleration, dominant cultural markers). She had to learn new ways of communicating in order to break down her own ways of classifying (judging) people. What are some conversation starters that you use to bridge gaps and show interest to the person you are meeting?
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.
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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