“Do I remain a bystander and stay silent? Or do I become an ally and ask the hard questions about how this might affect the range of people in our community or organization? Do I dare ask explicitly if it will further advantage white people while simultaneously disadvantaging people of color? Do I dare suggest that because we are a group of all or mostly white people, we cannot possibly be thinking and acting on behalf of those who are not living the white experience?” Waking Up White, p. 220
In the section “Outer Work,” Debby Irving lays out some ways for white people to alter our external behavior in order to live as allies to people of color. She draws a comparison to bullying; we may try to dissuade bullies or empower their victims, but no real change is going to come as long as bystanders simply stand by and let it happen. Many of us may be comfortable in the role of bystander, able to convince ourselves that we are doing nothing actively racist, but also not doing anything to intervene in the systemic racism we observe. Irving gives the lie to the notion that there is such a thing as neutral, quoting Coretta Scott King, “even a lack of will power to help humanity is a sick and sinister form of violence.” (p. 220) She reminds the reader that we need to be aware of our place in things, to use our influence in white-dominated systems, while understanding that in this work, “the white role is a supporting one, not a leading one.” (p. 221)
That supporting role isn’t just playing second chair in an orchestra; it’s offering support through willingness to admit mistakes and move toward people instead of passively waiting for them to come to us. Irving offers an example from her own life. There was the embarrassing day when she called her daughter’s teammate by the name of the one other black student on the team while talking to the student’s mother. Knowing the historic pain of mistaken identity, and aware of her “own-race bias,” she called the other mom and apologized. Yes, she could just as easily have confused two white girls with ponytails, as her husband suggested, but it mattered to name it and be accountable. She also shares a story told by Vernā Myers about white lawyers avoiding an Asian colleague because they were not sure how to pronounce his name; they didn’t want to be impolite! (That sounds pretty lame to me, yet not a surprising excuse.) Myers points out that for people of color, learning white culture is something they just have to do. Click this link for a TED Talk with more from Myers.
And then there’s tolerance. Many years ago, a lesbian friend told me, “I would rather be hated than tolerated.” As a queer, married pastor living in a conservative area, I get this. Irving urges us toward a paradigm shift, “from assimilation (my way or the highway) or differentiation (let’s celebrate our differences) to integration – the more mature understanding that differences are powerful tools that can be used to strengthen the whole.” (p. 229) Some people would rather not know what a queer pastor could bring to the church’s ministry, or a black teacher to the lives of all children, or an Asian lawyer to the collective wisdom of a law firm, or a female politician to – well. Irving asks a particularly poignant question in light of recent political events in the U.S:
“The idea of cultivating and drawing on multiple competencies seems to me the very essence of humanity: discovering and using all our tools to maximize the potential of the group and its individuals. What if instead of ‘winner take all’ in a world of haves and have nots, a society of thriving people expanded the pie for everyone?” (p. 230)
In the chapter, “Listening,” Irving comes full circle when she learns that the leafy, green, and very white suburb in which she was raised has an effective Multicultural Network. She attends a town-wide forum and recognizes the good work being done through grass roots efforts quite the opposite of the top-down system familiar from her childhood. They did it by listening to each other, which draws through another thread from earlier in the book, that of discomfort with silence.
Talking seemed hard, too. How would Irving transition from the nice woman she had been taught she must be to an outspoken activist? A class on challenging racism helped her find a voice.
“Far from my old understanding — that conversations serve as a stage on which to prove one’s self-worth through witty banter, biographical data, or the recall of facts — authentic dialogues about race (or another complex idea, for that matter) make mutual learning, not winning or losing, the goal.” (p. 239)
- Can you look back and remember a time you were a bystander to racism? Can you imagine a way to change the script from that experience?
- Not too long ago in a group of several dozen clergy, I heard a white colleague call a black colleague by the wrong name. The two had distinct physical differences (height, features, hairstyle, clothing, voices). I heard a soft rumble that echoed by own murmur: “That’s ____.” But no one called out, stood up, spoke loudly, except the person called by the wrong name. What would you have done?
- Irving confesses her past limited understanding of the value of diversity, seeing people of color as “a bridge to their race.” Have you seen a system changed by embracing a fully integrated understanding?
- In this section, Irving offers five categories of “Outer Work.” We can stop being bystanders and become allies. We can join in solidarity with accountability. We can move past tolerance to active engagement with people who are different from us. We can listen. And we can get used to talking – in normal tones – about race. Which feels hardest to you? Which, if any, feels like a place you could start?
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, and email Martha at firstname.lastname@example.org to ask for a link to the Zoom meeting.
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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