Waking Up White by Debby Irving

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Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of RaceWaking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Memoir

Debby Irving grew up in a white upper middle class family in Massachusetts.  As an adult she wanted to help people from the inner city but couldn’t figure out why her efforts so often didn’t produce the results she was looking for.  She decided to take a college course about race. 

I expected the course to teach me about “other” races and cultures so I could better help students of color. I supposed I thought I’d get some tips, some do’s and don’ts that would keep me from offending students and parents. Much to my surprise, however, the course asked me to turn the lens on myself. I had never thought to look within for solutions to a problem I imagined as outside of myself, and what I found shocked me.

One quote that resonated with me was this one:

It turns out, stumbling block number 1 was that I didn’t think I had a race

Don’t get me wrong—if you put a census form in my hand, I would know to check “white” or “Caucasian.” it’s more that I thought all those other categories, like Asian, African American, American Indian, and Latino, were the real races. I thought white was the raceless race—just plain, normal, the one against which all others were measured.

I’ve never thought of myself as having a race either.  I’ve just described myself as a boring white person.  I think that for most white people, if they think about it at all, thinking about our race immediately brings to mind white supremacy and the KKK.  Not something you dwell on.

The author goes on to examine ways that white privilege has shaped her life.  Her father was able to become a lawyer on the GI Bill while many veterans of other races were denied the benefits.

She goes on to tell about situations where her cluelessness about race has gotten her into trouble.  One example is when she stands up in seminar for professionals who are people of color to critique a movie that was shown and manages to insult everyone with her comments.

I tend to be clueless about race too.  The husband is Italian and apparently is dark skinned.  I don’t see it.  Intellectually I know that he is because he’s told me and he is darker than a few of our black friends but I just don’t see it.  I look at him and see generic white guy.  His skin color sets him apart in the world though.  The best example is customs.  He can’t get through customs.  We were in the Virgin Islands and I got waved through.  He didn’t get through for a long time.  When he finally showed up he said that his new passport wasn’t signed.  I looked at mine and it wasn’t signed either but it wasn’t a problem for me.  In Amsterdam I told the officer that we needed to go through customs to get our new tickets on the other side (true story).  I got through.  He went to the same officer right after me and told the same story.  He was getting questioned until he pointed at me and said loudly, “I’m with her!”  I waved at the officer and he let him go.  We drove to Canada recently and the border guy accused him of gun running for some reason.  (We didn’t have any guns.) We are going on an international plane trip soon for the first time since being married.  Now we have to go through customs together.  That ought to be exciting.

The book gets into the discussion of whether or not it is appropriate to tell the story of someone of a different race.  I have mixed feelings on this.  I imagined what it would be like to have men suddenly discover something that women have known forever and have them decide to talk about it like it is a new thing.  I can see that it would be annoying but if it is topic that needs to be brought to the attention of the wider world, I don’t care who tells the story as long as it is told.  I guess I’m just pragmatic.

This book helped me to look at the world in a different way. I notice the ways that race shapes my perceptions more now.

I was given a copy of this book from TLC Book Tours in exchange for a review.