‘Waking Up White’ leads to much needed lessons, personal examination on racism

Debby Irving, left, is the author of "Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race."

Reviewed by Sister Mary Core, OSB

About two years ago, I read about Debby Irving’s book, “Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race.”

I thought, “Interesting title. I ought to read that.”

Why? Because I wondered whether I myself was unintentionally racist.

I had grown aware of my thoughts around race. For instance, I would catch myself thinking things like, “Wow, he really speaks well, for a black man,” or “I wonder if those Mexicans are migrant workers.” Sometimes, if I was alone and saw a dark-skinned individual walking toward me, I would think to myself (as I smiled at them), “I hope I am safe.”

At a meeting, I found myself distracted by two women, one Mexican American and the other Asian. Both were well educated and actively involved in social justice issues. I thought, “When I was growing up, these women might easily have been unwelcomed in this group.”

Well, I ordered the book and read it and was blown away by the honest, white, upper middle-class story that Irving told. I found myself identifying with so much in her book and realizing how blissfully blessed and unaware most of my life has been. I, too, had to stop and reflect when Irving confessed to not hearing much about being part of a race, the “white race.”

POWERFUL, PERSONAL

Debby Irving has written a powerful book which I highly recommend and encourage everyone to read. Its engaging style drew me in and kept me wanting to read more. Each chapter told a story of Irving’s day-to-day experiences of being white, privileged, and having little knowledge or understanding of how that contributed to being racist. Each chapter held a lesson about racism or ethnic profiling and concluded with a question that made me examine my own life and the ways I have spoken or acted in a racist manner, a prejudiced manner, or uninformed manner.

Because Irving is able to interject humor and to write in an informal and personal way, what could be a very heavy, even volatile, topic was a pleasant and very educational read.

The author has a wonderful “Notes on Sources” section at the back of the book which includes a bibliography, in-depth explanations, and recommended viewing and reading for each chapter. She also has a section, “Tell Me What to Do,” in which she gives resources for learning about and engaging in the problem of racism.

WE NEED THIS LESSON

This book doesn’t preach or try to give a fail-proof guide to ending racism. On the contrary, Irving admits to her slow awakening. Her honest sharing of her own lack of awareness and desire to change make the book inviting. Irving is a real teacher, as she presents her own journey and draws the reader to awareness of the subtle ways in which racism invades our thinking, our words and our actions. Racism is quite simply woven into the fabric of our American culture. We cannot unweave the past, but we can be part of weaving a different future.

Given the current state of our nation, we need this lesson. Irving gently yet powerfully helps us to become aware of the many ways we both practice and often fail to respond to racism and discrimination. She isn’t trying to eliminate the races, but rather to acknowledge each as a gift that contributes to the tapestry of all creation. We are all enriched and add to the tapestry when we are respectful, open, and willing to learn from the unique heritage, traditions, cultures and perspectives of each other.

I liked this book so much that I have promoted it as often as I could and will be using it this month with my Book Club.

Irving ends her book by saying, “Please join me in opening your heart and minds to the possibility that you — yes, even well intentioned you — have room to change and grow, so that you can work with people of all colors and ethnicities to co-create communities that can unite, strengthen, and prosper.” Her invitation has certainly helped me to “wake up” and try to change. I hope it can do the same for others as well.

One last note: Debbie Irving is available for keynotes, discussion forums, book talks and discussions.

“Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race” was copyrighted in 2014 by Debby Irving and printed by Elephant Room Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Sister Mary Core, OSB

SISTER MARY CORE, OSB, is liturgy director of St. Mary Monastery in Rock Island. She also leads a woman’s book club for St. Maria Goretti Parish, Coal Valley, and Mary, Our Lady of Peace Parish in Orion.

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