Waking Up White: and finding myself in the story of race
I picked up Waking Up White on the suggestion of a friend, somewhat ambivalent to read this book, having spent the better part of three decades looking at my ego, my limitations, and character flaws. In that context of self-improvement and self-transformation, I had become accustomed to holding up a one-sided reflective mirror to cultivate humility, remorse, and highly refined self-criticism. For those who have embraced that kind of rigor of personal development, the discipline and renunciation will be familiar, and you will understand why at this point in my career I—somewhat apologetically—couldn’t help feeling like I wanted time in a world of support and positivity. It was time, at least for a short while, to focus on potentials not blemishes. But though I had lived in a context where shining a bright light onto all the specs on the mirror of self and character was the norm, issues of systemic power imbalances and institutionalized injustices rampant in our culture as a whole remained, to a large part, set to the side.
In the mid-2010s, now living in the midst of the city of Philadelphia, that discussion moved into the center. Still committed to supporting potential rather than focusing on lack, I began a renewed reflection and focus on the dynamics of race and privilege in our educational, political, and economic systems in America. Having always identified with my immigrant grandparents, I grew up with an identity as outsider, other, without being exposed to any dialogue that I can remember on the automatic privilege as a person with white skin. I understood the dangers of xenophobia and racism from my Jewish family tree cut short in the Russian pogroms and German Nazi periods. I understood the politics of patriarchy from my own awakening in the second feminist wave. Our times now demanded a committed deconstruction of race and colonial privilege. And so I picked up Irving’s book.
Over recent years, I have read some powerful works on the history of the construct called “race.” A lecture at a Quaker center by Joy de Gruy exposed me to the way this artificial but insidious phenomenon was created by basically two pseudo-anthropologists who got their degrees from back-of-matchbook mail-order institutions. The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson’s hefty book on the mass migration north following the end of slavery and Jim Crow, took my breath away. Her beautifully written, meticulously researched, and heartbreaking work should be on the required reading list of every elected official at all levels of governance and of every educational leader and classroom teacher. I listened to The New Jim Crow by Michele Alexander, an intense indictment of the prison-profit system, an expose of the dubiously constructed war-on-drugs and a government’s complicity in addicting and incarcerating such a significant percentage of a single ethnic population that those rents in the cultural fabric of black communities will take generations to repair. I journeyed south with Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward’s memoir that reads as mellifluous as warm water running through my fingers and as poignant as the lost tribe of Israel.
Now was time to lean into the work of uncovering whiteness from the inside out. To read, from a voice much like mine, of the author’s consciousness raising epiphanies, as she unpacked and made visible the acculturated attitudes and actions that create privilege, and how that privilege extends from generation to generation, regardless of merit, effort, or award.
I have lived outside of the US in developing countries with vastly different cultures about twenty percent of my life. I thought I saw America and our cultural mythos for what it was. Still, when it came to engaging in the current discussions about race, I knew there were so many ways I was about to put my foot in my mouth as soon as I stepped beyond my accustomed ways of doing things, trod beyond my knowledge, role, and familiar territory. I could already see, in ways I phrased my observations that my speech was offputting, that there were ways I approached my own blindnesses that revealed how unfamiliar I was with the terrain of race.
Irving’s book was a surprise. Not a “how to” (even though she includes reflection questions after each section) or an admonishment (even though she is unflinching in her looks behind the curtain of her own family’s privilege), not an apology or over revelatory tell-all, Waking Up White gives us a very human and warm-blooded approach to deconstructing the privilege of whiteness. We see, through her own eyes, inherent advantages and transformations that invite all of us who have benefitted from the simple color of our complexion and density of our melanin, to dismantle our beliefs and blinders and see the world in a new light. As we do this in small and large ways, it creates space for a new order of social constructs, new and more wholesome relatedness, and ultimately transformation of the institutions and structures of culture we in habit together.
For those of us who have not yet begun this journey in a meaningful way, Irving extends a hand. For those of us who have begun the journey, Waking Up White is a powerful model of intention, perseverance, and vulnerability. And for those of us who aren’t sure we have the stomach to make this journey, this book can alleviate some of the ambivalence and make the inner transformation for the sake of outer change the journey we—especially those of us who have benefitted from cultural privilege—need to take.