January Antiracist Book Club: Waking Up White, by Debby Irving

In 2020, I’m attempting to read at least one book each month specifically to help me on my antiracist journey. I’m not an expert, and I’m not a professional. You’re welcome to read and learn along with me, if you’d like.

Although I began thinking about and attempting this journey years ago, I didn’t find the correct direction to truly begin until I attended the People of Color Conference in December – learn more about that here. I learned of so many great resources from that conference, and left with an abstract goal to make my way through them at some point.

Then in early January, I shared my eye-opening experience attempting to make my way through Waking Up White. I was surprised with the thoughtful feedback and strong interest to learn and participate from my online community. It made it clear that antiracist beginners were looking for a place to think out loud, share resources, and ask questions. While I’m still beginning my antiracist journey, I do know that one way to be an ally and co-conspirator is to help other people to start their journey, too.

I am not qualified to lead antiracist work. These are not the resources of a practitioner or a DEI professional. I plan to share my reading and thoughts here and on Instagram, my social media platform of choice. This is a good place to land if you are looking to hear reflections and questions from a learner, and participate in open-minded and curious discussion. Would you like to read along with me?

My January antiracist read was Waking Up White, by Debby Irving.

Here’s some information about the book, from Debby Irving’s website:

Waking Up White is the book I wish someone had handed me decades ago. My hope is that by sharing my sometimes cringe-worthy struggle to understand racism and racial tensions, I offer a fresh perspective on bias, stereotypes, manners, and tolerance. As I unpack my own long-held beliefs about colorblindness, being a good person, and wanting to help people of color, I reveal how each of these well-intentioned mindsets actually perpetuated my ill-conceived ideas about race. I also explain why and how I’ve changed the way I talk about racism, work in racially mixed groups, and understand the racial justice movement as a whole. Exercises at the end of each chapter prompt readers to explore their own racialized ideas. Waking Up White’s personal narrative is designed to work well as a rapid read, a book group book, or support reading for courses exploring racial and cultural issues.” (Source.)

And here are my initial thoughts on the book, originally shared in this post:

If you’re White like me, you might be surprised to learn that it’s impossible for you to do meaningful and impactful antiracist work until you fully understand your own cultural identity and the impact that it has had on your life, even if (especially if!) you’ve never noticed it. This was one of the biggest themes that I encountered at PoCC, and it’s all over my notes – I cannot even begin to understand race and the implications it has had for people of color until I understand the impact that my whiteness has had on me.

The title, Waking Up White, describes Ms. Irving’s experience in waking up one day to realize for the first time that her whiteness, while mostly unseen and unconsidered, has been the deciding factor in most of her life. In the memoir, she discusses her immense discomfort in coming to terms with her own racial and cultural identity, the many ways that she was doing harm when her intent was to do good, and the steps she is taking to learn how to be better. Waking Up White is very similar to my own story (I’m still waking up!), which makes it very uncomfortable to read; but I’ve learned that discomfort means I’m on the right track. I think this one is a must-read for anyone looking to set a strong foundation for lifelong antiracist work. I’ve skipped ahead before, thinking that my own whiteness had nothing to do with racism – I was wrong. White readers, this is our first step.

Now that I’ve finished, I know that this book was the first step that I needed. And I believe even more strongly that this book is a good first step for white people – especially educators – looking to truly dig in and begin their antiracist journey. My reading and learning in past years has been an examination of racism through the perspectives of people of color. While reading and considering those perspectives is absolutely valuable, it further strengthened the idea that racism is (or even more dangerously – was) a problem all about people of color, and that I was an outsider looking in. I found myself overwhelmed and tired easily while doing the work, putting books down after a few chapters and promising to pick them up later, but never coming back.

Waking Up White held up a mirror and forced me to study my place in racism, and simultaneously to shift my definition of racism from one of singular action to a massive, systemic history. This was context that I needed. There’s much more for me to learn, but this mind shift feels like a necessary step in the right direction.

I’ve already passed Waking Up White on to a friend, so my highlights, dog-ears, and annotations aren’t with me as I write this. But I still have plenty of thoughts and questions.

One of the things that I can’t stop thinking about is how growing up comfortably, unquestioningly in the dominant culture has impacted my teaching. Specifically, my personal relationships with students and classroom/behavior management. How much of my management style is about control, and my own comfort? How much of it is designed and delivered with a “be right, be like me” mentality?

In terms of relationships and connection, how much of my judgement of and feedback to my readers is based on actions that I assume are wrong or unacceptable simply because I don’t understand or recognize them? Or right, because they look like behaviors I see in myself and others from the dominant culture? How much of what I see as love and care is actually based in trying to save or fix?

How about you? Did Waking Up White leave you with the same questions? Are you considering different ones? Has your antiracist work changed your teaching or parenting?

The antiracist read I’m attempting for February is White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo. If you’re interested in reading this book too, I’d love to connect and discuss with you.

I try my best, but not all of my antiracist thoughts and reflections make it to the blog. Find more on Instagram.

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