I can only begin this way: No matter how many books about racism you may have read—how to understand it, how to work against it—Debby Irving’s book is a must! Tim Wise, considered by many the foremost lecturer and writer on racism in our country today, describes Irving’s work as “a brutally honest, unflinching exploration of race and personal identity told with heart by a truly gifted storyteller.”
Debby Irving grew up in a Boston suburb—“a very white town”—but has come to see her “entire childhood in a different light.” It was after college and working in Boston that her new understanding began to take root. Motivated by a desire to move outside her white suburban experience, she found herself “simultaneously intrigued and horrified by the racial divide” she found in the city. Her total lack of awareness, her ignorance of her own privilege and entitlement, and her urges toward doing good and “fixing” people of color now frustrated her: Why was she afraid of “saying something stupid or offensive”? And why couldn’t she “make it go away”? The more she wondered (like many of us), the harder it became. “I knew there was an elephant in the room,” she wrote, “I just didn’t know it was me!”
Unwilling to let her unease dissuade her, Irving enrolled in a course that helped her examine how being white interfered with her wish to understand racism. Still, it was “two-steps-forward-one-step-back.” One of the steps forward, she hoped, was to find a school for her two daughters unlike those she attended. Toward that end, the family moved to Cambridge, Mass., known as one of the country’s most multiethnic cities. The school, though it reflected that mixture, did not bring blending but rather repeated the usual race boundaries, which was evident in the administration, faculty, and in the uneasy interactions of parents of different backgrounds.
One of the crucial moments that stays with me was what Irving learned from the seemingly open gesture of inviting African Americans to a community event. Yes, it seemed a positive way to reach out, yet she noticed a certain uneasiness in the guests’ demeanor; that observation eventually led Irving to sense the discomfort of the “guest”—feeling very much the different one, the “other” in a space not of his or her own creation, there out of politeness or duty, never with a sense of belonging. Only after examining her own racial story—unpacking both her privilege and the systematic structural racism experienced by others—was Irving able to form real friendships and work relationships, or even have authentic conversations, with people of color.
Another item that will remain with me, as it has with Irving, came when an African American friend remarked that white people “don’t even think of themselves as having a race.” This is an observation definitely worth contemplation.
Among the many accolades to Irving for her book, these words from Gene Robinson, the retired Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, stand out. He speaks of Irving (as we hope he might be able to speak of many of us) as waking up “to the reality of how, without her knowledge or active pursuit, she lives in a society which is set up to reward her at the expense of people of color.”
The author has come to understand that her hometown “couldn’t have been white unless black and brown people were obstructed.”
It is worth noting that each chapter offers brief exercises, mostly for white readers. Here’s one example: “Have you tried to form relationships across racial lines? If they didn’t get very far, how did you explain that to yourself?” And another: “Make a list of all the factors that you believe contributed to your own achievement as a student. How do you think being a white person or a person of color influenced each of those factors?”
Irving is now a racial justice educator and writer and has been a classroom teacher and arts administrator. The author’s website also has many excellent resources for readers and educators: Debbyirving.com.