Book: Waking Up White

My dad, brother, and I are now doing a monthly book club together. One of us chooses a book, we all read it, and then we do an hour-long video conference and talk about it. We’ve done this for about six months now and it’s wonderful.

A few months ago Daniel chose Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving. It was a powerful book that started off strong.

“I can think of no bigger misstep in American history than the invention and perpetuation of the idea of white superiority. It allows white children to believe they are exceptional and entitled while allowing children of color to believe they are inferior and less deserving. Neither is true; both distort and stunt development. Racism crushes spirits, incites divisiveness, and justifies the estrangement of entire groups of individuals who, like all humans, come into the world full of goodness, with a desire to connect, and with boundless capacity to learn and grow. Unless adults understand racism, they will, as I did, unknowingly teach it to their children.

No one alive today created this mess, but everyone alive today has the power to work on undoing it. Four hundred years since its inception, American racism is all twisted up in our cultural fabric. But there’s a loophole: people are not born racist. Racism is taught, and racism is learned. Understanding how and why our beliefs developed along racial lines holds the promise of healing, liberation, and the unleashing of America’s vast human potential.”

I found myself nodding many times as I read this book. When I finished, I wandered around the web and found this TEDx Fenway talk by the author which does a great job of a high-level summary of the book.

I particularly liked this framing:

 

“What I’ve learned is that thinking myself raceless allowed for a distorted frame of reference built on faulty beliefs. For instance, I used to believe:

  • Race is all about biological differences.
  • I can help people of color by teaching them to be more like me.
  • Racism is about bigots who make snarky comments and commit intentionally cruel acts against people of color.
  • Culture and ethnicity are only for people of other races and from other countries.
  • If the cause of racial inequity were understood, it would be solved by now.”

Dad, Daniel, and I talked extensively about the notion of “Good intentions, bad information.” While it applies to many situations, it’s especially key in applying critical thinking to a complex, or deeply challenging situation, especially one where there is a visceral bias (emotional or intellectual) that appears. Consider applying Curiosity, Courage, and Tolerance by doing the following.

  • Curiosity: Ask yourself silently, “Why did I just think that thought?” Force yourself to chase down the “why” before you go on.
  • Courage: Resist feeling terrified that you will say the wrong thing. There are lots of different ways to say something with a qualifier that you don’t have any idea whether what you are saying is going to be offensive, interpreted correctly, or correct.
  • Tolerance: Tolerate your own feelings of discomfort, anger, grief, and embarrassment. Take a deep breath and calmly press through into the situation.

There’s a lot more in the book that both challenged me and helped me. I’m sure I interpreted plenty of it wrong, but, in the same way that I’m reading and exploring a lot of feminist literature, I’m going to include explorations of race and ethnicity in the stuff I’m reading.

Daniel – thanks for choosing Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race as one of our monthly books.


Also published on Medium.