Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race

by Debby Irving

Paperback, 2014




Elephant Room Press (2014), 288 pages


Debby Irving is an emerging voice in the national racial justice community. Combining her organization development skills, classroom teaching experience, and understanding of systemic racism, Irving educates and consults with individuals and organizations seeking to create racial equity at both the personal and institutional level. Irving grew up in Winchester, Massachusetts, during the socially turbulent 1960s and '70s. After a blissfully sheltered, upper-middle-class suburban childhood, she found herself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by the racial divide she observed in nearby Boston. Her career began in a variety of urban performance-art and community-based non-profits, where she repeatedly found that her best efforts to "help" caused more harm than the good she intended. Her one-step-forward-two-steps-back experience of racial understanding eventually lead her to dig deeply into her own white privilege, where she found truths she never knew existed. Waking Up White describes that journey and the lessons learned along the way. Now a racial justice educator and writer, Irving works with other white people to transform confusion into curiosity and anxiety into action. She's worked in private and public urban schools, both in the classroom and at the board level, to foster community among students, teachers, staff, and families by focusing on honest dialog that educates and connects people through shared interests and divergent backgrounds. A graduate of the Winsor School in Boston, she holds a BA from Kenyon College and an MBA from Simmons College. Waking Up White is her first book.… (more)


½ (75 ratings; 3.9)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Sunmtn
“Whiteness, it turns out, is but a pigment of the imagination.” – Debby Irving

Debby Irving has written an enlightening, boldly honest, and refreshing narrative that describes her awakening to her own whiteness and her personal transformative journey to understand the complexity of systematic
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racism that is still perpetuated in society. In the preface of the book, Irving reminds readers how important it is to dismantle racial barriers and inequalities that have become entrenched in America’s historically white dominated culture:

“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.”

In the first part of the book, Irving defines herself as 100% New England WASP and then spends a great amount of time describing her roots, family values, and the affluent lifestyle she had growing up. Her self-awareness of her background and ancestry were the first steps in a “racial learning journey” that required her to step out of her comfort zone and closely examine the beliefs she internalized growing up in a monocultural cocoon of whiteness. One of the major points she emphasizes in the book is that “Understanding whiteness, regardless of socio-economic class and ancestry is the key to understanding racism.” While my background differs significantly from hers, I could still relate to her naiveté and the outrage and shock she experienced when she discovered the “invisible skin of white privilege” had afforded her so many more opportunities than those of people of color.

What I appreciated most about this book is that Irving delves beyond the simplistic definition of racism as prejudice or discrimination against people because of their race and provides insight into the social construct of racism. She uses examples from history, describes the results of race-related sociological experiments, and includes anecdotes from her own life to support her claims. I admire Irving for her unabashed honesty in describing some painfully humiliating experiences in her journey toward understanding.

The last section of the book describes some steps we can all take toward creating an inclusive, multicultural environment and how we can move beyond the anxiety and ineptness we may feel when we try to talk about race. Another major point that resonated with me is how easy it is to judge another person’s experience from our own ethnocentric vantage point as opposed to taking the effort to imagine what it may be like to walk in someone else’s shoes.

The book offers lots of opportunities for self-reflection through the discussion questions posed at the end of each chapter, which encourages readers to become thoughtful and active participants in the reading process. I certainly learned a lot about my own white ethnicity and how it has impacted my understanding of racial differences and the divide that continues to separate us.

Source: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest and fair review.
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LibraryThing member froxgirl
This is the ultimate guide to being a productive white ally in the fight against racism. The author grew up white and upper middle class in Winchester, MA. (about 5 miles away from me). She tells a familiar story, of her becoming aware of privilege, but not until the ripe old age of 50! It takes
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many conferences, teaching experiences, and friendships with people of color to bring her around. I am afraid that not many white people would be brave enough to admit to such enormous stumbles in their learning process. But I do believe that if copies of this down-to-earth, non-Kumbaya, practical guide were to be given to anyone who says, "I don't see color", that their lives would be forever changed and the fight for equity would take a giant leap forward. I have so many sticky notes inserted into the pages that I might as well have just taken a yellow highlighter to the entire book! In addition to taking us through her many steps, Ms. Irving poses a list of questions after every chapter to help the reader relate her passages to their own lives. A most brave and honest book.
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LibraryThing member niquetteb
I read this for a book group of white liberal women and it prompted a lot of sharing among the lot of us. Many questions arose for me in my own life and how I handle race relations. I look forward to continued open conversations.
LibraryThing member TGPistole
I'm still reading it but so far (~1/3 of the way through) I am finding it interesting, distressing, hopeful, challenging--no doubt what the author expected. Irving does a good job in making a point without the heavy load of guilt: white privilege is something those of us who are white need to
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understand, but her emphasis is on moving ahead rather than dwelling on the past.
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LibraryThing member aimee
This is a phenomenal book about race, racism, inequity, and white privilege. It's an easy read in the sense that Debby takes you by the hand and leads you through her own experiences, step by step, as she wakes up to race. It's also a hard read because you'll find yourself waking up. It's hard to
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be confronted with your own complicity, lack of understanding, knowledge, and sensitivity. But Debby humbly shares all her mistakes and blunders, allowing us to take a deep breath and plunge into this work too.

The book is 46 short chapters (some as short as 3 pages) with a set of questions for reflection at the end of each. Debby recommends using a journal to write your thoughts. I think this is a book that could also be read in a group with the questions used for discussion.

I've just finished reading this book and I felt a desperate need to get through and read the whole book without engaging in the questions very much. This is a book I feel I need to read several more times (next time with a journal at hand) to really help everything sink in. There is a lot to unpack - this book is a great guide.
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LibraryThing member ingrid98684
I found this really helpful and it's impelled me to do further reading on the topic (the author provides a handful of books as suggestions of where to go next).
LibraryThing member EmScape
One of the most important books I've read this year. I consider myself pretty 'woke', but I certainly found a lot to learn from in Irving's treatise. Irving does not spare herself embarrassment, and willingly admits to having had (and continuing to have) blind spots when it comes to race and
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recognizing her privilege. I absolutely related to her blindingly privileged upbringing and realizations that she was herself perpetuating the practice of 'white savior-hood'. In our attempts to seem supportive and allied with people of color, we need to constantly remind ourselves to listen instead of speak, that it is not about us, that this fight has been going on far longer than we have been involved in it or even aware of it. We must do what we can to advance the cause but absolutely not at the expense of allowing others their rightful place as owners of their lived experience. We can reach a hand out without coming off like we think we're reaching down to pull someone else up. Every white person should read this book, particularly we suburban white ladies who are newly activists and want to help without harming.
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LibraryThing member sethwilpan
It’s the chronicle of the author’s earnest and persistent quest to unpack the ramifications of her involuntary condition of being white. She does a good job of exposing the subtle nuances of behavior and thought that betray her inadvertent assimilation into a culture of white superiority and
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privilege. Along the way she acknowledges the socio-political factors that have historically given white people a lift while keeping black people down. There were times when I wanted to hear more about why those oppressive influences were so pervasive and so hidden, but I respect her decsion to carefully limited the scope of the book to her own personal experience. If she excites a general curiosity about how racism persists it will be of more value than if she had tried to present a cursory explanation.

The author is well-off, well educated and dedicated to getting to the root of her racialized relationship with others. It took her years of searching, workshops and workplace experience to unravel the beliefs and behaviors that made her complicit in our system of racism. The wisdom she gained made here a more peaceful and competent person. We have a lot of work to do.
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LibraryThing member MaowangVater
Irving’s memoir of growing up in the Boston suburb of Winchester, Massachusetts, surrounded by fellow White Protestants of British ancestry left her oblivious to the history of racism and its effects in the United States. She writes that she lived in “The exclusive world of thriving people
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raising thriving children.” As with other WASPs growing up in the Boston suburbs, as I did, she knew racism existed, but thought that it was a problem for people in the South and did not exist where she lived. She did not know its history or how it operated and continues to operate in the 21st century in ways only slightly different than it did in the past and that it was not a problem that existed only in the southeastern part of the country. Its roots started in Europe and were transplanted to this hemisphere by the first European colonists in the 17th century. Some of the strange fruit that it bore were devastating pandemics, genocide, and xenophobia.

Irving’s book, however, is not about the horrors and injustices of racism, it is about how its effects so permeated her early life, that it was almost invisible to her, and how, while meaning well, she conformed to the norms that perpetuated it. As her experiences living in a more urban and racially mixed environment gradually awakened her to its effects and her own inability to ameliorate them because of her lack of experience, as a white person to those effects. In short chapters she recounts her awakening, and at the end of each chapter gives her fellow white readers a few questions to ponder. This gives us a chance to deepen our understanding of the experience of Americans less melanin deprived than we.
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Independent Publisher Book Awards (Silver — Multicultural Non-Fiction — 2015)


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Physical description

9.02 inches


0991331303 / 9780991331307
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