Debby Irving grew up in Winchester, Massachusetts, a wealthy white community where she was surrounded by privilege she thought was standard: large, stately homes, country club memberships, summers at a lake house, private schools, and an Ivy League college education. Though she occasionally encountered people of color, their absence in her world powerfully implied that they were less qualified or competent. On the rare occasions she did question her reality, the answers she got were incomplete at best. She recalls a conversation with her mother at the age of five, in which she asked, “Whatever happened to all the Indians?”—those horseback-riding, nature-loving people she admired in her picture books. She was stunned to hear, “They drank too much. It’s very sad. They were lovely people who became dangerous when they drank liquor.”
The explanation made no sense to Irving: her parents and their friends drank liquor. How was it possible that drinking alcohol had brought down an entire people? Pressed for details, her mother obliged with a tale of a drunken Indian murdering an entire family hiding in terror beneath a staircase. Having no larger context in which to place this information, and knowing her mother to be a kind and empathetic woman, Irving had no choice but to accept this absurdly skewed historically narrative.
In similar ways, Irving’s life in a segregated society reinforced unspoken beliefs that white people—and more specifically, white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs)—had risen to their ubiquity in positions of power by virtue of superior intelligence and hard work—qualities her family exemplified. Although four years at Kenyon College helped to expand her knowledge about what really happened to the Indians, the Africans brought to this country as slaves, and other people of color, the history she learned was nevertheless told through a white European lens. People of color were footnotes; interesting character studies; not central to the arc of progress. And while yes, there might have been problems, surely discrimination and oppression were for the most part sins of the past. Nevertheless, to affirm her status as a “good” person, Irving strove to “help” people of other races succeed in the world, overcoming the insults of history, as well as the racial shortcomings with which they’d apparently been born. She never had an inkling that “white” was a race with its own biases and appalling moral failings. Rather, she believed white to be the default setting for human, or at least, American; all others were aberrations from that norm. Why else should they be hyphenated?
Twenty-five years ago, Irving’s worldview was thoroughly disrupted. She tells the story of her awakening in her book, Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race. In it Irving writes, “If someone had called me a racist, I would have kicked and screamed in protest. I thought ‘racist’ meant not liking people of color or being a name-calling bigot.” But a graduate school class in diversity at Wheelock College helped Irving to see what she’d been blind to all along—that “white,” in addition to referring to skin color, carried with it its own cultural attributes, which, though not intrinsically bad, or wrong, were nonetheless limited. Requiring all other people to live by them—and presuming that, by virtue of skin color they’d be less likely to—resulted in a system of discrimination and oppression that continues to this day. Far from being trivial, these unspoken assumptions and requirements handicapped people of color at every turn, while whites moved through the world unaware of the ways the system was designed to make their transit effortless. Moreover, Irving discovered that revamping this system was going to require less work from people of color and more work from people like her: the white beneficiaries of the system.
One of the beauties of Irving’s book is that she shares her process of discovery so unself-consciously that we can’t help but be disarmed: the ways she’d unknowingly been blind and racist; continued to benefit from privileges denied to others; had inadvertently made things worse when she’d hoped to make them better; and slowly learned to be an effective advocate for a more just and equitable society. Along the way, she says, all of her relationships improved—not just those with people of color.
After a career in arts administration, followed by one in public education, Irving has worked for the last five years as a racial justice writer and educator. She spoke with The MOON by phone from her office in Cambridge. – Leslee Goodman
The MOON: You grew up with all the benefits of an upper middle-class white girl. What motivated you to delve so deeply into racism?
Irving: When I went to work in Boston, and then Cambridge, Massachusetts, I suddenly encountered a lot of people whose experiences were nothing like those I had grown up with. Although I was invigorated by this diversity, it was clear there was an economic and well-being divide between whites and people of color. I wanted to understand what accounted for this de facto segregation—and worse, the underlying tension—but I’d been taught that talking about race was taboo, so I didn’t feel comfortable asking people about what I was observing. Plus, I was afraid I’d say something offensive out of sheer ignorance. The situation agitated me. So I ended up on a lot of school diversity committees—for 25 years!—hoping to figure out what was going on.
It wasn’t until 2009, when I returned to school for a graduate degree in special education and was required to take a semester-long course on “Racial and Cultural Identity,” that I really had my illusions stripped away. I expected the course to teach me about “other” races and cultures so I could better help children of color. I was shocked that the instructor expected me to turn the lens on myself. “Racial identity?” I thought. “What racial identity?” Not thinking I had a race, the idea of asking me to study it felt ludicrous. But I liked the professor and admired her direct way of speaking about racial differences, so I managed to keep my mind open just enough that new information could find its way in and force me to question my assumptions.
The MOON: What did you find?
Irving: I was appalled that it had taken me until the age of 48 to find the answers I was looking for—information that really would have been useful to me in terms of understanding the world we live in. That’s why, after finishing that course, instead of continuing with that graduate program in special education, or returning to my career as a classroom teacher, I decided to drop everything and research and write about this phenomenon of white people being kept in a clueless state of what racism is, how it operates, and how it shapes our perspective.
The MOON: And what did this journey of discovery uncover?
Irving: I discovered that I’d been given just the narrowest slice of United States history—and I was a history major at a very well-respected college! That was my first discovery: there was so much history I’d never even heard about. That alone changed my understanding of what this country is about, what racism is, and who I am and what my family history is. It was huge. It helped me realize that there have been public and private institutional practices taking place since the founding of the United States of America, and even predating the founding—with the arrival of colonists on what we now call U.S. soil. These policies continually diverted resources, rights, representation, and respect—what I call the “Four Rs”—to people classified as white, and denied or restricted them from everyone else. Moreover, I learned that many of these practices continue to this day. I learned that I’d internalized the idea that white people were superior, without anyone ever saying that to me. Instead, everywhere I looked, the people in positions of power and authority were white, male, heterosexual (or passing as), Protestant, and able-bodied. This was so universal that I didn’t even consider them “white,” but “All-American.” I’d been over-exposed to whites and under-exposed to everyone else; so “white” became “normal.” Moreover, I learned that “white” is a legal classification, not a biological one.
The MOON: What do you mean: “white is a legal classification, not a biological one”?