Waking up white | An interview with Debby Irving

Irving: White is a legal term created as a way to separate people of originally Anglo, and later European, descent and entitle them to the Four Rs—resources, rights, representation, and respect. It’s not a biological reality. It was created specifically to divert the Four Rs to a certain group of people.

I’d absolutely grown up believing that racial distinctions were real, based in biology. But in this country, “white” is a legal classification, resulting in a long history of people going to court to establish themselves as white, so that they could avail themselves of the benefits reserved only for that group. Jews, Irish, and Italians, for example, were not originally classified as white–or as eligible for the benefits of white people. [For one citation see: here.] Moreover, definitions have varied across state lines, so that you could legally be “white” in one state and then cross over into a state such as Virginia, which followed the “one drop” (of black blood) rule, and no longer qualify. Ironically, the term “Caucasian” originally referred to residents of the Caucasus Mountains, which aren’t even in Europe; yet it’s the term used to describe people of European descent.

Ethnicity is real, based on the region of the world we come from. Ethnicity can affect our physical features, such as skin and hair color, nose and eye shape, etc. But none of these external features are tied to intellectual or physical abilities. In fact, geneticists say there is more variation within racial groups than across racial groups. So, for example, the idea that black people make better basketball players because “white people can’t jump,” is inaccurate. The preponderance of black professional basketball players has more to do with the athletic opportunities available in poor black neighborhoods than genetic predisposition. You don’t find golf courses, tennis courts, or soccer fields in poor black neighborhoods. Black and brown people have been disproportionately held in these castrated neighborhoods by design. But in fact, in the first half of the 1900s Jews dominated professional basketball—again for reasons of economics, not genetics. This was before Jews were considered white.

“There have been public and private institutional practices taking place since the founding of the United States of America, and even predating the founding, that continually diverted resources, rights, representation, and respect to people classified as white, and denied or restricted them from everyone else.”

The MOON: What are some of the advantages white people have historically received—even if they were not aware they were being treated preferentially?

Irving: After the demise of slavery, black and brown people were segregated into separate neighborhoods—first with Jim Crow; then through subtler means such as the GI Bill, redlining, and discriminatory lending practices. Of course even before that, whites believed they were “entitled” to the land occupied by Native Americans and Mexicans.

I’d always thought that people lived where they wanted to live, in neighborhoods they could afford. But a closer look revealed that those “affordable” neighborhoods were by design. For example the GI Bill, which enabled millions of returning GIs to go to college and receive housing benefits, including low-interest, federally insured loans, went overwhelmingly to white veterans. Even though there were plenty of returning black and brown GIs, 98% of GI housing benefits went to whites—a $120 billion subsidy in 1940s currency. It was a way of keeping the white- dominated status quo comfortable, to the exclusion of people of color. The Federal Housing Authority (FHA) and the GI Bill were the public partners in this system, while bankers and realtors were the private partners, steering whites and blacks into separate neighborhoods, “to protect property values”—of whites, obviously.

Also, many low-income black and brown families needed their returning GIs to go immediately to work, rather than to college. Further, most colleges and universities had a quota system. If there were more applicants than slots, the overflow were denied entry. And fewer low-income students typically qualify for college—in part because public schools are funded through property taxes, which are lower in poor neighborhoods; higher in wealthy ones.

Redlining was another systematic method of keeping non-whites out of places whites wanted to live. Redlining is the practice of denying or limiting financial services to certain neighborhoods based on racial or ethnic composition without regard to the residents’ qualifications or creditworthiness. The FHA explicitly practiced redlining when determining which neighborhoods to approve for mortgages. Many redlined neighborhoods were formerly Jewish neighborhoods, who were able to “become white” and move into white neighborhoods, but it was a struggle. Even after they could get loans, white realtors and white residents kicked up a big fuss about admitting Jews. I’ve no doubt that there are still many white neighborhoods with restrictive covenants against them.

When you put all of these factors together, you realize that people of color have faced greater obstacles in accessing the benefits of our society. These obstacles have simultaneously reinforced the illusion that racism is justified, that people of color really are inferior. “Look where they live. Look at their college acceptance rate.”

The MOON: Why do you say that race is “a story”?

Irving: Race is a narrative to explain the world. It has no hard and fast basis in biology. All living humans belong to the same species, Homo sapiens, and subspecies, Homo sapiens sapiens. In its initial iteration racial classification was an earnest attempt to understand human variation based on geography. But as we’ve learned more, we’ve realized that categorization is flawed to begin with. There aren’t clear delineations biologically. Human variation moves along a spectrum, and scientists consider biological essentialism obsolete. But the real problems began when one racial group—white—took it upon themselves to assign value to various human attributes—that straight hair is better than curly; thin lips better than full; light skin better than dark; etc.—and then had the political and economic power to wield these arbitrary value judgments to benefit their own group.

Now we have the science to confirm that there is more DNA diversity within genetic (racial) groups than across them. That being the case, you’d have thought we’d have seen billboards announcing the news, but we haven’t. And white people remain so defensive on the subject of race—or even of white culture—that talking about it is one of the most provocative things you can do.

The MOON: You point out that there are many variations of white culture, but attributes of the dominant white culture—e.g., white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant—that hold racism in place are remarkably similar—and are somewhat surprising. What are they?

Irving: Yes, the list is somewhat surprising, and also surprisingly short. It includes conflict avoidance; valuing formal education over life experience; belief in a right to comfort, or entitlement; a sense of urgency; competitiveness; emotional restraint; being judgmental; “either/or” thinking; belief in one right way; defensiveness; and being status-oriented.

The point of the list is not to prove that white people are racist, or wrong, but to bring awareness to dominant ways of thinking and acting so that we can choose whether or not their helpful in a particular situation.

The MOON: None of these attributes seems particularly oppressive. How are they involved with slavery, genocide of the Native Americans, perpetuation of inequality and perpetual war—on brown or yellow-skinned peoples—in our lifetimes?

Irving: Right, none of these attributes in themselves is oppressive. They’re used oppressively when combined with power to make other attributes wrong. For example, conflict avoidance is used to marginalize people who complain—even if their complaints are legitimate. Say you’re passed over for promotion, but if you say anything about it to your superiors, you’ve broken the social norm to go along, to avoid conflict. As a result, you risk being labeled an agitator—particularly if you’re already an “outsider,” a woman, or a person of color. Keep it up, and those in positions of power can say, “I don’t need to deal with this,” and terminate you. So marginalized people are in a vicious cycle—they’re marginalized, but if they say anything about it, they could be worse off. With a different social norm that valued all viewpoints, a supervisor might say, “Thank you very much for the feedback. I’d not considered that perspective before.” But with the prevailing conflict avoidance construct, they’re more likely to just get rid of the “complainer.”

In 2017, we’re long overdue for a national process of reconciliation and reparation, but we don’t have the conflict resolution skills to conduct it. Instead, we have conflict avoidance. People of color who attempt to raise the issue are accused of inflaming racial tensions, or “playing the race card.”

The MOON: Yes, but when I mentioned “conflict avoidance” as an attribute of the dominant white culture to a white friend who is a war tax resister, he said, “Really? We have no problem waging war on people all over the world. How is that conflict avoidance?”

Irving: Right. But who’s waging war? The dominant group. Those in power don’t have to abide by the constructs; those in the dominant group can do whatever they want. There’s a complete double standard. The cultural norms are imposed on everyone else. Powerful white males can grope women and get away with it, although a black man groping a white woman would be severely dealt with.

The MOON: But it seems to me that it’s possible to be conflict avoidant, to have a sense of urgency, to prefer emotional restraint, to engage in “either/or” thinking, etc., and not engage in slavery, or wage genocide on the Native populations, or engage in perpetual war. So it seems possible that there’s something else going on.

Irving: OK, here’s another example, the Indian boarding schools: Native children either had to assimilate—“become white”—or they were punished. The insistence upon assimilation is an example of either/or thinking. You Indians, immigrants, Muslims, whomever, are either going to become like us—the dominant group—or you’re not going to be accepted. A more nuanced way of approaching cultural differences would be to think deeply about the strengths and weaknesses of each in a collaborative, complementary way and recognizing that all have value.

I want to reiterate: these are cultural traits, not biological ones. They’re not fixed or immutable. We can be white and not have them ingrained into our thinking—but to do that we first have to become aware of them so that we can choose whether we want to use them in any given situation, or not. Too often, we just fall into them reflexively and aren’t even aware that there are other ways of operating in the world.

Again, in and of themselves, none of these attributes is bad. They’re simply the rules of engagement for this culture. There are times when emotional restraint is important. There are times when a sense of urgency is warranted. There are times when it’s wise to avoid conflict. But taken as a whole, and combined with political and economic power, they’re what maintain the status quo.

The MOON: Many struggling white Americans might read this interview and say, “Yeah, she was privileged; I’m not. Her efforts to level the playing field for people of color just make it that much harder for me.” What do you say to them?



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One Response to Waking up white | An interview with Debby Irving

  1. Jean Zellweger April 5, 2017 at 5:03 pm #

    Oh Moon magazine. Would that the words of this essay were required reading for every teenage and older student of one of our “institutions of learning”! And, further, that it be a requirement to write a personal, from the heart response, regardless of whether in agreement or not with Ms. Irving’s experience. We, as a people must confront our heartless, irrational thinking and acting, denial-of-reality lifestyle or we are doomed to be cast into the wastebin of history. We have not contributed one iota of improvement to the human race. So sad. Reading the current “Moonshine” just re emphasizes my heartbreak. Thank you so much for this issue. Sending it on to several of my like minded friends. Jean Zellweger

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