Waking up white | An interview with Debby Irving

I think about reparations much more broadly today. I think about it in terms of, for example, education. One thing we could easily do today is to give every child in the country the same baseline budget for public education. Having school budgets tied to property values is crazy, in my opinion. It perpetuates inequality. I also think reparations are possible at the university level. Georgetown University, for example, has announced plans to offer preferential admission to descendants of the slaves whose labor enriched the university—just as they do to children and grandchildren of alumni. The university has stopped short of saying it will offer scholarships, and who knows to what extent it will conduct outreach to those prospective students, but acknowledging the debt is, in itself, a step in the right direction.

I don’t think true healing is possible without reparations. The details can be worked out, but so far we haven’t even had a national conversation on this topic—primarily because of the myths of white superiority and a level playing field, which mean that those who have risen to the top got there solely by virtue of their abilities. But if we can’t even talk about it, we’ll never get anywhere. And we can’t talk about it because most white power brokers refuse to.

I also think that financial reparations without some kind of “truth and reconciliation” healing process would be incomplete; just as I think that a truth and reconciliation healing process would be incomplete without financial reparations.

The MOON: I feel as if many white people have a difficult time saying they’re sorry, or admitting we’re wrong. Do you think that’s true?

Irving: There’s definitely a resistance in our culture to admitting we’re wrong, and I think it’s related to the “rugged individualism” myth. If we truly have to survive and succeed on our own, then mistakes can be very costly; even fatal. The pressure on each one of us to be right at all times; to be perfect; is enormous. That’s very different from saying, “We’re all human; we’re all flawed; let’s feel the deep feelings of remorse together; pick ourselves up and move on together.” Instead, we’re defensive, which is a trait of the white dominant culture.

I also think that deep down many of us have—rightly—soaked up some feelings of guilt and shame, which instead of acknowledging, we’ve repressed and denied. I’ve learned from my friends of color that white people are generally viewed as being more invested in protecting their position, their ego, than making a deep connection. So yes, all of those things would make it more difficult for us to collectively apologize.

The MOON: I do believe there’s guilt and shame. If our country was founded on the genocide of Native Americans and slavery, and if we refuse to even hear about any ongoing injustice, it’s as if we’re afraid it would be overwhelming. That’s something Trae Crowder, “the liberal redneck,” says characterizes his fellow “rednecks”–that they suffer from a strange combination of pride and shame. They’re deeply proud, but also deeply embarrassed. Yet acknowledging the sins of the past and apologizing could be another piece of the liberation you talk about. It’s actually not that difficult to say, “My people have been on the wrong side of history, and I’m sorry!” It at least starts the conversation.

Irving: This is another “both/and” opportunity. It’s true that I did not create this problem, and it’s true that I’ve benefited from it. And I have a choice now: what am I going to do about it now that I know? Am I going to try to be a part of addressing the system of inequality, or am I going to put my head in the sand and pretend it’s not my doing?

By the way, as an elementary school teacher I can tell you that shame and pride are part of the bullying profile. The biggest bullies are the people who are most deeply hurt. Does this happen at a group level, as well?

The MOON: It’s hard to see how, as a group, white people have been hurt.

Irving: Unless they’re hurting from shame.

The MOON: Oh yeah.

It’s true that I did not create this problem, and it’s true that I’ve benefited from it. What am I going to do about it now that I know?

Irving: I recently listened on NPR to an interview with a woman who studies people who’ve been recruited into ISIS and then defected. Hearing them talk about the experience of having to harm another person, what it did to their soul, she’s learned that people in this situation generally either harden themselves and become more ruthless, or they’ll decide they can’t bear it and will risk their lives to escape to avoid harming others.

It cannot be good for the soul for us to continue to disenfranchise other people.

The MOON: You mentioned skills in holding a difficult conversation, but I find that I am way more afraid of conversations with angry white people than I am with people of color. And I confess that I’m not even curious about why they feel the way they do; it’s so painful to even hear.

Irving: I agree with you. One of the ways I feel that pain is when I’m out speaking and someone will intentionally show up to challenge me. But even when I’m reading—and I make it a point to read viewpoints that disagree with mine so that I know what’s going on across the political and cultural spectrum—it can be really painful; my heart starts to pound. But I think it’s important to do it. I’m getting used to the idea of engaging people whose views are diametrically opposed to mine—not to prove them wrong, but so that I can figure out what they do believe; where they’re coming from and why. We’ve got such a divide in our country and it’s charged with so much fear and animosity, that if I really am committed to unity, love, and healing, then I’ve got to work just as hard at reaching out to those people as I do anybody. People of color can’t be expected to do it. It’s white people who need to do it.

That said, I’m not calling up right-wing organizations and asking if I can come and speak to them, so I’m not “walking my talk” as boldly as I might. But if a white supremacist, say, shows up to where I’m already speaking, or sends me an email, I will engage there. I will completely let go of my agenda and just ask questions: “What is so upsetting to you about this?” “What have your experiences been?” “What is the first time you met a person of color?” You know those questions at the end of each chapter of my book? Those are great questions to ask people in situations like this.

It’s important to understand that every one of us believes what we believe just as vigorously as the next person. We can’t see what the other person believes; it’s inside us. We can make assumptions, but we can’t know; so we have to have conversations. And it’s much more complicated in 2017 than it was 50-100 years ago because we’re all fueling our belief systems with our own custom-tailored media diet.

I also have to ask myself, “Why am I so afraid of this (hypothetical) conversation? My heart is beating fast; my face is turning red. What am I afraid is going to happen?” Exploring that within myself is important, too.

The MOON: And have you found any answers?

Irving: [Laughs] That I’m afraid of not being liked. I don’t know enough about neurophysiology to say this with certainty, but I think that all of us have a deep human need to belong; to not be ostracized. When we start getting signals that our tribe may not like us, that they may be thinking about rejecting us, it sets off some pretty deep, primitive alarms. We have to treat these alarms the same way that people who get panic attacks have to consciously remind themselves, “Okay, I’m really not in a life-threatening situation right now. This panic I’m feeling is just old biological programming, and I can use my conscious mind to override it.” We can remind ourselves, “If this person hates me, or calls me names, or gives me a hard time, I’m still going to be okay.”

The MOON: It takes a toll, though.

Irving: It does, but like anything we get accustomed to, we can grow around it. Every one of us can grow tolerance around this type of discomfort. Imagine the lack of choice people of color have had about growing this kind of tolerance. Think about the countless times they’ve had to ask themselves, “Is this someone I can trust being my honest self around?” and knowing that, more often than not, it probably isn’t. Yet they still have to get up and maybe go to work every day with this person. Or encounter them at the grocery store. Or the bank. Or in their child’s classroom. That is the history of being a person of color in this country. So, engaging angry whites who disagree with us is an opportunity to experience empathy, as well: “Holy cow, is this what it feels like to be this afraid every day and not show it? And not provoke a violent response, but instead say, ‘Yes, sir;’ ‘Yes, ma’am’?”

A Chinese man told me a strategy he had learned growing up: “When you see a white person, just shine them on.” I’d never heard that expression before, but it means, “Just smile; look happy; make them feel good about themselves; and hope they get out of your way as soon as possible.”

The MOON: That’s terrible.

Irving: It is. And most of us—I’m talking about white people—don’t want it to be this way, but we haven’t taken it upon ourselves to change it.

The MOON: No. We don’t want to give up our comfort. We want—I want—to be considered good, without summoning the courage that good people like Martin Luther King demonstrated—and was killed for. I get scared about something as trivial as sharing political posts on Facebook.

Irving: It helps me to think about someone like Rachel Maddow, who is outspoken on television every single day. She is not just outspoken, she’ll even be snarky. Start noticing people who have the courage to speak out and tap into their courage. And also notice how you feel when someone else is willing to speak out. Don’t you feel relieved; reassured? Don’t you think, “Yes! That’s what I was thinking.” So remind yourself that, if you’re feeling a certain way, there are maybe hundreds of people around you—if you’re a public person, there might be millions—who also feel the same way, and draw courage from them. Courage is contagious. And the more we act courageously, the more we build a muscle around it.

The MOON:  Are you aware of the work of Trae Crowder, “the liberal redneck”? He’s a comedian from Tennessee who goes after conservative culture in a very aggressive, fiery, confrontational, rude—and hilarious—way, and I have to wonder whether he isn’t much more effective at reaching other “rednecks” than I am in my polite, educated, wimpy way. Which is ironic, because I’m generally appalled by the name-calling and disrespect you see online. Of course, Trae has more latitude to address “rednecks” because he is one.

Irving: Absolutely!  Are you familiar with the work of Tim Wise? He’s a longtime white, anti-racist educator. He is also fiery, but his forte is data. He’s got the reams of facts to back up everything he says. And white supremacists do go after him, as a result. But there is a place for Trae Crowder and Tim Wise in this effort, and there’s a place for you, and a place for me—the kinder, gentler, middle-aged white ladies. We all bring different voices that will speak more effectively to different audiences. We do it based on our personality and upbringing, and that’s another thing we grow into: we find our voice. That’s another gift this journey has given me. I had no voice. I could barely spit three words out that were truly my own, or that didn’t inadvertently say something I didn’t really mean. Finding our voice is available to each of us. It’s just a matter of practice.

I’ve learned that there is no separation between the work we do on behalf of social justice and the work we do in our own relationships. My tendency to make assumptions; my tendency to be defensive; my tendency to not be more curious about where another person is coming from—all of those behaviors that I’ve had to re-examine in light of this racial justice work have resulted in changes that have benefited my personal relationships too. As I’ve learned to approach situations differently in my public life, I’ve learned to approach them differently in my personal life, as well. So my marriage is stronger; my relationships with my children are stronger; our whole family culture has shifted. I feel that I’m becoming a more functional human being, and certainly a happier one.

And, I will say that there has been a lot of unhappiness along the way of my getting from there to here, because I had a lot of grieving to do to leave behind my ideas of who I was and what this country is. I’ll never let go of my ideals about what this country can be, but those ideals aren’t reflected in what we have been. I was thinking about this the other night. I’ve never been divorced, but I have gone through a very painful break-up, so I know that it can be really difficult to get closure around that loss; that pain. But there’s a whole new chapter ahead, which that relationship and that break-up delivered you to. I can’t imagine still being the old me, or what life would be like if I hadn’t started living it with eyes wide open.

The MOON: You end your book with a beautiful statement: “The most loving thing a person, or a group of people, can do for another is to examine the ways in which their own insecurities and assumptions interfere with others’ ability to thrive.” You had to undertake this examination…What have been the obstacles and rewards?

Irving: Although I call myself a racial justice writer and educator, my end game is human potential. And I believe that there is nothing more soul-crushing than racism, because there is nothing its victims can do to change the race they were born into. And, ironically, racism also crushes the soul of its perpetrators—willing or not.

The last chapter of my book is called “Reclaiming my humanity,” in reference to the deep personal spiritual work that is called for here. Of all the shocking pieces of the waking up process, I was perhaps most shocked to realize that the culture I grew up in really dulled very natural gifts that everyone is born with: curiosity, compassion, eagerness to get up every day and explore the world. This dulling is accomplished through cultural norms such as conflict avoidance—“don’t rock the boat,” “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” which rob us of curiosity; emotional restraint—which cuts us off from our full humanity; “individualism,” the idea that we’re able to achieve on our own, and that we’re not beholden to and connected to each other, to name just three. Think about the classrooms of the 1960s and ‘70s—all the students in their little isolated desks, being graded on their individual performance, reinforcing the idea that each one will succeed or fail on his or her own. All three of these cultural norms caused stress in me, disconnecting me from the deepest part of my own human spirit.

Instead of asking questions and being curious, I was trained to raise my hand and have the right answer: to “show what I know.” I cannot say enough about the liberation that this journey of racial awakening has given me. It’s a journey that can be undertaken by anyone, of any ethnic, cultural, or racial background, with liberation—for self and others—as its reward. For me, even though I had a lot of material and psychological advantages, I was disadvantaged in the way I was disconnected from my own heart and soul. To be able to be vulnerable, to say, “I don’t know. What was the name of that historical act you just mentioned? I never heard of it,” without being terrified that someone was going to say, “What do you mean you never heard of it?!”

It’s an unbelievable relief to go through life without feeling this immense pressure to be perfect, to be right, to have all the answers. I want it for everybody, because I’ve seen individuals and communities change when they let go of that pressure to “know it all” and instead be willing to just be human and figure things out together. I can have conversations that might be awkward, or even tense, but I’ve learned conversational skills that help me make it through difficult conversations so that I don’t have to be terrified of conflict. That’s empowering too. So, there’s a really deep grounding liberation that’s a part of this journey. When people ask why should white people care, that’s the reason I give. There are moral reasons; there are socioeconomic reasons to live in a society where everyone is thriving; but if you need a personal, self-interested reason, this is it: freeing yourself from the cultural norms that hold the whole scheme in place.

As matters now stand, we’re rendering people useless by marginalizing them, poorly educating them, incarcerating them, discriminating against them. But homogeneity is a recipe for less innovation; for repetition of the status quo. Diversity maximizes our options and possibilities. Valuing each other in all of our differences expands the pie, unleashes human potential for all of us. We all benefit.


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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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