I didn’t think I would like Waking Up White: Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving. On the surface, Irving’s story felt very different from mine. She grew up in an upper middle class suburb in the Northeast; I was raised in a poor neighborhood in Little Rock that was largely African-American. She writes about “stepping out of a dream” and realizing that the black people she knew lived in a more challenging world than she would ever face. My street was visceral evidence of those two worlds’ paradoxical nearness and ignorance of each other. Though the children played in an easy-going pack and went to school together, the adults of different races didn’t interact socially.
The white people on my block were shameful to me. They parked old cars in the yard and worked under the hoods until they got tired or distracted; two old Buicks rested on concrete blocks for years. Guns were stacked in corners or left on the dining table, while toddlers ran around in disposable diapers. No one had air conditioning, so my siblings and I often went to sleep to the sounds of yelling next door. Everyone knew when things fell apart in our house, too.
The people I respected were black. Tim Jordan and I created “long division races” with our math homework between rounds of tetherball on the playground. His mom said if there was food in it, we could always eat from the pot on the stove. Many evenings, Earl Westbrook, my brother, and I shot baskets until it was too dark to see the hoop nailed to a tree in his back yard. A broken pipe regularly flushed water across the dirt, so the ball bounced pretty well on it. Earl’s grandmother told me I was a “back door friend” and I knew that was good. Yvette lived across the alley and became my first girlfriend.
But when my siblings and I were bussed across town to the “white schools,” the intimacy we’d woven on Welch Street began to fray. My brother and I were so focused on rising from a bad situation, we didn’t question the academic tracking that segregated our classes. The school bus grew so chaotic that we walked all those miles home, which robbed us of time with old friends. Our neighborhood grew increasingly dangerous as “urban renewal” freeways cut us off from parks, schools, grocery stores, and the fire station. If a house caught fire across the street, it burned down. If a gang appropriated your front porch, you stopped using that door and came in the back.
It was years before I had language for it, but we were all in various ways being warped by systems of prejudice and racism. I came to understand early on that with the right pair of Levi’s and a good haircut, I could pass for middle class across town, but it took me a while to see that Tim and Earl and Yvette couldn’t so easily escape. I worked hard, but so did they. Why didn’t we all equally rise? Racism, I learned, was bigger than individual relationships, and its wounding couldn’t be healed only by good intentions. The system of lies that says White is good and Black is bad has to be disassembled, and that takes truth-telling and action and courage.
Irving writes, “Waking Up White is the book I wish someone had handed me years ago. My hope is that by sharing my sometimes cringe-worthy struggle to understand racism and racial tensions, I offer a fresh perspective on bias, stereotypes, manners, and tolerance. As I unpack my own long-held beliefs about colorblindness, being a good person, and wanting to help people of color, I reveal how each of these well-intentioned mindsets actually perpetuated my ill-conceived ideas about race.” Waking Up White is not a perfect book, but it is an important tool that I believe we can use at Redeemer, especially as we are equipped here for the work of healing and reconciliation.
I invite you to read the book with me during the season of Lent. You can finish it in one sitting, or you can go at it more slowly, inviting each chapter to settle into you. There are thoughtful questions that Irving provides at the end of each section, and I recommend that you get a notebook and write down your answers to them, too. We’ll gather two times over the next few weeks to talk about the book and what the experience of reading it has been like for us: Sunday March 15, chapters 1-28, and Sunday, April 5, chapters 29-46.
The good news is that everyone can do something to loosen racism’s hold on America. What can we do together?
Finding comfort with needles in basements might make you think of an episode in The Wire. But here’s a real story that puts a different twist on “needles in basements” here in Baltimore …
A quiet circle gathered around the light of a candle, in the basement of a building on Chase Street in east Baltimore. Some folks were retired; some, residents of north Baltimore. Others were full-time seekers, navigating their way out of the darkness of homelessness and addiction. All were women.
Weeks before, they had gathered together around candlelight and shared what caused them to feel worried, anxious and stressed. Concern about loved ones was a common refrain; anxiety about the unknown, another.
But on this particular Thursday afternoon, they came not so much to share their worries, but to find comfort and a sense of peace.
A local acupuncturist had been invited, so each woman in the circle could experience the benefits of her ancient healing practice; acupuncture uses extremely fine needles (about the thickness of 2 human hairs) inserted at specific points in the body to release and unblock our bodies’ vital energy or “chi”.
For many in the circle, this was a new experience. Some were afraid and found courage and support among the others who were willing to try. One in the circle declined, and was supported in her decision.
The healer took time with each woman in the circle to listen to her needs, before placing the needles. Reflecting back on the experience, one woman remembers “feeling the calming presence in the room as we all settled into silence for about 30 minutes … and then the animated conversation [afterwards] as everyone discussed how it made them feel: energized, stress-free, peaceful.”
Another woman writes: “For me the overwhelming sense of oneness with the women and the holy spirit washed over us as we sat together. To hear one of the women say that she had not felt so relaxed in five years brought tears to our eyes. Soul met soul, heart met heart in a holy space that day.”
Next Thursday they will gather in that same basement again, this time with sewing needles, to stuff and finish off pre-stitched pillows they will give to preemies in the NICU of a local hospital.
Healing and peace, comfort and hope, a circle of women, with needles in a basement.
The Architect was born almost a century ago at the confluence of three rivers in Washington State, where nature carved a perfect spot for trout. “Not so good for humans, though,” he told me, because the land is hard and isolated. Four distinct trails led Native Americans to and from the fresh water and food there, but over the centuries only a handful of people ever put down roots. His family left quickly, as well, following his physician father to Spokane, where a hospital had been built for homeless patients, the aged, and orphan children. The building was a Beaux Arts castle, with tall ceilings and big windows that invited light and air into lives that had known little of either. “I saw the gift that order can bring to chaos,” he told me.
The Architect came east to study art and planning, convinced that thoughtful design could improve people’s lives. Years later he wrote a letter of thanks to his alma mater. “We have been given more than we have paid, regardless of who took care of the bills: ourselves, our parents, some scholarship fund.” We owe our school a debt of thanks, he said. We owe thanks to the people and places that raised us. “As Americans, too, we have been given more than we paid… As humans, same picture. We have been given a magnificent world, for which we paid nothing,” a gift “we hold in trust for future generations.”
He and his young wife moved to Baltimore in 1952, excited by the energy of the city and the opportunity to shape spaces of healing and hope. Over the next half century he designed psychiatry units, radiation clinics, cardiology suites, children’s surgery centers, and entire buildings for three Baltimore hospitals. In every one he wondered, “Will the space I draw help people feel better?” Even small decisions were rooted in this vision: “what facilities are needed on a particular floor and where are they best placed, are the closets sized for a child or an adult, is the wall color what I would pick for my home, and how do I get heating and cooling to the nurses’ station?” We are trustees of the times in which we live and of the places where that living takes place, he said. “How can we make the most of it?”
From our first meeting, the Architect called me Boss. “Good morning, Boss,” he’d say as he walked into church, or “That was a humdinger, Boss,” after a service that particularly moved him. When we met for lunch, he’d say to the waitress, “The Boss and I would like to sit near the window,” and when his wife of 60 years was failing, he would whisper in her ear, “The Boss has come to pray with us.”
One day I asked him about the title he had given me. He said, “The best architects figure out that they are servants—to their clients, certainly, but more than that, to the spirit of an organization and to the work their physical structures are meant to enable and support. We are paid to solve problems,” he told me, “and I hope I have done that by listening and looking for the order and beauty that come out of a messy situation naturally, rather than imposing my own design on it. The Spirit will reveal the most elegant solution, I believe, if we pay close attention.” He grew quiet, and then looked up from his soup. “All I’m building now is a way to heaven, Boss, so I am bringing my design questions to you.”
Sometimes he wrote out what he was thinking. “This is a worrisome time in which we live, but it is also an exciting time. If you think back into history, I am sure that the Renaissance was a warlike and worrisome time to the people living then, and look what they produced! I don’t presume to understand humanity, but one thing seems clear: adversity invites us to rise.”
The Architect rose himself, on a summer day two years ago. A week before that, he said he was looking forward to his new address. “Tough as it is for so many folks in Baltimore, I know Jesus spends a lot of time here. I’m hoping he feels like an old friend.”