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?