Book Review: Debbie Irving’s Waking Up White and Finding Myself in a Story of Race
As a life-long lover of books, it feels particularly special to stumble across a book that profoundly shifts my world view, my approach to life, or my thoughts in a new direction. Waking Up White was one such book.
As a woman from a lower-middle class family situated in the beautiful, rolling hills of North Carolina, I’ve struggled with the stereotypes I grew up with, having relationships with people of color—including a best friendship with a woman of color in college, and through a job in which I faced data and stories that clearly showed racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Before reckoning with my own race and history, I experienced the sting—the Zap Factor—of conversations with this best friend, who praised Malcom X (someone I had learned was a terrorist) and tried to explain how she was watched in stores (I wondered what she must have been doing wrong). As I read through the chapters, I found myself breathing a sigh of relief and feeling encouraged that there is a way out of racial tension. By understanding ourselves a little more fully, we can find harmony with others who are different from us; and in embracing those differences, we will co-create a future that is more successful, beautiful, and rich for all of us.
In her book Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race, self-described WASP Debby Irving recounts her liberating, yet heart-wrenching coming to terms with racism: “Racism’s ultimate grip on me came not just from my conditioning to ignore it but from the inverse story that I was told about it.”
In this memoir-like account, Irving walks readers through the process of her transformation from a white person with no racial identity to having a profound sense of her history, privilege, and role in supporting anti-racism. Rather than lecture readers on what she has learned, Irving takes us deep into her journey. Her step-by-step account allows readers to reflect on their own journeys and invites them to embark on their own personal transformations. While some readers may be offended by her criticism of white culture, Irving’s commentary provides a contrast to her long-standing perception of white culture always being “right.” She offers no critical analysis of other racial or ethnic groups. The focus is inward, self-critical, and at times, uncomfortable.
In telling her story, Irving describes key themes or revelations that are common to the white experience. Each chapter provides an insight that builds on the next. She explains the failure of “color-blindness” and how she perpetuated racism by being unaware of the benefits brought by her skin color, and writes about “Robin Hood syndrome,” defined as “‘dysfunctional rescuing,’ helping people in ways that actually disempower them.” Her numerous examples of this syndrome may help altruistic white people recognize where this may come into play in their own civic engagement or volunteerism.
Irving introduces an idea she calls the Zap Factor––the sting of discomfort and embarrassment that occurs when white people experience misunderstandings or recognize their own ignorance during cross-racial conversations. By labeling these experiences and providing concrete examples from her own life, Irving enables readers, particularly white readers, to finally understand why their interactions with people of color may be uncomfortable and seemingly unproductive.
Irving also delves into the “dominant white culture” and elucidates the values and character traits that America’s dominant white culture has retained from early colonists. While these traits may not fit every white person, the underlying message is critical: There are cultural differences that impact cross-racial interactions. White people who are cognizant of their own dominant cultural traits while being sensitive to the cultures of people they interact with, will experience a greater degree of progress and partnership.
As Irving’s recount of her own racial enlightenment progresses, she lets go of labels and tells more personal stories. Later lessons seem to be still fresh and not quite established in her vernacular or approach. She describes a moment in which it became evident that her socialization as a white person remained so embedded with cultural differences her conversations still had the power to alienate people of other races and ethnicities. At the same time, when she realizes a mistake or blunder, Irving is able to model vulnerability and transparency. Concrete examples from her own life allow readers to share in her embarrassment and confusion, while also allowing them to identify with her efforts to overcome life-long blocks to wholehearted relationships with people of other races and ethnicities.
Irving doesn’t attempt to smooth over any of her experiences, and empathetic readers will struggle, particularly if Irving’s experiences resonate with them. But the book ends with a powerful, refreshing call to action: “Self-examination and the courage to admit to bias and unhelpful inherited behaviors may be our greatest tools for change. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable enough to expose our ignorance and insecurities takes courage. And love. I believe 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.”
Waking Up Whiteis a moving story of reckoning, a kick in the pants for readers who have become discouraged or indifferent to issues of race, and a tremendous tool for the person seeking to understand and eliminate racism. It’s a story about reclaiming our humanity. When the fabrications of race are exposed for what they are (constructs of power) and what they have caused (dehumanization of people, death, injustice, and unrest), we are freed to recognize the humanity in our fellow brothers and sisters, to collectively mourn the devastation that has been caused, and to collectively build a better future that works for all of us.
Dr. Melissa Neal is a proud North Carolina native who endeavors to make a unique contribution to the world, through writing, relationships, and her work. Professionally, she is a public health expert who specializes in creating effective criminal justice systems and healthy communities. From establishing a nonprofit for justice-involved families in rural Tennessee to conducting national research and justice reform activity in Washington, D.C., she has long worked to improve the intersect between the criminal justice system and community health.
Dr. Neal obtained her doctorate in public health from East Tennessee State University. She currently works for Policy Research Associates, a national firm providing technical assistance to criminal justice and behavioral health systems. She is a commissioner on the North Carolina Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities and is a member of the Race Matters for Juvenile Justice leadership collaborative. She and her husband, with their two dog rescues—Rufus and Greyson—live in Cornelius, NC.