Debby Irving on power, privilege, anti-racism

In the “land of the free”, systemic racism existed

Waking Up WhiteOn the first weekend in May, I attended workshops power two days on the topic Power, Privilege, and Anti-Racism, sponsored by Capital District Intersectional Feminists, the YWCA and Helens Against Racism.

Debby Irving, author of Waking Up White (2014) initiated the conversation. There are several people in my church, most of them white, who have read her book for the adult education class. I have yet not done so.

The first part was Debby Irving’s story, how she grew up in an upper-middle-class enclave in New England, all but bereft of any people of color. So she could live in her bubble, believing the American myth of justice for all and the TV show Father Knows Best.

It wasn’t until she took a class in 2009 that discovered “white people [were] being kept in a clueless state of what racism is, how it operates, and how it shapes our perspective.”

As I’m told she mentioned in the book, she was shocked to discover that the GI Bill, which helped so many veterans after World War II get homes, was often bypassed black soldiers.

Part of the issue was a concept called redlining. Irving specifically cited Richard Rothstein’s 2017 book The Color of Law, which “examines the local, state and federal housing policies that mandated segregation.

“He notes that the Federal Housing Administration, which was established in 1934, furthered the segregation efforts by refusing to insure mortgages in and near African-American neighborhoods — a policy known as ‘redlining.’ At the same time, the FHA was subsidizing builders who were mass-producing entire subdivisions for whites — with the requirement that none of the homes be sold to African-Americans.”

Thus, in the “land of the free”, systemic racism existed. Buying a home meant capital that could be passed on to others. (I had wondered why my dad, WWII vet, lived in a rented home owned by his mother-in-law until 1972.)

Note that Debby Irving’s book is Waking Up White. This is not some flip on Black Like Me. It’s that she has continued to learn since her book was published. She knew nothing about the “Tulsa riots”, which I wrote about three years ago, until recently.

She’d be the last person to say she was “woke”, that she’s got it all together. She admitted that in 2014, there were a number of famous people including Frederick Douglass and Angela Davis she was unaware of. Even she, who was born c. 1960, wondered, “How could I NOT know who Angela Davis is?”

When we broke into discussion groups, there were some apparently “woke” white people who thought the same thing, which frankly irritated me. She owned up to it, and I’ve discovered that you know what you know.

There’s a lot more to unpack here, perhaps at another time, but check out Debby Irving – resources.