What well-meaning white liberals don’t see

I was brought up to judge people by their individual qualities, and not by their race, religion, nationality, level of income or level of schooling.  I can honestly say I have made a good faith effort to do that throughout my lie.

But this is not enough.

Ignoring race, or poverty, makes me blind to the things that black people or poor people have to struggle with that I don’t.

And if I judge people, I judge them by my own criteria, which are conditioned in ways I don’t think about by my race, religion and all the rest.

I thought about this after reading Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving (2014), which is about her coming to understand how her attitudes were formed by the fact that she’s white.

She worked as an arts administrator in the Boston area, then taught in the public schools when her own children enrolled in school.  She was always bothered by the fact that, despite her good will, she never was quite able to reach the black community in her arts promotion or black students as a teacher.

This changed in 2009, when she took a course called “Racial and Cultural Identity” at Wheelock College and woke up to the reality of white privilege..

Since then she’s been on a quest to deepen her new understanding of race and share her understanding with others.   Her book is full of honest admissions of failure to understand the viewpoints of black people.

She thought nothing of going to a school principal and asking her children be assigned to a particular teacher, and never wondered why so few black parents did this.  But when she mentioned this to black parents, she found that the majority of them were unaware that this was even something you could do.

A little Haitian girl in her class frequently left her seat to help other students in their work.  Irving at first perceived this as cheating and only later came to realize that in the Haitian culture, unlike in the white American culture, children are taught to help others and not to compete.

She said the main barriers to honest black-white communication are:

  1.  Unawareness by white people of their white identity and how it shapes their values and assumptions.
  2.  The assumption by white people that overt racism and racial discrimination are a thing of the past, and that whites and blacks are now on a level playing field.
  3.   Unwillingness of “nice” white people to speak their minds frankly, for fear of giving offense or seeming foolish.
  4.   Fear of black people of bad consequences if they fail to conform to the expectations of white people.
  5.   The assumption by educated white people that they have the right, responsibility and knowledge to solve the problems of black people.
  6.   White middle-class belief in individualism, self-sufficiency and competitiveness, which leads us to disrespect those whose primary values are solidarity, community and mutual aid.

To break through these barriers, liberal white people need more humility and willingness to listen, we need to be more honest with ourselves and other people, and we need to have the courage to make fools of ourselves and admit mistakes.   The last part of her book has useful tips for white people on things to say and things not to say.

Debby Irving is doing good work.  She is painfully honest about embarrassing things she has said and done.  I have no doubt she is a nice person.

But when I first read this book, I felt dislike because of her unawareness of the ways in which she is privileged that have nothing to do with race.

Her wedding was listed on the society page of the New York Times.  On page 209, she asks readers whether they belong to a white-only country club or getting a legacy admission to a private school as examples of racial preference that benefit white people.  She was able to step seamlessly and seeming without effort from a career in arts administration to a career as a public school teacher and now a career as a “social justice educator.”

Very few white people would be in a position to do that—certainly not me, and I had a better starting point in life than probably the majority of white Americans.

Debby Irving

None of this shows up on Debby Irving’s radar.  She acknowledges that not all white people are like her culturally, or have all her advantages, but says this is unimportant in the light of the fundamental black-white divide.

I reconsidered these reservations after being a discussion of her book at First Universalist Church of Rochester, N.Y.  It was led by Tim Mullins, who was a white civil rights worker in Alabama in 1965, and Delores DaLomba, the only member of the group who identifies as black.

Some of our group were educators who’d worked with poor black children.  Some were employees with many black co-workers.   Some had taken part in the “sacred conversations” organized by local churches to bring white and black people together for honest talk.

They all liked the book, and, as far as I could tell, so did everyone in the group.  They saw themselves in Debby Irving’s story and so, on reflection, do I.

 It is true that the only people who will listen to her are the sub-set of white people who are concerned about people of color to begin with.   But that’s okay.   That’s not everything, but it’s a lot.  I won’t criticize somebody who is doing good things just because she has some major blind spots.


Debby Irving Web Site.

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One Response to “What well-meaning white liberals don’t see”

  1. Edward Says:

    I think there is an element of racism in U.S. foreign policy.


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