Posts Tagged ‘Debby Irving’

Finding myself in the story of race

March 22, 2018

As a young newspaper reporter just starting out in the early 1960s, I once found myself covering the same event as a reporter for the Baltimore Afro-American.

He remarked to me that he was a member of the “black press” and I was a member of the “white press.”

I didn’t say anything, but I thought he was mistaken.  He served the black community of Baltimore; I served the entire community around Hagerstown, Md.

But then, as I thought about it, I recalled that not one black person was employed in my newsroom, and probably never had been.  In fact, not one black person worked in the entire building, and that was true for the entire time I worked there.

Having achieved this insight, I promptly forgot it.   It never occurred to me to raise the issue.

I wrote in favor of civil rights and against racial discrimination whenever the opportunity arose during my 40 years on newspapers.

But there were weeks, maybe months, at a time when I never thought about race or myself being white.   If I weren’t white, I wouldn’t be able to do that.   Awareness of racial attitudes would be a survival skill that I wouldn’t be able to do without.

I thought about this after reading Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving, a liberal white women from Massachusetts whose aim is to make other white people more self-aware.

Her accounts of her limitations and misunderstandings have been “cringe-worthy” by reviewers, but as I look back on my own life, I think my well-meaning blunders were as cringe-worthy as hers.

∞∞∞

Debby Irving wrote that the cultural values of middle-class white people make us unable to understand poor people or black people.

I learned the truth of this 15 or so years ago when I undertook to be a chauffeur for Bernice Cook, a poor black member of my church.  She lacked a car and so depended in public transportation to go shopping or keep medical appointments.   Things that I could do in an hour with a car took her the best part of a day without one.

We got to know each other fairly well.  I experienced culture shock the first time Bernice asked me for money.  I was taught as a boy that the one thing you must never, ever do is to ask people for money, except maybe for blood relatives and then only in the direst emergency.

The reason I felt I had no moral right to ask anyone for money is that I recognized no moral obligation to give money to others in need.  My assumption was that everybody ought to be able to look out for themselves.

Bernice’s day-to-day life was a continuing series of emergencies.   She was poor and she did not hoard resources.  She was willing to share everything she had with others in crisis, and so she had a moral right to ask for help from others.

Actually, she lived by the ethic of the Gospels, which is to give to those in need and take no thought of the morrow.  Many poor people are like that.   Come to think of it, the pagan Romans sneered at Christianity as a religion of slaves, poor people and women.

Living by the teachings of Jesus is not feasible for me as a middle-class person.  I could not do it and continue to be middle-class.  The best I can do is to live by the ethic of the Stoics—do my duty, keep my promises, tell the truth (or at least refrain from lying) and not whine about it.

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What well-meaning white liberals don’t see

March 21, 2018

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.

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