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Debby Irving

In 2009, Debby Irving ’83 signed up for a graduate-level class at Wheelock College, called “Racial and Cultural Identity.” At the time she was working as an elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and she was struggling to understand why people lived so differently along racial lines. She hoped taking this course would help her connect in more meaningful ways with students, families and colleagues from different backgrounds; instead, it helped her connect, for the first time, with her own whiteness.

Prior to that course, Irving had thought of herself as being a member of the “normal” or “default” race, and that, she quickly realized, was her biggest problem. So she embarked on a continuing quest to wake up, fully, to the realities of race relations in America, including her own privilege and complicity. Irving chronicled her journey away from racial ignorance in her 2014 memoir, “Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race,” and now works full-time as a racial justice educator and writer.

Bulletin editor Elizabeth Weinstein spoke with Irving about her work, her Kenyon experience and why it’s important to talk more about race and whiteness — especially in polite company.

In your book, you recall Kenyon being “almost exclusively white” when you attended. Tell me about your memories of Kenyon in terms of race, and conversations around race.

Kenyon was very much like my childhood town (Winchester, Massachusetts), and the whole world I had lived in. I describe these environments, and the eras I experienced them in, as white bubbles, although I would never have described them that way at the time — they were just “wholesome” institutions and locations. (In my home), we had an explicit saying that in polite company you don't talk about politics and religion. The thing about not talking about politics and religion is that you can't begin to understand racism, sexism, homophobia, white supremacy or any of those things if you don't talk about politics and religion, because they are foundational to the construction of all of it.

At Kenyon, which was populated primarily by people from backgrounds similar to mine at the time, there were courses about religion and politics, but they weren’t taught through a racial lens. I was a history major and am appalled that my real history education began only eight or nine years ago. I first learned, at Kenyon and everywhere, a whitewashed history that was filled with myths and omissions. Kenyon is no different from any other educational institution that I have set foot on; this issue is a part of our larger society. Our TV shows, books, movies and our educations are all steeped in a narrow narrative.

Why focus on whiteness, specifically?

The way I think about whiteness is not just the skin color, or the optics of whiteness but as a whole set of cultural attitudes, behaviors, customs and norms that make up a culture. Whiteness is the culture that all of us in the U.S. have been socialized within. We have to know these norms in order to show up in ways that are acceptable in our institutions and public spaces. … Curiosity is one of the most powerful bridges we have to one another as human beings — individual to individual, group to group, people to ideas, ideas to ideas. We live in a really judgmental society. Judgment discourages curiosity and is fueled by other white cultural norms including conflict avoidance and emotional restraint, because if we can't engage in conflict, we are left in our separate camps, free to imagine all these things about what other people are thinking, and what their motivations are.

You often speak at schools that are working to prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion. What are some common challenges you've seen arise as part of that process?

When institutions start to embark on diversity initiatives, often, the objective is to populate the space differently — to make sure there are a range of ethnicities, a range of socioeconomic and religious backgrounds, a range of abilities. The problem with that is that when you think about it, plantations were diverse. So it isn't just about who populates the space: It's about who controls the space. And controlling the space is done through policies and practices, and through everyday behaviors.

Institutions are becoming very supportive of students of color — they are increasing the numbers of diverse students and faculty and administrators, adding support services and building spaces for them to gather. But what is not happening is an equal effort to help the students who come from positions of power and privilege understand how they are continuing to create a space that feels anywhere from unwelcoming to unsafe. It's crucial that we support people from marginalized groups, but the whole reason you have to do it is because the dominant culture of the institution has created harm. So, why don't we go to the dominant culture and say, “how are we creating harm, and how can … reduce the harm and the need for safe spaces?”

The problem is that when you talk to people with power and privilege, often their first response is, "I don't have any power or privilege! Are you trying to make me feel guilty?" And that will shut it down.

Guilt is a word that enters these conversations a lot.

With guilt, what I have learned to do is just feel it, explore it and let go. It will always give way and the beautiful thing is that on the other side of guilt and shame is a (learning opportunity). Do you want to wake up to what it means to be white in America? Explore your guilt and shame long enough to get to the other side. That's when the world changes.

How can we communicate across generations in a way that moves us forward?

There are three things we can start doing right now. One: Be curious. Judgment is a reflexive habit. We are rewarded for having strong opinions that are often very judgy. When you are curious, though, what is your number one tool? A question. The more we ask questions, the more we get away from blame, shame and attacking, and we also start to really understand another person's position.

Two: seek multiple perspectives about what has happened in the past, what we are experiencing right now and what we are envisioning for the future. Oftentimes, we will listen to another person's perspective while judging it the entire time, so, by the time that person is done talking, you already have an argument about why everything they just said is wrong. Suspending your own reality while listening to someone else's perspective takes practice.

Three: Have the courage to get into a conversation and stay in it, no matter how uncomfortable you get. Stay in it without lashing out, without judging and without needing a quick solution. And be willing to say something "stupid" or "offensive." We white people too often utterly lack courageous conversation skills due to our training in the dominant white culture. Courageous conversation involves slowing things down, learning to take care of ourselves and containing our own emotional discomfort (without repressing it).

I was in a workshop with 50 people and we were each asked to write down our definition of racism. Guess how many different definitions came out of a room of 50 people? Forty-nine. Instead of taking a label and becoming so reactive to it, if we use that moment to go deeper, everything will change.

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