Person of the Week
‘Waking Up White’ Author Debby Irving Kicks Off Blackstone’s ‘Awakening to Change’ Series
Branford’s James Blackstone Library presents a new lecture series, Awakening to Change, which kicks off Monday, Jan. 25 at 7 p.m. with a talk by Debby Irving, author of Waking up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race. To register and receive a meeting link, visit blackstonelibrary.org. (Photo courtesy of Debby Irving )
“I was age 48 when I started really waking up. How did I go half a century like that?” asks racial justice educator and writer Debby Irving, author of the award winning book, Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race.
Last August, Branford’s James Blackstone Memorial Library received an overwhelmingly positive response from community members who tuned in to a remarkable discussion about growing up black in Branford, as an effort to give a perspective to others following the nation’s summer of civil unrest and the Black Lives Matter movement’s call for action and awakening. The talk was given by Branford Tax Collector and resident Roberta Gill-Brooks in conversation with former state representative Lonnie Reed.
That talk has now inspired “Awakening to Change,” a new library lecture series that kicks off on Monday, Jan. 25 at 7 p.m. with Debby as its featured speaker during a virtual event. Following the talk, a question and answer session with Debby will be moderated by Gill-Brooks and Reed.
Published in 2014, Waking Up White is perhaps more timely than ever as it continues sharing Debby’s effort to wake up White Americans to hidden truths about racism and work to change how they think about race, to help bring about a more just world.
“The last six years, for me, have been like concentric circles,” says Debby of the way her book’s message continues rippling out to reach new audiences.
“Every time there’s an elevated racial event, and that includes the [Jan. 6, 2021] storming of the Capitol, interest in my book, and my work, and the work of books like mine, soars,” says Debby.
Debby undertakes about 90 events a year like the one planned for Branford. In doing her homework before each event, she has an advance discussion with the hosts and also asks them to complete a questionnaire sharing what they want her to know about their community or group, and why Debby’s discussion makes sense for that audience during the snapshot in time she’ll be visiting with them.
“I can tell you, across the country, the questionnaires look strikingly similar,” says Debby. “Because we’re all dealing with the same issues of, if I had to sum it up, it’s how our White cluelessness—and not that we’re stupid, but that we were socialized away from really understanding how this issue works—harms people of color in our community [and] how it perpetuates racism.”
In her book, Debby points directly to herself as being raised in a fog of White cluelessness and shares cultural and class assumptions she learned growing up, creating a thought-provoking view of common experiences that resonates with many readers.
Speaking with The Sound, she shares one way of thinking she studied that can be embedded, with practice, when considering the issue of racism or any form of oppression. It’s called the Four I’s: intrapersonal, interpersonal, institutional, and ideological.
“It’s happening at the four levels, simultaneously,” says Debby of the thought process.
An intrapersonal review considers about how racism lives in the individual, or, as Debby describes it, “what’s my bias, what’s my prejudice, what’s the interior conversations I have with myself?”
Interpersonal involves thinking about, “how does this form of oppression show up between two people or between groups?” she explains.
“The third ‘I’ is institutional—how does a form of oppression show up in our institutional policies, practices, traditions, customs?” Debby continues. “And the fourth ‘I’ stands for ideological, and that’s really how we tell the story—what are the big ideas? Ideological can be [telling the story that] we are the best country on earth [or] people of color are threatening, and less human and dangerous and lazy, all those stereotypes.”
If you take the time to recognize it, you can do something about it, Debby says. Debby also worked with other professionals to develop several 21-Day Challenges, racial equity habit-building challenges involving taking one action per day for 21 days to do the work to make a change.
“It is learned, so it can be unlearned,” says Debby. “And yet the unlearning process is so much harder than we think it would be. You can have this vision in your mind, you can commit to it, but the actual day-to-day doing is sort of a process of trying it, and realizing where you fall short, and trying again.”
Coming to a Realization
Debby worked as a community organizer and classroom teacher for 25 years before she began her journey toward understanding racism as a systemic issue, and how growing up White in a sheltered world had prevented her from gaining that understanding.
At her website, debbyirving.com, she writes, “I was raised in Winchester [Massachusetts] during the socially turbulent 1960s and ‘70s. After a blissfully sheltered, upper-middle-class suburban childhood, I found myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by the racial divide I observed in Boston. From 1984 to 2009 my work in urban neighborhoods and schools left me feeling helpless. Why did people live so differently along racial lines? Why were student outcomes so divergent? Why did I get so jumpy when talking to a person of color? Where did the fear of saying something stupid or offensive come from, and why couldn’t I make it go away? The more I tried to understand racial dynamics, the more confused I became. I knew there was an elephant in the room, I just didn’t know it was me!”
Debby says a graduate school course she took in 2009, Racial and Cultural Identities, was the key to her awakening and to her intent to awaken others who can also work toward changing inherent beliefs.
“It requires really deep work,” says Debby. “And I think when it comes to racism, there is this idea that my entire identity is wrapped up in being a good person. And that’s why the name of my talk is, ‘I’m a good person. Isn’t that enough?’”
Debby says that concept was very much not only her identity, but her extended family’s identity, as well.
“So what I really had to learn is that it is possible to be a good person and to do unbelievable racial harm, just because we don’t understand how we play into the system of racism,” she says.
“I thought race and racism was a problem that lived in Black and brown communities. And because I’m a ‘good person,’ I wanted to ‘help’ and ‘fix.’ So I came from what’s called the ‘White savior’ mindset,” Debby continues. “And yet here we are, all these White people across the world, not just the United States, suddenly waking up to [recognize] we are smack in the middle of this story. Racism was invented by White people to oppress people of color in order to protect [and] benefit these people that we call White.”
As Debby points out, however, that realization is not new. Back in 1968, a national advisory group, the Kerner Commission, found that institutional racism, oppressive poverty, and other forms of systemic racism were to blame for the inner city riots rocking the country between 1965 and 1968.
“So it isn’t a brand new idea. It’s just that White people are so resistant to it,” says Debby. “I mean, how great it would be for people to say, ‘If I’m a part of the problem, that means I get to be a part of the solution. Tell me how, sign me up now! I want to live in a just world.’ And yet that isn’t the reaction that most White people have.”
Branford’s James Blackstone Library presents a new lecture series, Awakening to Change, which kicks off Monday, Jan. 25 at 7 p.m. with a talk by Debby Irving, author of Waking Up White. To register and receive a meeting link, visit blackstonelibrary.org. A limited number of copies of Irving’s book are available for borrowing from the library; call 203-488-1441 extension 318 to learn more. The Awakening to Change series is made possible by BCTV, the Blackstone Library, and Branford Community Foundation.