Saturday, June 24, 2017

Care to Join Me?

For the last several years, I have been exploring race, prejudice, privilege, bias, and my role and assumptions in all of that. My reading list has included Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, Jim Wallis' America's Original Sin, Reverend Dr. William Barber's The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of the New Justice Movement, Bill Bishop's The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, and Robert Jone's The End of White Christian America. But of all my reading, no book has touched me more personally or more deeply than Debby Irving's Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race

OMG! Let me say it again, OMG!

Born in 1960, the youngest of five children, Debby Irving grew up in an upper middle class home in New England. 

Irving began unpacking her white upbringing in 2009 when she took the class, "Racial and Cultural Identity" at Wheelock College, Boston, MA for her master's degree in special education. Rather than being given tips on how to teach "other" races and cultures, she writes, "the course asked me to turn the lens on myself ... and what I found shocked me." (page 30)

As a fellow baby boomer, I can relate to her story, growing up in a white home, in white suburbia, attending predominately white schools including a predominately white college. Even though the city I grew up in was 52% white, at the downtown church we regularly attended, everyone looked like us. Going into a restaurant, we'd see other patrons who matched our skin. We belonged to a summer swim club whose members were all fair skinned. Phil and Jerry's Foodarama grocery store was as white as the vanilla ice cream they sold. The closest black friend I had growing up was Clarence Bowman with whom I worked at Boy Scout camp two summers.

I, like Irving, was gifted with "tailwinds" which is something the "other" had a major shortage. My father had a friend who got me a college summer job. My father knew the banker who made getting my college loans a snap. Buying my first new car wasn't a hassle due to "tailwinds." My first home mortgage was easy peasy due to connections. Irving's culture, as well as mine, was made up of "distorted beliefs, filtering, missing information and selective inattention which fueled self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating cycle of outcomes." (page 63)

Irving, like me and perhaps you, may wonder, if the cards are stacked against those who can't get into the "melting pot" including Blacks, Chinese, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and gays, how do you explain Tiger Woods, Oprah, I.M. Pei, Yo-Yo Ma, Ricky Martin, George Lopez and Ellen Degeneres? The invisible belief system doesn't make achievement impossible but it does make it exponentially harder. Averages, not outliers tell the story. (page 60) Here are some facts that begin to peel the onion on the divide in our country causing the "other" to have had it harder to live the American dream. It has not been a level playing field.

Did you know that over one million black GI's who served in WWII were excluded from the GI Bill? (page 33) The GI Bill paid for my father's college education allowing him to get a good paying corporate job after college.

Did you know that between 1934 and 1962, the Federal Government underwrote $120 billion in new housing and that less than 2% went to people of color? (page 35) In 1959, FHA allowed my family of four to move into a nice 3 bedroom, 2 bath ranch home with a nice big yard in a wonderful neighborhood within easy walking distance of my elementary school and an easy work commute for my father.

There are 45 short chapters to Waking Up White in which Irving focuses or shares a personal discovery related to the "other." At the end of each chapter, she asks a powerful question about how you relate to what she has written. It is an invitation for you to explore your own "wake-up call" and look at yourself in the mirror. 

How would you answer the question at the end of chapter 9, White Superiority - How white people decided white people were the best people of all: Prior to reading this chapter, what did you know about the history of naming the races? How do you feel about the term "Caucasian"? (page 45)

How would you answer the question at the end of chapter 15, The Whole Story - The effect of swallowing one-sided stories: Think of a historical event in American history, perhaps the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the arrival of the Statue of Liberty or any one of the wars Americans have fought. Where have you learned what you know about this event? Whose perspective did you learn? If you went in search of a fuller story, whose viewpoint would you seek? (page 85)

How would you answer the question at the end of chapter 17, My Good People - How it was possible that I was both a "good-person" and utterly clueless: How would you complete this sentence? I never thought I could perpetuate racism because I am _______________________, and I believe _________________. (page 99)

This is a hard, revealing, informative book for this white baby boomer male to read. It is was a gift to discover this book and use it for my own personal growth and development. If you go to Irving's website, you will find resources to help you discuss this book and its topics with others.

Lynn Watts
Irving points out, that white people tend to engage black people with an attitude of "I don't see race." Turns out that is about as racist as it gets. One of the most important women in my life besides my wife, daughter and sister is Lynn Watts. After reading Waking Up White, I spoke with Lynn and I apologized! Irving brought to my attention we white people tend to engage black people and ask them to teach us about their alternative universe. I know I've asked Lynn to explain my aversion and social discomfort rather than do the heavy lifting. I know I've asked Lynn to help me see what I not only could not see, but maybe what I didn't want to see. I recognize that as much as I say I embrace the Golden Rule, I haven't always walked my talk with the "other." Since our friendship began back in 2003, Lynn has been patient and given me grace in my "awaking."

If you are willing to own your ignorance of the "other," the final chapter, Tell Me What To Do! offers ideas and behaviors on how each of us can turn the tide against racism including: learn, engage, donate, spur racial awareness and education, take a course.

The one thing I know I will not do is to feel guilt or shame for being a white baby boomer male. Those feelings and behaviors do nothing to change course and get in the way of being a better human being. I know I need to use my white, male, Christian, heterosexual privilege to help those who do not have these privileges. Care to join me?