Monday, July 7, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Waking Up White by Debby Irving

• Paperback: 288 pages
• Publisher: Elephant Room Press (January 9, 2014)



On the heels of a year when films such DjangoThe Butler, and 12 Years a Slave have made real the lived experience of black Americans, Waking Up White exposes critical aspects of the white experience. White people are thirsting for clarity on racial issues and the confidence to engage in conversation about them. Many people of color yearn for authentic, informed dialogue about racism with white friends, family, and colleagues.Waking Up White bridges this divide by functioning both as a “Racism 101” for white people and a rare exposé on whiteness for people of color. The book is a catalytic kick-starter that provides people of all colors and levels of racial awareness with the language and tools necessary to enter into cross-racial conversations about race within a less threatening context. For white readers wanting to further their own awakening, Irving includes short prompts and exercises at the end of each chapter.

“When I finally came to understand the way racism worked,” she explains, “I spent a lot of time thinking about what might have enlightened me earlier. I decided it wouldn’t have been an academic book, an essay, or a book from the perspective of a person of color — it would have been another white person describing their own awakening. What I needed was a memoir so irresistible that I would have read it even if racism weren’t on my mind.”



Writing as a person who happens to be Caucasian , reading this book was not always easy.  But then, life is not easy either, but it is worth living.  And, "Waking Up White" is definitely a book worth reading.  The reader doesn't pick it up to read.  It picks the reader up and practically demands to be read.

I was born in 1961 in a wide spot in the road just north of Pittsburgh, PA, and lived my early childhood in the small town of Cumberland, MD.  There was one black family in town (of which I was aware).  One of their sons just happened to be in my grade school class.  My mother once described the family with the words, "and they're so clean".  Here's an interesting tidbit.  Nearly 50 years in the future, I remember the names of my two closest friends, and the name of my African-American classmate ... and that's it.

When I was 8 or 9 years old, my family moved to Salt Lake City, Utah - also not one of the more racially balanced cities in America.  I remember an incident from the 1970's where there was a big stink when someone made a show of conferring the LDS priesthood on a black man outside of Temple Square.  Up until that time, the church's priesthood groups contained few, if any, men of color and certainly no blacks.

Later, I had a job for a while on a magazine crew.  I was going door-to-door in a neighborhood outside Washington, D.C.  It was a sea of apartment buildings (and I make the distinction here from 'projects'), as far as the eye could see.  And I was the only white person I saw for several hours.  I wasn't disturbed or fearful ... but I sure felt 'different'.

Lastly, there is a country lane not far from where my family lives that is called "Old Negro Creek Road".   The long-time residents of the area still occasionally use another, less-politically correct name for it.

A main benefit (IMO) of Irving's book is that she 'leads by example' and offers up her life as a textbook for helping people think about the effects of race on our lives.

Sometimes, I feel sorry for myself as a person with chronic, clinical depression, or someone whose family cannot be described as 'well-off' financially, I often forget the advantages I have.  Some of these advantages come just because my skin is white.

At the end of each chapter is a question or two for our consideration.  A few of them had me scrambling for excuses to take a break.  I noticed the less I liked my reflection (based on the question), the more likely I was to invent 'any' excuse to stop reading for a while.  And I didn't like that about myself.  So I went back and read some more.

I may never 'leave my nets' or sell all of my worldly goods to exclusively follow the cause of racial justice.  It's a big world and there are all kinds of problems that vie for people's time.  You have to pick your battles.  The most satisfying job I ever had taught me that you have to stand up for what is right, and lessened my fear at so doing.  "Waking Up White" is a phenomenal education (for anyone) on the ins and outs of racial bias and justice.  While I may never be a general on the racial justice battlefield, I am grateful to Irving for supplying me with a field manual so I can be a well-trained, thoughtful participant in the on-going struggle.



Debby is a white woman, raised in Winchester, Massachusetts during the socially turbulent 1960s and ‘70s. After a blissfully sheltered, upper-middle-class suburban childhood, she found herself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by the racial divide she observed in Boston. From 1984 to 2009 her work in urban neighborhoods and schools left her feeling helpless. Why did people live so differently along racial lines? Why were student outcomes so divergent? Why did she 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 she make it go away? The more she tried to understand racial dynamics, the more confused she became. “I knew there was an elephant in the room,” she writes, “I just didn’t know it was me!”

In 2009, a course at Wheelock College, Racial and Cultural Identity, shook her awake with the realization that she’d missed step #1: examining the way being a member of the “normal” race had interfered with her attempts to understand racism. Waking Up White is the story of her two-steps-forward-one-step back journey away from racial ignorance.

Debby has worked since the 1980s to foster diversity, inclusiveness, and community-building. As general manager of Boston’s Dance Umbrella and later First Night, she developed both a passion for cross-cultural collaborations and an awareness of the complexities inherent in cross-cultural relationships. She has worked in public and private schools as a classroom teacher, board member, and parent. A graduate of theWinsor School in Boston, she holds a BA from Kenyon College and an MBA from Simmons College. Now a Cambridge-based racial justice educator and writer, Debby supports other white people grappling with the impact whiteness can have on perception, problem solving, and engaging in racial justice work.

(Disclaimer:  The author and publisher provided me with a print copy of "Waking Up White" via TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest and unbiased opinion.)


  1. The author must have asked really good questions at the end of each chapter, because many people have commented how it really makes them examine themselves. I'd be curious how you change over the next year, just having these thoughts rolling around in your head!

    Thanks for being on the tour!

    1. She did indeed, Trish. I haven't thought that hard in a long time! :O)