Excerpt: Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving

About the Book:


For twenty-five years, Debby Irving sensed inexplicable racial tensions in her personal and professional relationships. As a colleague and neighbor, she worried about offending people she dearly wanted to befriend. As an arts administrator, she didn’t understand why her diversity efforts lacked traction. As a teacher, she found her best efforts to reach out to students and families of color left her wondering what she was missing. Then, in 2009, one “aha!” moment launched an adventure of discovery and insight that drastically shifted her worldview and upended her life plan. In Waking Up White, Irving tells her often cringe-worthy story with such openness that readers will turn every page rooting for her-and ultimately for all of us.

Read an Excerpt:

Featured in April/May 2016 Issue: American Scences

In my late twenties a back spasm led me to try a chiropractor for the first time. My white doctor recommended someone he and several of his patients had gone to with great success. When I got to the appointment, I was caught off guard to find a black chiropractor. Immediately, my subconscious began spewing forth feelings of being unsafe. As I began to question his credentials and abilities, my conscious mind was horrified. I tried to turn off the voice of prejudice in my head but couldn’t. Eveary move made me wonder, Did he do that right? What if that snap permanently injures me? When he suggested I get some X-rays, a suspicion flashed into my mind that he was somehow in cahoots with the X-ray business and scamming me. Back in his office, as we recapped our first session and laid out a plan for the weeks ahead, I noticed the wall behind him slathered in framed diplomas and certificates from his extensive education at white institutions. Suddenly I relaxed. While the symbol of his skin color triggered negative thoughts, the symbols of the white-dominated institutions triggered positive thoughts. Both of these responses made me feel confused and ashamed. Where was my commitment to judge people by the content of their character? Each incident like this only fueled an inexplicable anxiety that would carry over to the next interaction with a person of color.

Though today I am still taken aback by intrusive racialized thoughts, it’s happening less often, and I no longer find them bewildering or judge myself for them. How could I live in a racially organized society and not have filed away racial stereotypes? Though I may never get beyond my mind’s tendency to lump and label, at least now I’m aware enough to say to my overloaded subconscious, “Thanks for sharing—buh-bye.”

A favorite read of mine, Whistling Vivaldi, takes its title from an anecdote by New York Times columnist Brent Staples. As a black college student he noticed that, upon seeing him walking down the street, white people would react, reaching for the hand of the person beside them or even stepping off the sidewalk to cross the street. 

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