I am on a journey to better understand racism. I should have started by reading Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving. In clear, understandable stories and descriptions, she explains her journey to better understand racism and how white privilege played a role in her family’s successes. I have read a number of other books about racism including How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram Kendi and White Fragility by Robin Diangelo, but for me, Waking Up White has been the most illuminating.
Irving has been a pubic school teacher for many years in Massachusetts. Over the years, she worked very hard to help ensure that all children, regardless of race or class, had equal opportunities in the classroom. Despite her efforts, she saw patterns of Black children falling beginning during the first, second, and third grade school years. She tried doubling down on her attention towards these children. She tried giving them more encouragement. She tried talking to the Black families to identify strategies to help these children. But nothing worked. Black children continued to show decline in their engagement and educational outcomes by the third grade.
Irving did not give up. She broadened her understanding of racism by examining herself. She formed relationships with people of color, had the hard conversations about race (asking a lot of questions and listening), and attended diversity conferences. She considered the “white privilege” that improved her family’s standing in society. Her father fought in WWII (like many Black soldiers did), and after the war, he was awarded the GI bill which paid for his college and law school education, and provided the first down payment on their family home. Black soldiers were routinely denied the same benefits (see https://militarytimes.com/military-honor/salute-veterans/2019/11/10/the-gi-bill-shouldve-been-race-neutral-politicos-made-sure-it-wasnt/).
Irving considered how this one privilege that her family received and many Black families did not because of racism, impacted the social and economic divide that we see today. With the help of the government grant, Irving’s father went on to be a successful lawyer providing the family with safety and comfort. Through her father’s success, the family paid the college tuition for Irving and her siblings, and then left them an inheritance. The next generation will use this inheritance to pay for college tuition and down payments on their homes. Certainly, the family worked hard to grow the initial investment, but Irving’s family received this benefit or privilege, and many similarly situation Black families did not.
In this framework, it is easy to see the white privilege. Of course, not all white families had a grandfather who fought in WWII and received the GI bill, but using this example, I was able to piece together how my success is directly tied to white privilege. Just the fact that my white grandparents and great-grandparents were not hampered and threatened by the Jim Crow laws (the laws that required separate restaurants, drinking fountains, schools, gas stations, etc.) gave my family the privilege to pursue better employment, be entrepreneurs, attend college or trade school, and save money for the next generation.
But why does all of this impact Black children today? Irving does such a nice job pulling it all together and I can’t possibly do it justice in this article. Please know that the laws, policies and practices that were put into place 75 years ago by politicians who are no longer alive today, do impact how Black children see themselves and their opportunities in this world. Please read this book. You will learn so much about yourself, the world we live in, and the challenges of the Black community. I read a lot of books in a year, and this is absolutely one of the best I’ve read. I actually listened to this book on audio and it was fabulous.
This book would be very good for a book club. Irving closes out each chapter with thought-provoking, discussion questions. Waking Up White is a 5-star book for me. I hope you enjoy it and learn as much as I did about racism.
Have you read Waking Up White by Debby Irving, How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram Kendi, White Fragility by Robin Diangelo, or other books about race? If so, which book helped you understand racism the best?
Have you read other stories about people who are different from you? If so, do you have any book recommendations?
I am Cathy Nestrick. You can find me at It’s A Wonderful Book on Instagram and It’s A Wonderful Book Facebook page. Happy reading!