“Waking Up White”: The Journey from Complacency to Understanding

Written by Ron Malzer [ronsaturday@gmail.com]
“Not so long ago, if someone had called me a racist, I would have kicked and screamed in protest. ‘But I’m a good person! I don’t see color! I don’t have a racist bone in my body!’ I didn’t think I had a race, so I never thought to look within myself for answers. … As I unpack my own white experience [I now realize that] … all Americans live within the context of one dominant culture, the one brought to this country by white Anglo settlers.Exploring one’s relationship to that culture is where the waking-up process begins.” -Debby Irving, from her Introduction to “Waking up White”
All my adult years, I’ve identified as “liberal”. To this day, I embrace both that term and the term “progressive”.


Two things happened in late 2016 and early 2017 that make those terms incomplete as identifiers for me. The first was the horrific result of the 2016 presidential election. The second was reading Debby Irving’s book “Waking up White”, followed by joining two groups that looked very closely at that book.
After reading “Waking Up White”, I still support liberal and progressive political candidates for office. I see that as extremely important work for starting to heal our sick country. What’s new is that I now also identify myself by saying that I’m starting to wake up to the deep systemic racism of America, past and present. Pushing out of power those who actively and willfully advocate policies steeped in white male supremacy is not enough. We also need to center the voices and experiences of people of color.
I’m a white male who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. I was part of the anti-war movement aimed at ending America’s role in the Vietnam War. I identified as pro-feminist, and worked at carrying out those values in personal relationships as well as how I voted. And I saw “inequality” in America as lessening bit by bit. While spending 2016 dreading the worst, I told people “In the end, I think the basic decency of the American people will win out.” It didn’t. At first in a state of shock at first, then intense discouragement, and then anger, I had to re-think my core assumptions. Debby Irving’s book was extremely helpful for that.
“Waking Up White” is the story of the author’s personal journey. Growing up in a well-to-do suburban Massachusetts family, her career engaged her in activities designed to promote racial equality. Problems arose for her. She was surprised to find, for example, that arranging to bus kids of color into white dominated cultural experiences led mostly to silence and fear by those being “helped”. In interactions with adults, she was hit with pushback as people of color told her she was judgmental and lacking in understanding of their world. She then took a college course focused on racism and American history. That was part of her wake-up call, and she decided that her next step was to make racial justice education her focus. Her book is one part of that work.
Irving acknowledges that her upbringing included both race and class privilege. She indicates that her book is a call to whites about white privilege, and she limits her comments about class privilege. She does provide examples of how race and class privilege reinforce each other for those who possess both.


In my pre-waking-up days, I rejected terms such as “white privilege” “white male supremacy”, and even “oppression”. They were too angry for my peace-seeking instincts. I believed that we were on our way to overcoming long-standing racial barriers. And while I was never one believed that the presence of a black man of mixed racial heritage (his identifier) in the White House would move us to a post-racial society, I certainly believed that having people of color as the first family would at least weaken some of the god-awful, demeaning and hateful stereotypes people hold.
Instead, it was clear by November 2016 that the loud angry and hateful voices had taken control of the country. Now I too was angry. And the more I read, not just Debby Irving’s book, but also the writings of Ta-Nehesi Coates and James Baldwin among others, the more I realized that throughout my adult life, I had been in denial about the depth of American racism.
Reading “Waking up White” added facts to what I understood, facts that a society facing its past would have taught in school. For example, the book demonstrates how banks made sure that loans, particularly loans through the G.I. Bill, were awarded preferentially to white veterans. We see that real estate agents worked to reinforce the practice of segregating neighborhoods to be all white or all black. Segregation was not confined to the south; instead of enforcing racial segregation by law, most of the country did the same, only by financial practices.


Debby Irving, to her credit, limits the extent that she talks about history, and doesn’t dwell on data. We need to read other works, particularly by people of color, to get the specifics of the myriad ways that white dominance, drawing on conscious and unconscious beliefs about race, have enslaved, oppressed, and otherwise brutalized African-Americans, Native Americans, and other people of color. Irving’s book focuses on the emotional journey from denial to waking up.
“Waking up White” is now the focus of a La Crosse community read. People throughout the great La Crosse area are being invited to read the book.


Consider how this book and its powerful impact could be brought into your community. The possibilities include conducting group reads/discussions at your workplace or faith congregation, and approaching college or high school administrators with the request that their institutions participate in the community read.
The next phase of this community read will be in 2020. The La Crosse Public Library has partnered with the Waking Up White Collaborative, and will purchase some books to be distributed free to the public. Throughout this summer, the Library and other organizations will host discussion groups and speakers on topics raised by the book. Arrangements are being made to have, in Fall 2020, a La Crosse White Privilege Symposium, with Debby Irving as a keynoter. For more information about the “Waking Up White” community read: CLICK HERE.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s