Waking Up White

Both blacks and whites have THE TALK with their children.
With whites, THE TALK is about the birds and the bees. With blacks, it’s about surviving the police.

So how do we bridge the gap of this ever increasing racial divide? Facts are never enough. Nor is it a matter of being “color blind” and “tolerant.” Color matters. History matters. And so do the different talks that blacks and whites have with each new generation. The talk that tells children how to survive in the world and respond to their white/black neighbors.

As one pastor notes: “Truth without love is brutality, and love without truth is hypocrisy.” So let’s look at this in love and truth and deal with it accordingly.

This is not about how whites should feel guilty or about how blacks should feel like victims. Guilt and blame will only fuel the racial divide. It’s time to think, talk and act.

So let’s move forward in love and truth, wherever the cards may fall. What that looks like in practice may be messy and a bit awkward. But it’s time to open up a dialogue and start moving.

Summary of Waking Up White By Debby Irving

  • What is White Privilege?
  • The GI Bill (White Affirmative Action)
  • Equality Starts with Equity (Why Give “Extra Benefits” To People of Color)
  • White Optimism Passed on through Childhood/Not So with Many African Americans
  • The Black & White Narratives about How The World Works
  • Examples of Things White People Typically Don’t Need To Worry About
  • Tearing Down The Divide When Kids Ask Racial Questions in Public
  • Collaborative Classroom Learning vs Independent Study
  • White Cultural Behaviors that Can Hold Racial Barriers in Place
  • Normalizing The Race Talk in the Classroom
  • Restorative Justice as an Alternative To Traditional Punishment
  • Conclusion

My Summary of Waking Up White By Debby Irving

Life looks different across color lines.

Stereotypes are not so much incorrect as incomplete. (p.4) It’s not enough to spot the differences . We must understand the racial, trust and wealth divide that existed in the past and continues today. And what we can do to build up and heal, rather than tear down and divide. (p.34)

White Privilege

The author believes all the white ethnicities have perks regardless of class. (p.13)

She agrees that many immigrants did in fact overcome desperate circumstances and discrimination. However, the very same rights and resources (see GI bill below) that allowed whites socioeconomic mobility, were denied to darker skinned immigrants. (pp.44-46)

The black experience is both about race AND class. Race for obvious color reasons and class because there’s a vicious cycle of ongoing poverty. (Not said outright in the book, but if suddenly everyone turned white, would the crime, anger, mistrust and lack of wealth that plague black communities automatically disappear?)


A social proxy for value in American society. White has long stood for normal and better, while black and brown have been considered inferior. (p.15) The dominant class wants to “help” and Fix.

The GI Bill: White Affirmative Action (Subsidies for Baby Boomer White Men and their families)

After the war, this federal program allowed men to pursue higher education and buy homes with low–rate government backed mortgages. (p.17) Without burdensome loan payments, people could suddenly embrace the suburban lifestyle, (and accumulate wealth in houses rather than rent forever and never accumulate middle class wealth.)

Suburban living brought sub urban culture and the GI bill (given almost exclusively to white men and their families) which gave the means to support it. Lots of blacks never applied for the GI bill or were scared away from doing so. Between 1934 and 1962 the federal government underwrote $120 Billion loans for new housing but yet only 2 percent went to black people. (p.35)

Black people were discouraged to take loans, and housing was bought and sold based on skin color. (Redlining). (p.34)

Blacks were left to make due with city housing. (p.34) And forced to take out mortgages in black neighborhoods. (where due to existing prejudice it meant black homes declined in value as white homes rose in value. (mid p.34)

Given who benefited from the GI bill and who was discouraged or redlined into black isolation, the GI bill was one of the best examples of affirmative action for white people. (p.35 1st par.)

The author relays some modern stories of how lenders and housing systems continue to deepen the racial divide by charging black people higher interest rates or by discouraging them to take out loans. (p.74.)

Equality Starts with Equity (Why Give “Extra Benefits To People of Color”)

Fair does not mean equal when there have been so many artificial barriers stacked against a particular group of people. Fair means getting everyone on the same footing as if these barriers had never been there. (p.206)

Equity means leveling the playing field. But still holding people of differing needs to the same expectation, while giving them what is needed to achieve it. (p.207)

White Optimism Passed on Through Childhood/Not So With Many African Americans

Author leads up to the fact that 4 centuries of race/class inequality have built up anger, rage and a different response that explains why many whites and blacks think so differently.

White Optimism

Many white people (like the author) internalize the idea that accomplishment for anyone is simply a matter of intention and hard work. (p.10) A good attitude is highly valued and seen as a key to success.

As the dominant and accepted culture/race there’s a set of rules that seem to work for them. But African Americans have had different experiences. And a different history.

Whites in general have a trust in America’s institutions. (land grants, GI bill benefits, low rate loans, a good education, solid healthcare…) Blacks, much less so.

The shaping of blacks and whites often happens early on by what each family explains to their kids about the way of the world.

Blacks are not the dominant culture. And both historically and in the present they have seen the real barriers and dangers that whites seem to face a lot less of.

So while many whites are optimistic about the world and train their kids accordingly, blacks don’t see the world the same way. They can’t afford to shield their children from the obvious realities, and so they prep them to survive in a hostile world.

The Black & White Narratives About How The World Works

Many black parents teach their children to keep their hands in plain sight if a police officer is near and to avoid white neighborhoods in order to avoid being questioned simply for being there. ( p.19)

(at age 16 I was back handed in the face by a cop in front of 3 other police officers who acted like they saw nothing, so I understand a bit-Graham)

So while white kids like the author were trained to be visible and seek opportunity, black children are trained to stay under the radar and avoid suspicion. The author surmises that while her white family (dominant race) could afford to have pleasant and prideful discussions about their family history, without making their kids feel unsafe or scared or inferior, the black experience at the dinner table must be markedly different.

With all that’s happened, the existing racial disparities and past and present violence, black parents would not be able to prettify it. Nor could they convey the same comfort and security that a typical white family could convey regarding their historical experience. (p. 19)

The author notes that her white skin was an opportunity for rewards (either for her or her family who got GI loans), and contributed to her notions of America being a level playing field….a life of opportunity. Her whiteness (whether she knew it or not at the time) gave her confidence of comfort and a bright future.

But what does a group feel like on the other side of the coin? People who had been shut out of a world of comfort and opportunity? How would they see the future for themselves and their families? (p.36)

Contrasting life experiences means whites may see blacks as paranoid complainers and blacks may see whites as either willfully ignorant or a clueless overly cheery “Suzy Creamcheese.”

Being “color blind” aggravates the problem. It ignores the reality that ”lives play out differently along racial lines.” (p.102)

The author notes a mixed race couple’s experience at the same store. The black person went to write a check but was told they only accept cash. She learned later from her white husband that they accept checks from him all the time. Racism isn’t dead. Color still matters. (p.67)

What would a white person think if a black person always complained about discrimination, but the white person never experienced it? (At least not in the same places or nearly to the same degree.)

Examples of Things White People Typically Don’t Need to Worry About (p.71)

  • I can go shopping most of the time assured I won’t be followed or harassed.
  • I am never asked to speak for all the people in my racial group.
  • Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of my financial reliability.
  • I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.

Most of the author’s African American friends say they have been followed in stores, harassed by police, given higher interest rates when applying for loans, mistaken for an employee when in fact they were a customer, mistaken for an orderly when in fact they were a doctor, and the list goes on. (bot. p.73).

So the author notes that unless white people can see the kind of things black people go through, they are likely to be skeptical and judgmental when a black person tries to explain it. (p.75)

White people may think a person of color is being oversensitive, because their account of how people treat them doesn’t match how most white people experience things. Often “white folks experience people of color’s versions of events as incongruent and therefore inadmissible.” (p.85)

For black people this skepticism is more salt in the wound. Not being believed drives a wedge in the relationship, creating more mistrust and disrespect. And this can act like a wall where both people can stop communicating with each other on racial matters. (p.75) So as with the author until recently, it often meant that black -white relationships were often cautious ones, even when one on one.

As Ms. Irving notes: “I constructed and reconstructed my reality based on the same old views, shielding myself from the knowledge that my friends of color lived in an alternate universe about which they couldn’t tell me because I couldn’t hear it.” (mid p.76)

About Blacks Being So Angry

Niceness serves people who life is going well for. But what about those less empowered who have legitimate concerns? These people may say things in a rough and raw way but they should still be heard. We need to do more than tolerate the complainer. We may need to embrace the discomfort of conflict and engage them rather than run. (see pp. 170-171)

Patterns of Segregation in Neighborhoods Strengthen the Racial Divide

City of Buffalo 1995 TV, A black woman from a black neighborhood gets hit by a truck while going to work in a white mall.

The driver hit her by accident. But blacks yell racism, and whites yell to stop playing the race card. Author breaks down what the racism is. And why it’s still being perpetrated.

Author notes that in Buffalo, blacks and whites often live in separate neighborhoods, usually with the jobs being in the white neighborhoods. So if whites choose to, they can stay away from being in black communities. However, for blacks to survive, they have no choice but to seek employment in the white communities.

Many who build or live in these white communities deliberately want to maintain the divide. Even if buses and other public transportation are not opposed directly, the developers would intentionally not provide many sidewalks or crosswalks that would allow black people on the other side of the railroad tracks to work there easily. The author says developers were worried that black customers would scare away the white customers.

So blacks are either kept out, or discouraged, even if the reasons they are discouraged are not overtly racial. And so the racial divide is maintained. (pp.56-57)

(My thoughts are that some whites don’t give a crap about skin color but they do nevertheless worry about the real crime and social ills that because of past and current racism, would be brought in by allowing easy access to the mall from the inner city black neighborhoods).

Why Some Blacks May Dress Formal/Whites Casual

Author notes that she equated being informal with being authentic and real. However, for many African Americans, being formal was a sign of respect.

White people could afford to be causal. Unlike the minority, they weren’t always trying to counterbalance a destructive narrative that says they were always “less-than.” White people could choose when and when not to be formal (p.78) … but black folks felt they were always under extra scrutiny. (p.79)

Cross Racial Relationships: As the author realized the differences in her experiences versus her African American friends and talked to them about such, they began to open up to her about their own experiences. People of color started to feel more comfortable sharing with her and not feeling she would tune them out. (pp.80-81).

Author’s Early Attempts To Fix Racial Problems through Dysfunctional Rescuing

The author tried to help people in ways that actually disempowered them.

For example: She took inner city youth and threw them into “culture” by taking them to white neighborhoods and museums.

As one teenage boy confessed ”Man, it was freaky. I’ve never seen so many white people in my life! I was scared!” (p.110) This shocked and surprised all the white people who had hosted this event. The author notes that she always thought of herself as having No Color. But to her surprise, blacks thought of white as a separate race too.

It was shocking to her that blacks could find her or white people in general as “scary”or “freaky” (p.123). She had always (at least unconsciously) viewed being white as “normal” and not having the baggage of being just another color/culture.

The author explains what it was she did that was harmful. She was trying to fix the kids. To bring them “up to white standards.” She assumed that white standards were the right standards. At the time she had no idea she was making this assumption.

She never visited the inner city neighborhoods where the kids she was trying to help actually lived. Never did she ask a group of these kids along with their families or teachers: “What is it my organization can do for you? ” or “What role would you like to play in shaping this program” (p.107). Implicitly she just assumed that she knew best. (p.108)

It never occurred to her to empower them to have some say in their own destiny.

The author notes in many schools that the black and white kids are equally motivated in kindergarten but by the 3rd grade there’s a big white/black divide. (p.132.)

By the 4th grade white kids dominated the student body and black kids spent more time in the principal’s office. (p.133). The author was mystified why this divide got worse in every grade, and why it’s part of a country wide phenomenon. Staff members who were willing to talk about it would say things like: “Look at their home lives. What are they eating? Are they sleeping enough? Can their parents help them with their homework? How can these poor kids keep up?” (p.134).

She concludes that the all inclusive approach in some schools (while a good start) is no match for the long history of white dominance and the troubles that now exist because of it. (p.135)

She also notes that in addition to the opportunity gap, there is a parent involvement gap. She gives several reasons for why parents of color don’t participate as much in school affairs as white parents do.

White parents will often put pressure on the principal to get their children in with the right teacher or class. But blacks and Latinos never even considered it an option. Or if they did, they assumed they would never be listened to. ( p.136-138).

Parents who are in the minority are reluctant to volunteer for school volunteering jobs that could give them a voice in their child’s schooling. Studies show parent involvement improves student achievement. But where does that leave parents who lack trust in America’s institutions, have traumatic memories when they were a student, and lack a sense of belonging? (p.141).

“Though people of color have vibrant communities in which they feel comfortable and empowered, white dominated American schools, workplaces, and other institutions are not among them.” (p.141).

Responding When Kids Ask Racial Questions In Public-Tearing Down The Divide

A little kid sees a black man in the store for the first time and asks aloud “Mommy, why is that man’s skin dirty?” The mother is totally embarrassed and tells the child to shush. (p.125)

The author suggests a better way to respond than to hush him or runaway. First, don’t make the topic taboo. Use this as a teaching moment to explain that race is natural. “Their skin isn’t dirty, it’s just a different color. Just like eye color and hair color can be different so can skin color.” (p.125)

It’s OK if your child notices differences. Teach them about these differences in a way where they can accept the facts and not pass judgment. Keep everything light so the topic remains open for discussion. (See p.125)

The author admits that while learning about racial differences, at times she just wanted the rule book on black people. Often her main objective was to learn how to avoid doing or saying something embarrassingly offensive-to not screw up around black people. But this fear of looking foolish by making mistakes, actually made her more culturally incompetent. (p.129) (Brought up her walls rather than help her be open even if awkward)

She also gives lots of autobiographical info on going to all black meetings, some personal gaffes and how she got humbled into being more of a learner and less of a knower. (pp.143-163)

Talking About Racial Issues in a Group Setting (Adults)

The checklist on p. 172 includes speaking honestly about your own perspective by using “I statements.” Other tips including sharing air time, welcoming discomfort and respecting confidentiality.

Airing your experiences: Authenticity is better than polite comfort. Ignoring, invalidating or explaining away someone’s dissatisfaction and anger is like throwing gasoline onto the fire. Show a sincere desire to know what is agitating the other person. Don’t minimize their discomfort, listen. (p. 175)

Becoming Multicultural

The author discusses embracing other ways of doing things, such as new ways of learning and collaboration. This includes getting it in our heads that we don’t automatically need people of other cultures to assimilate to our ways. It’s a switch from inferior /superior or “Either /Or” to “a strength in difference” approach. (p.191)

Examples of dominant white cultural behaviors that can hold racial barriers in place (p.194-197)

These include:

  • Conflict avoidance (ignore pink elephants in the room-don’t discuss racial tension or differences in perspective or experiences)
  • “Either/or” thinking (learning can only be done one way, my culture is best…)
  • Valuing formal education over life experience
  • Being status oriented
  • Faster is better, need to adhere to strict timelines (get it done fast rather than “waste time” doing it differently. For example, get it done now rather than collaborating with the community.)

Collaborative Classroom Learning vs Independent Study (p.202)

Traditional classroom learning is face forward and then go home and learn on your own. But independently working it out on your own is not the only way to learn. Some cultures enjoy a collaborative learning. We can use both. Often collaborative learning is seen as inferior but is not the case. Story of Rosie a Haitian student in second grade, who wanted to help another student in math.

The author/teacher kept telling her to sit down as she kept getting up to help other students. But then the teacher realized that she was squelching something valuable in this student, all for the sake of classroom homogeneity. So she worked out a compromise where the students could at times collaborate. But at other times had to learn independently. (p.202-203).

Good Things Done To Empower Communities (Montgomery County Schools in Maryland) (pp.207-209)

School Superintendent Jerry Weist acted beyond White cultural norms in the following ways:

  • He replaced conflict avoidance with explicit conversation and conflict resolution.
  • He sought knowledge based on formal education but also life experience: Got input from everyone from the data analyst to the bus drivers.
  • Replaced competitiveness with a sense of community, developed collaborations and consensus.
  • Encouraged people to speak their minds passionately.
  • He worked with white communities to examine their degree of comfort and entitlement relative to communities of color.

Other Things to Empower:
When having a meeting, explain that the person “leading” is not a presenter but a facilitator. It’s not about lecturing or being an expert but encouraging people to share their collective wisdom. (see p. 211)

NormalizingThe Race Talk in the Classroom (p.236)

Have the kids in class mix paints to match their skin color. And then describe with pigments, the color of other classmates.

Different Perspectives Black/White
A white person typically asks a person “so what do you do for work?”
But for an African American, it can be seen as you’re questioning their status. There’s a tendency in white culture to label someone by what they do. But you can still ask something else engaging like “What workshop did you go to this morning?” (p.213)

The author notes this could make white people feel like they’re walking on eggs around African Americans. However it’s better to be willing to remain authentic and engaged even when it gets uncomfortable. Key is to keep learning, not shut down. Take feedback when it is offered. (p.214.)

The Role of White People in Dismantling Racism


Take on the role of ally but not rescuer. We’re not here to swoop in and fix. The white role is a supporting one not a leading one. (p. 221)

As she notes elsewhere, we are to engage the black communities, help them when we can, but not disempower them by feeding them our own answers, which may still be skewed to our “either/or” preferences and other biases. In the end, the predominantly white communities should become invested in doing what is right for the whole country, not just for their children or town. (See p.233)

Restorative Justice as an Alternative To Crime & Traditional Punishment (p.233)

Bad actions still have repercussions and unpleasant events. Like traditional punishment, it still involves owning up to the wrong. But the community gets involved along side the offenders. This allows the whole community, including the offender, to understand the impact of the offense, and for all to take part in repairing the harm done. (not good for all offenses but still worth looking into).

The community can work through the consequences and sentencing of certain offenders. For example: When students vandalize school cafeteria., the victims (cafeteria staff) and offending students meet to discuss what’s to be done.

Everyone sits and faces each other. In this real life situation, the wrongdoers ultimately did cleanup duty in front of victim cafeteria workers for several weeks. No one was isolated from the community. This gave all a chance for empathy, personal responsibility and a greater sense of community and healing, the offenders included.

Conclusion (p. 249)

We can’t give away our white privilege. But we can use it to create change. We can speak up, and examine ourselves for any bias and unhelpful inherited behaviors that inhibit change.

In love, we can examine how our own insecurities and assumptions can prevent others to thrive. And then have the courage to go forward where ever this leads.

We can engage. We can talk to our friends and colleagues of color to share what we’re learning about whiteness, but don’t expect them to educate you.

If you want to help heal the racial divide, find a racially mixed group in your community already doing the work. Seek their learning and wisdom regarding your contribution of time, talent and resources. (p.252) Author also gives other books, and where you can financially contribute to.

Link To Waking Up White

Link to Christian-SOS

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