Debby Irving had what she describes as a “blissfully sheltered, upper-middle-class suburban childhood,” but after signing up for a class about racial identity in her late 40s, her world view changed dramatically. Today, she’s the author of Waking Up White and a frequent speaker on race. Your Teen sat down with Irving to learn more about tackling these tough conversations with our own teenagers.
Talking About Race with Waking Up White Author
Q: Tell us about your background and what led you to write Waking Up White?
Irving: I was an upper-middle-class, white, liberal New Englander who very strongly identified as a good person. For example, on Christmas, my family would go and buy gifts for homeless shelters nearby, and at Thanksgiving we’d serve homeless people. And yet after moving into an urban area right out of college, I could sense that there was something wrong. I couldn’t understand how these neighborhoods could look so different—dilapidated neighborhoods full of black and brown people, and beautiful neighborhoods full of white people. I couldn’t explain it, and I didn’t ever dare ask anyone about it.
At the age of 48, I ended up in a course that explained it all to me. I had thought that racism referred to a white person who doesn’t like a person of color, or was bigoted. I had no idea that there was this huge history of interrelated systems, a whole structure in our country that is built on the idea that certain people have more value than others—and very specifically, white, male, Christian, heterosexual, able-bodied, and of a certain class. When I learned that, it launched me on a journey that I’m still on.
Q: How did that course affect your conversations with your own kids?
Irving: Their starting place was very different from mine. In terms of race, they both have a vocabulary and an understanding that is mind-boggling to me. For example, I was reeling with the information that race doesn’t fit into neat biological categories, and my daughter, who was 14 at the time, said, “You didn’t know that? In Bio, the first thing we studied was melatonin.”
Q: How can parents start conversations like these with their own teenagers?
Irving: People in our generation weren’t taught about these issues. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to admit that you don’t know because we’ve all been highly trained not to know. We’ve all been trained to look the other way. Because we are taught that this is a just and fair country, and the fact of the matter is, particularly with race, it isn’t. And that’s a really hard pill for many of us to swallow.
Q: What next?
Irving: If you want to understand something about a group of people, go directly to the source. Otherwise it’s getting filtered through someone. A great first step is to join the non-profit, Standing Up for Racial Justice. Its goal is to teach white people to advocate on behalf of racial justice. There are groups in every community that try to bring people together in a racially mixed way.
Q: What can schools do to create an open conversation about race?
Irving: When my kids were in school, if the school said, “Hey, parents, come on in. Tonight we’re going to talk about drugs, alcohol and risky behavior,” my husband and I were there. If they said, “Hey, parents, come on in. Tonight we’re going to learn about how to manage screen time with your kid,” we were there. But the school never said, “Hey, parents, come on in. We want to teach you about race, racism, white privilege, and other forms of oppression, like sexism, classism, homophobia, and religious intolerance, so that you can speak to your children about it.”
Schools don’t invite the conversation because it’s too explosive. The result is silence around the issue, and the net effect is ignorance, especially in privileged white communities.
Q: Where do you see real change coming from?
Irving: A huge piece of this issue is that most white people have been taught not to talk about it, that it’s rude to talk about it. I couldn’t talk about it because I would get tongue-tied, I would blush, my heart would start beating. I was so afraid of saying something stupid or offensive. Change happens as soon as we start talking about it. That’s why doing it in a group setting is so important, because we first need to learn to talk about it.
Q: Is simply talking about race (as you do in Waking Up White) enough?
Irving: Well, eventually it needs to turn into action. If you’re not suffering from discrimination, you don’t experience it firsthand. The only way to understand it is to learn from people who are being discriminated against. The only way to make a change is to develop cross-racial relationships. Once we, meaning white people, hear from people who are experiencing racial discrimination, then we can support the people who are being discriminated against.