My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Sometimes, members of socially privileged groups will only hear accounts of dismantling oppression from someone who also belongs to that same privileged group. Other times, those members of privileged groups who want to do the work of dismantling oppression are at a loss for how to do so among their own social spheres. “Waking Up White” is a book that speaks to both types of audiences.
Debby Irving exposes her own privileges and myriad blunders of journeying from a blissfully unaware white woman to a humble and ever-learning white ally who aims to educate other white people about the history of systemic racism in America and the effects of white people benefiting from it over people of color.
Not once does Irving present herself as a holier-than-thou, awakened know-it-all, which is sometimes the way that those who reject the notion of white privilege see those who engage daily in antiracist work. In fact, Irving is very open about every racist thought she’s had and every blunder she’s experienced in trying to unlearn the patterns and behaviors she grew up with, ones passed down to her from generations and generations of her family.
Because Irving intends this book to be used in workshops and other educational settings, she includes reflection questions and activities at the end of each chapter. This meant that I, as a reader, was constantly asking myself these questions and examining my own experiences in light of Irving’s.
I read this book because my church purchased several copies as a first step in deeply examining white privilege in our denomination and our own congregation. Despite the United Church of Christ’s overall progressive theology and social justice witness, it is a predominantly white denomination, so there is clearly something we’re collectively missing.
Like Tim Wise, Debby Irving is someone who is specifically there for white people’s education. She starts in the mindsets where so many white people start, with questions and assumptions both spoken aloud and internalized. I recommend this book to people who are just beginning to recognize white privilege, those who have been examining it for years, and those who are skeptical of its existence and effects. It’s a good starter resource that points to many other books and films for further study.
That said, there is certainly room for criticism. For example, some of Irving’s personal acts of solidarity like presenting her license along with her credit card at the grocery store or going out to get the paper fully dressed may or may not actually have the intended effect of calling out inequity. There’s also one part late in the book where, after recounting a personal story that she ties to cultural differences between herself and a Haitian student, she quotes Avatar’s “I see you” motif. Avatar is definitely the worst movie to be quoting in a book about examining white privilege.
That’s why I think this book should be viewed as a start, not an end.