I am half-way through the book Waking Up White, by Debby Irving. I heartily recommend the book to anyone, and appreciate hearing Debbie’s story of her long search to understand race and its impact in America. The book is thought-provoking and disturbing in good ways – I think it is always good when our assumptions or the status-quo are challenged so that we have to really think about what we are doing and why. I wanted to share a few things from the book that have stood out to me so far or have been helpful.
One idea that stands out is the idea that both discrimination and privilege are components of racism. Irving says, “Just as time has compounded disadvantages for people living on the downside of systemic racism, it has compounded the advantages I and other white people enjoy. My life is built on family members able to get citizenship without a fight, land grants for free, GI Bill benefits, low rate loans, good education, and solid health care. Each generation has set up the starting point for the next, perpetuating the illusion that white people are more successful, not beneficiaries of an inequitable system.” I admit that I have somehow had the notion that racism was just an act or perspective of discrimination in the present—conveniently ignoring the fact that if there is privilege for some, then there is discrimination or lack of privilege for others, even if that is the result of actions taken in the past.
Living in places like Congo and now South Sudan, we are challenged often by the reality of our privilege while living in countries where poverty is pervasive and extreme. I never had to stay home from school because my parents could not pay the school fees, nor was forced to flee my home alone when it was attacked. I grew up speaking a language with a wealth of educational materials and came to know early the incredible love and grace of God. Sometimes the disparity is overwhelming as we recognize we do not deserve anything more than anyone else of any nationality. We are humbled and grateful for many brothers and sisters in Christ who are materially poor but who inspire us, teach us, and welcome us to join them in seeking to make the Kingdom of God known.
The second concept from the book is that “…Not talking about race [is] a privilege available only to white people.” This really struck me – I admit that exploring my own privilege or the ongoing effects of systemic racism in the U.S. are uncomfortable subjects that I try to avoid – but to realize that some people in America are daily facing the brunt end of discrimination while I can ignore it was really disturbing. “This widespread phenomenon of white people wanting to guard themselves against appearing stupid, racist, or radical has resulted in an epidemic of silence from people who care deeply about justice and love from their fellow human beings”. How often do you have conversations about race (unless something like Charlottesville happens)? When I do not feel well-versed in a complex and controversial issue, I tend to stay silent. So this is my fumbling effort to put a few thoughts out there to start a conversation, given that we are far from the U.S. and not able to have these conversations in person.
Finally, this book explores what it means to be “white” in America, and the history of racial perceptions. Irving says, “understanding whiteness, regardless of class, is key to understanding racism.” What are my particular cultural values, and how does that impact how I perceive others or the assumptions I might make? Of course, one or two hundred years ago in America there was much more distinction and discrimination between some of the European immigrants – the Irish, the Germans, or the Swedish had their section of town and may have felt discriminated against by other groups. But gradually these distinctions blurred and gave way to discriminations against other races. We, as a country, have come a long way from the legal racial segregation and oppression that used to occur in our country. Perhaps the white supremacist gathering such as in Charlottesville is a visible expression of what you could call “extreme” racism. But I wonder if there are many more subtle ways – even subconscious—that we perpetuate racist systems or legacies that give us ‘privilege’ over others? Last year Bob and I started reading The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois. It is a long, heady, book, but he does a masterful job of laying out the history of African Americans in the U.S., particularly regarding education and economic opportunities. Understanding our own history and the particular history of other groups that we intersect with helps us identify our cultural values and how they might clash with the values of others.
These are just a few things that are ruminating in my mind. If some of them resonate with you or challenge you, I encourage you to read the book or explore in other ways. I welcome your thoughts and feedback as I (and we) continue to learn about the tragic mistakes of the past, our own faults in the present, and seek to live lives that communicate God’s heart of love and justice to each person created in His image.