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Did You Know? . . . Waking Up White

Let each of us look not to our own interests, but to the interest of others. -Philippians 2:4

With kind thoughts and best intentions, Debby Irving, an arts administrator in Cambridge, MA, worked hard to bring art and culture to Black children in Boston. And by her own assessment, it was a failure. She didn’t understand why and began a long hard journey of discovery. Her book, Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race, tells how, in a culture dominated by whiteness, the author thought all the racial issues belonged to people of color.

Irving didn’t realize how her programs, and the way they were carried out, might have a different meaning and effect for others. In order to share these good experiences with Black people, the teachers didn’t travel to the city. Instead, the children were bused to the suburbs and were kept as a separate group, in school and even when touring a museum or gallery. The author viewed the busing as efficient transport and the separation as a way to focus exclusively on the group. Blacks saw busing as removing them from their home base and the group separation as whites keeping them at a distance.

This prompted Irving to examine her upper-middle-class white family history and upbringing, where she had always been surrounded by white people just like her. She slowly built a network of people of all colors and attended a number of classes and conferences around the country. And countless times, she said, she would have preferred to stay home and pull the covers over her head. But ultimately she came to realize that there is no race, only people with different color skin who have experienced life based on their skin color.