Wellesley wakes up white

Olivia Gieger ’17

Associate Editor

Debbie Irving grew up walking down the same hallways as we do, frequenting the same Boston suburbs as we do, and living in the same social and political climate of the ’60’s and ’70’s as our parents did.

On February 4 she visited Wellesley to share her life story. What makes her story so different from that of the majority of Wellesley residents? Surprisingly, not much, but it is just enough of a difference to make her message hit home for any of Wellesley’s upper-middle class, white citizens.

Irving, a white woman who spent most of her life in what she now calls a “white bubble”, recently “awakened” to the issue of racism in America after taking a class as a graduate student at the age of 48. After realizing her role in the story of racism, Irving embarked on a mission to learn about the incredibly diverse narratives of different racial groups in America that had been overlooked and undiscussed in her years of studying history. Her research led her to self-publish her memoir Waking Up White, which discusses her experience uncovering her place in race relations, and led her to discuss her role as a racial justice writer with the Wellesley community that rainy Thursday night.

The town came together, led by the World of Wellesley and the Village Church, to organize a community read of Irving’s memoir and join a discussion at the high school. On the fourth, Irving began with a presentation, yet she incorporated the community attendees, most of whom shared a similar upbringing as Irving. Throughout the presentation Irving paused for small discussions among audience members, walked through the crowd to collect the audience’s initial reactions and opened a forum for questions and a larger discussion at the end.

She opened her presentation with the question “I’m a good person! Isn’t that enough?”, an explanation of how many good-intentioned whites can disregard racial awareness. She continued on to discuss how this sentiment is one she held for most of her life. She shared examples of things she had learned that shed light on the largely untold stories of racial minorities.

She explained that growing up and throughout her years studying history in college and beyond she had seen a profoundly different side of a story than really understanding what people of color had experienced; she hadn’t realized that some things that created such great advantages for families like her own would have the opposite effect on the country’s brown and black people.

Irving cited an example of watching a video about the GI Bill, which her own father had utilized to attend Harvard Law School and get a loan for his family’s first home. In the video she learned that the bill virtually denied the one million black GIs the same advantages it gave white veterans. She discussed that the bill also led banks and the government to “redline” communities, mapping out which neighborhoods would yield the most lucrative loans– a system based on the number of colored families living in one neighborhood. The communities “redlined” by the banks in the nineteen forties are the same communities where we see ghettos today. She also shed light on the fact that this system perpetuates itself, with public education funding coming primarily from property tax.

Learning about these injustices sparked Irving’s mission to educate people on broader racial issues present in daily life and in current events. She hopes that people can take with them this importance of learning about the past through many different lenses. “It’s not about being a good person or a bad person,” she said in her talk Thursday. “It’s about competence and understanding.”

She then turned the focus of her talk to cover what white people can do to right some of the injustices and discrimination they contact, oftentimes without even realizing. She urged people to acknowledge their ignorances and to address their own biases, rather than shy away from them. She added that discussing race and the issues surrounding it is crucial. “I hope you will gain conversation skills and the stamina to hold these difficult conversations,” she said to the audience.

“I feel like we never really talk about this as whites– our society is built around a ‘don’t rock the boat’, ‘don’t make anyone uncomfortable’ sentiment.  [Taboos on] talking about race and racism follows along with a white dominated culture– thinking ‘let’s not talk about this’ can be dangerous.” said World of Wellesley president who organized Irving’s visit, Michelle Chalmers, reflecting Irving’s sentiment of the importance in talking about racial tensions.

Chalmers explained why she believed it was so important to bring Irving to Wellesley and to begin to hold these conversations regarding race. “Everyone needs to talk about race and racism and understand how it affects ourselves, our collective selves (meaning our communities) and our global selves (meaning the world around us),” she said.  

In a conversation with me after her presentation, Irving elaborated on the importance she sees in talking to affluent towns like Wellesley especially. “One of the things I think about when I’m in an affluent suburb is that if the community can start to educate itself and open its minds and hearts around this incredibly painful issue, and because these towns are so full of people with such power and privilege, real change can happen. What’s exciting to me is that people who live in towns like Winchester and Wellesley commute into Boston and Cambridge and they can bring what they’re learning. They can see the ideas, and they can start to get the conversation going there too. I think there is just unbelievable potential. and I think these towns are full of people who want to do the right thing, but we can’t do better if we don’t know better,” she said.  

For high school students, Irving’s message resonated deeply. Bobo Msikavanhu ’18 stood up during the community questions and discussion portion of the evening to share his own experience as a black student. He told of how he felt that there was little appreciation for the diverse experiences of different races at the high school. He later added that he appreciated Irving’s call to action. “I think [Irving’s comments were] very good and incredibly helpful. I just wish we could attract more of a younger crowd. Maybe we could even bring her for a class assembly,” he said.

Irving later reflected the same desire for racial collaboration and understanding of experience among students that Msikavanhu had expressed a need for. “I would say to white high schoolers, make an effort to really get to know your peers of color… it’s crucial for white people to listen to the lived experience of their peers and believe them,” she said.

For some students, like Emily Shedd ’16, the discussion was a moving continuation of racial study in school “I  was interested in going because white privilege is a really tricky topic to understand, or talk about,” said Shedd, citing her experience watching the same film that “awoke” Irving and how it led her to understand that race is more of an issue of societal labels placed upon people than actual skin color.  

Shedd continued saying that Irving brought a helpful perspective to the discussion of race injustice and helping people like Shedd understand how they can fall into the story of racial injustice with a positive impact. “I also have never understood the idea of white privilege because I have no choice in what color I am, but I think what Debbie made so clear is that that’s the whole problem. We don’t have to be outwardly racist to be a part of the discrimination. It’s written into our society that being white equals more opportunity, even if on paper we think of ourselves as color blind. I really think she did a wonderful job explaining that, and I think we really just need to talk about it to understand it,” she said.

For Chalmers, this was a step in the right direction for the Wellesley community to spark discussion, and, more importantly, change regarding race.“Having conversations is very important, but it’s only one part,” she said. “White people need to do their work in understanding racial histories… We need to read more about [history through] other perspectives. We are in such a great time of opportunity with so much media in our day and age to learn from, and once you have the foundation of historic knowledge, you can look at things differently,” Chalmers said, finally adding “This is just a step on the journey.”


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