Waking Up White: The Final Chapters

Waking Up WhiteChapters 26-35Chapters 36-45

You may have noticed that it has been a while since my last post in this series. I could claim I was busy (true), or that I have been writing other things (also true), but the fact is, I got frustrated and simply couldn’t engage with the material.

It’s not that it isn’t good stuff – just that I am not its audience.

For the purposes of this conversation, I have come to the conclusion that there are three significant sub-groups of white people in America:

  • Those who are poor, disadvantaged, and always have been
  • Those who are not, and never have been
  • Those who have been one, and are now the other

This book is aimed at the second, and near as I can tell, doesn’t have a lot to say to the other two.

Let’s be clear – that’s not a criticism. It’s an observation with no inherent insult or judgment attached. Ms. Irving had some hard realizations, and then took the even bolder step of sharing her learning curve with other people like her. As so often is the case in this conversation, the definition of “who is like me” is subject to simplification and blind spots. Not every white person is like Ms. Irving, and I happen to be one of the ones who isn’t. And because of that, this book can’t serve the purpose for me that I had hoped it would.

I no longer live in the places where I grew up. I am an upper middle class professional now, and I can clearly see the differences between the world where I grew up and the world where I live today.  My challenge was to identify how “being white” privileged me. For while I could clearly see the privilege of class, I had – and still have – a tough time seeing how just the fact of whiteness privileged me as a five year old. I seek out resources like Ms. Irving’s book because I want to see that better, more clearly, and differently.

This book isn’t designed for that.  It’s designed to speak to someone who is – and always has been – where I am now, and help them wake up to other peoples’ realities. And while some of the realities she addresses are specific to people of color, the vast majority seem, to me, to be about class. And when the author reached out to people outside her race, she also had her first close encounters with people outside her class – so for her, poverty, want, and ‘outsiderness’ are all rolled up into that experience. Many of her wide-eyed lessons about how life is different for people of color were about how life is different for people who don’t have generations of family support, inheritances, and connections – and having none of those things, I simply couldn’t relate to her experiences.

I remember an early conversation with my Waking Up White blog partner, Stephen. We were discussing a post of his where he had described his upbringing as “the” experience of whiteness, and I was explaining that his experience was not at all similar to mine. He noted the irony of assuming that his experience was “the baseline” for all white people. As I read Ms. Irving’s book, the assumption that all of these horrible, unimaginable (to her) ills were experienced only by people of color left me frustrated and sometimes angry – or, more likely, kicking back at feeling erased and overwritten.

I can clearly understand why white people at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder bristle when they are lectured about their privilege. I may continue to look for those seeds of privilege in my “underprivileged” childhood, just to find some way to articulate that for them.  Or I may not.  I’m not sure it’s important to me.  I can clearly see the difference today – and that difference matters whether or not I find a way to map it to my five-year-old self.  With only “so many hours in a day” I may chose to spend them working forward rather than looking back. I’m not sure.What I do know is that my answers, my path, do not run closely enough to Debby Irving’s. Her questions, her answers aren’t mine.

I did commit to the blog challenge, and to answering all the questions. You can check the tabs above for my remaining responses.  Thank you for coming with me on this journey!

Chapter 26 – Surviving Versus Thriving

Think about a time when you were treated unfairly. What do you recall of your emotions (e.g., anger, resentment, anxiety) and your physical state (e.g., elevated heart rate, stomach clenching, sweating)? How did you respond to the unfair treatment?

Dad wasn’t one for checking facts before meting out punishment. “Unfair” is just the way life was. (Or, as mom used to say, “who stamped ‘FAIR’ on your birth certificate?”) But you learned quickly that arguing only made it worse. Head down, endure, and get out the far end with minimal damage.

Chapter 27 – Living Into Expectations

Can you recall your childhood expectations of how you’d fare in school? How did you imagine your adult life would be? Where did you get these ideas? Think about lifestyle, family, and work. How close is your life to those of your parents and other adults you knew? How much do you think race influenced your life vision and outcome? How much do you think class influenced your life vision and outcome?

I went to elementary school in the 70s, when the craze for “gifted” programs was in full swing. I tested well, was always in the Special Programs, but was still “who I was.”  (ref aforementioned teachers discussing how my intellect was such a waste, since I was just going to end up a welfare mom.)

I was determined to prove them wrong, and did finally manage a college degree, about 15 years after high school. From my perspective, class seemed to be at the heart of the issue.

Chapter 28 – I Am The Elephant

Can you recall a time when you knew there was an elephant in the room and you only discovered what it was later? Once you’ve recalled that time, make a list of the feelings you experienced. How did you feel once you got the full story and the elephant was exposed?

Mostly just felt stupid, and annoyed that people didn’t tell me what was going on so I could adapt my conversation and approach to accommodate.

Chapter 29 – Intent and Impact

Think of a time when you hurt someone’s feelings without intending to. Was your impulse to defend yourself? If so, why do you think you that urge to defend your intention felt so important? If you eventually shifted from focusing on your intent to focusing on the impact of your words or actions, what inspired you to do so? What was ultimately required to heal the rift?

Sometimes my first reaction is to wonder/try to understand why, sometimes it’s to defend. In cases where I had done wrong, sincere apology was the cure. In places where someone was determined to find a reason to be mad, there was no ‘healing the rift” – only “accepting blame so they could take whatever-it-is out on me and move on”, or “refusing to own their pissy mood and walking away.”

Chapter 30 – Feelings And The Culture Of Niceness

What lessons were you taught about crying? Do you feel differently if you see a man, woman, or child crying? For whom do you tend to feel empathy? For whom do you tend to feel judgment? Why?

My judgment tends to be based in class and motive. Rich people whining about having to pay taxes, or not getting moved to the front of the line generates less empathy than any human in physical pain, for example.

Chapter 31 – Courageous Conversations

Make a deal with someone you trust in order to practice giving and getting honest feedback. Set your own guidelines, such as: If I ask your opinion, you will give me an honest answer, even if you know it might hurt, or, Feel free to gently point out to me [name one of your flaws] when I do it so that I can increase my awareness of when and where I do it. Keep in mind the words of pastor Warren Wiersbe, “Truth without love is brutality, and love without truth is hypocrisy.”

I try to do this in multiple spaces – I find that kind of honesty much easier to navigate than polite deceit. My writing partners in this blog adventure are an excellent example.

Chapter 32 – Getting Over Myself

How do you want people to see you? List five adjectives you’d hope people would use. What behaviors do you employ to convey this image? How would admitting ignorance or wrongdoing, no matter how unintentional, challenge your desired image?

Intelligent. Capable, Integrity. Equal. Compassionate

I work systematically, looking at “big pictures” and figuring out how to move them forward. Being wrong is easy – I do it all the time. The question that challenges my legitimacy is whether I can find and implement a right answer.

Chapter 33 – Perception And Fear

Imagine a country inhabited by two groups of people. The groups can’t stand each other. This is equal-opportunity prejudice. Now imagine that your group runs the bank, the government, the schools, the hospitals, and the media. Your group has the power to make your opinions the dominant ones while creating policies and practices that marginalize the other group. List the feelings and thoughts that might develop by being a part of the group in power. Then list the feelings and thoughts that might develop by being a part of the group not in power.

“Imagine”? This is the world I grew up in,

Chapter 34 – Becoming Multicultural

Think of a major change you’ve made in your life – a marriage, a divorce, a move, a new job, a lost job. List the strengths and skills you lost as a result of the change. List the strengths and skills you gained.

Such changes never cost strength or skill – just control. When I got married, I didn’t lose the ability to keep my belongings organized. I lost control over my environment, having to share it with someone who isn’t organized. The fact that things in my house are not as orderly as they once were does not reflect a loss of skill or capability, just the compromise of living with a second person.

Chapter 35 – If Only You’d Be More Like Me

Can you make a list of the ways in which America’s dominant culture has left an imprint on you? I could not have created much of a list before this journey. If you have trouble making one, you’re not alone!

The constant feeling of not being ‘enough’ and ‘good enough’ no matter where I am or what I do.

The certainty that those in power are concerned with only themselves, and that the not-in-power people are serfs.

Early, now-abandoned beliefs:

  • Patriotism
  • American exceptionalism
  • American meritocracy
  • Equal justice and rule of law
  • Democracy as the only legitimate form of government
  • Individualism at all costs = independence/liberty

Chapter 36 – The Dominant White Culture

Take a look at the continuums below. The qualities on the left are often associated with the dominant white culture. Folks working to break patterns that maintain racism notice that thinking and acting in ways closer to the right side of the continuum can be useful in addressing racial healing. Take a minute to place yourself along each line. You may notice that you move more to the left or right depending on your environment. What is it that causes you to move one way or the other?


Low [1]   High [5]
I don’t like to rock the boat. 5 I’m comfortable giving/getting honest feedback.
I mostly value intellect (data, facts). 3 I mostly value intuition (emotion, senses).
I choose comfort. 4 I tolerate or embrace discomfort as a way to grow.
I feel a sense of urgency and a need to fix things. 2 I like to slow down and see how conversations/initiatives unfold.
I’m thick skinned and competitive. 3 I’m able to be vulnerable and cooperative.
I tend to judge people who feel differently. 4 I tend to be curious about other people’s perspectives.
I prefer absolutes. 3 I’m comfortable with ambiguity.
I value outcomes and finished products. 5 I value process.
I tend to blame others when tension erupts. 4 I tend to reflect on my own role when tension erupts.
I care most about individual status. 4 I care most about group functionality.


Chapter 37 – Boxes and Ladders

Pick a six-hour period in which you commit to noticing your tendency to box or rank a person or idea. Make a note about each incident, be it a person on the bus, a family member, a colleague, or a person in the media. At the end of your observation period, explore one incident in which you boxed and ranked a person with whom you were interacting. Does your conscious mind agree with your initial judgment? What, if anything, do you think you could have learned had you replaced judgment with curiosity in that situation?

PTSD makes me a questionable candidate for this exercise. I consider everyone I don’t know a threat.  That said – my general “failed assumption” is generally around the extent to which I assume others are judging or condemning me – based in feeling that I don’t have a legitimate right to be in the room.

Chapter 38 – The Rugged Individual

What did you learn about self-sufficiency and independence? How do you feel when you need to ask someone for help?

Nobody is going to help you, so if you aren’t able to take care of yourself, you are out of luck, and if you don’t do a good enough job, you will pay for it.

Chapter 39 – Equality Starts With Equity

Which of the following special-by-race programs have benefited you in your life? How?

  • white only or white dominated neighborhood
  • white only or white dominated country club
  • other types of white only or white dominated social clubs
  • legacy at a private school
  • legacy at an institution of higher education
  • lending rates for white people

I have benefited from VA home loan lending rates. Without VA home loan programs, I would not be a homeowner.

Chapter 40 – Bull In A China Shop

Make a list of five conversation starters that have nothing to do with identifying a person by where they’re from, what they do for work, or any other sorting and ranking criteria. For example, think about how you’d feel asking or being asked, “So, what was the most interesting thing that happened in your day today?”

I ask about:

  • Books/movies
  • Family (kids, health of parents, pets, etc.)
  • Plans for the weekend

Chapter 41 – From Bystander To Ally

What might prevent you from stepping out of the bystander role and into the ally role? Make a list of the reasons. What do you notice as you look at this list? What might you do to overcome the obstacles you’ve listed?

Fear of physical danger/confrontation (Call a third party)

Being uncertain whether the individual wants my help, if they appear to be handling it themselves. (Ask them or simply stand near and clearly ‘on their side’ and watch them for signals)

Chapter 42 – Solidarity And Accountability

Think of an issue in your own community (town, school, workplace, religious organization) that has been raised by people of color. How would you approach people who are focused on the problem? How would you go about being in solidarity with them? What could you offer?

Problem: Inequitable discipline in schools

Strategy: Seek out reliable resources (including the concerned community) to better understand the issue

Action: Bring concerns and data to individuals with authority over how school discipline is managed. Bring members of the community with me and provide an opportunity to speak to the authority about their concerns and the impact of the inequity.

Chapter 43 – From Tolerance To Engagement

Have you ever been to an event that celebrated diversity? What did you learn about the various cultures’ belief systems? Did the event give you insight to how a person from that culture might feel, given their cultural values and habits, if they tried to engage in an organization steeped in values and habits from the dominant white culture?

Travelling to and living in other countries has given me the opportunity to both see and be that individual.

Chapter 44 – Listening:

Challenge yourself in the next conversation you’re part of to ask more questions than you typically would and refrain from offering your own opinion. Take note of where the conversation goes.

This is one of my great challenges and I work with it constantly. I am often so busy processing the information into a systemic plan that I don’t engage with the humans, just the information. I therefore put a lot of effort into asking questions and not trying to process the data while receiving it, as this makes me more effective in my role.

Chapter 45 – Normalizing Race Talk:

Make a list of five ways to shut a conversation down. Next make a list of five ways to keep a conversation going.

One-upping Looking for common ground
Minimizing/dismissing concerns Acknowledging concerns
Change/ignore the subject Stand in the heat – address the subject even if it is uncomfortable
Tell the other person they are wrong Listen and inquire to determine whether there are things you can learn about the situation
Defensiveness/overreacting Focus on the conversation and the other person, rather than yourself


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16 thoughts on “Waking Up White: The Final Chapters

  1. We really should set up a check-in time for the group to discuss our thoughts on this book! Some of us are closer to the end than others, but maybe an IRL dicussion would be useful.

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