I was at a two-day race and equity workshop last fall, and during the final session of the first day, the lead facilitator read aloud several pieces of anonymous feedback that various participants had shared. “I want to hear more from the white participants,” she said, reading from a card someone else had submitted. Hearing that, something clicked for me: I was listening to the participants of color talk about race, and I was empathizing with their stories, thoughts, and emotions, but I wasn’t talking enough about my own race, my own story, and my own emotions. That withholding was, in fact, a facet of my own white privilege. The skin I was in meant that I didn’t have to think about race on a day-to-day basis if I didn’t want to. In order to get more out of the workshop, I had to talk more about race, even if it was uncomfortable, and that meant that I had to talk openly an honestly about my own whiteness. So on the next day of the workshop, that’s what I did: I opened up more, offered more candid thoughts and stories, leaned into the discomfort of talking about race. When I picked up Debby Irving’s book, Waking Up White, it felt like a refresher course extending the inner work I began during that workshop. Here was another white anti-racist educator proclaiming loudly to her readers: “I’m white, and I’ve been really ignorant about race, but I’m leaning into my discomfort because it’s what white people have to do.”

Even if you haven’t been involved in workshops designed to facilitate discussion across lines of difference or interrogate white privilege, Waking Up White is a great resource for anyone open to the idea that dismantling racism is a critically important thing we have to do in the United States. The whole book is rife with observations that resonated with me, among them the idea that admitting that I’m part of a racist society doesn’t mean I’m a bad person. It’s the necessary first step to doing something about a giant, oppressive system that’s made up of individual actions, including my own. As Irving puts it:

How can racism possibly be dismantled until white people, lots and lots of white people, understand it as an unfair system, get in touch with the subtle stories and stereotypes that play in their heads, and see themselves not as good or bad but as players in the system? (p 153).

The 46 short chapters in the book each function as little workshop modules unto themselves: Irving shares a personal story, offers some historical or social analysis, and closes with a discussion question to allow the reader to dig deeper into the personal work. My hardcopy is covered with underlining and notes, but a few of the big concepts are often on my mind whenever I’m thinking and talking about race.

Headwinds and tailwinds

Irving uses the metaphor of “headwinds” for those regular, daily microagressions, biases, and slights that make life harder for citizens of color in the United States. “Tailwinds,” on the other hand, are the invisible pushes and nudges that help white folks continue sailing smoothly through life—the “invisible knapsack” of privileges that I often don’t realize I have. The metaphor resonates with me because “headwinds” are so noticeable, literally in your face, while “tailwinds” are so easy to forget about.

Some headwinds are the result of overt bias in social interactions, or frustrating microagressions; others are massive, state-organized historical injustices. For example, one historical headwind/tailwind that Irving discusses is the GI Bill, which granted college tuition and low-cost home loans to white veterans after WW II, but that was implemented in such a way that excluded black families, who couldn’t benefit from the wealth-building programs. “From the perspective of American excluded from this massive leg-up policy, the GI Bill is one of the best examples of affirmative action for white people,” she writes (p 35).

And it’s not as if headwinds vanish once you know they’re there. Irving writes: “as long as our racial system is intact, there’s nothing I can do to give away my privilege. I’ve got it, whether I want it or not. The question is what will I do with it” (p 74).

Dominant culture emotions (or lack thereof)

Irving grew up in an upper-middle-class WASP family in New England, where politeness and cheeriness were core virtues, and everyone avoided conflict by suppressing and never discussing their emotions. I grew up in the south, rather than the north, but her descriptions of a dominant white culture that stuffed away feelings in order to keep everything on an even keel struck home. “Rather than face feelings like anger, embarrassment, or guilt head-on, my first reaction usually involved an urge to run, defend myself, blame someone, or have a stiff drink,” she writes (p 166).

Structural racism hurts and generates raw, palpable emotions for people of color. Because of my whiteness, and the fact that I’ve been trained to avoid raw emotions in many public and professional situations, it’s long been my response to shy away from the discomfort of talking about race. Part of understanding my own whiteness has been recognizing and naming these elements of dominant white culture like defensiveness, emotional restraint, and conflict avoidance. Knowing those elements of the dominant culture, and seeing them as part of my own upbringing, has allowed me to lean into more difficult conversations about race.

Leaning into discomfort

Irving’s book has reminded me that when I start talking about a race-related topic and my blood pressure goes up, or my skin turns red, that’s a sign I need to keep talking, rather than shy away from the issue. There are so many potential “detours” that I, or other white folks, can turn to in discussions of race: acting “colorblind” (which erases the lived experience of people of color), calling something “reverse racism” (which denies the power imbalance inherent in racism, which is prejudice + power), treating an instance of racism as an isolated incident (when many people of color experience headwinds and microaggressions regularly).

This book helped to solidify for me what working for racial equity looks like: it starts with personal work understanding my own self, and how I have fit into the larger systems of structural racism in the U.S. I didn’t build those systems, and I certainly don’t endorse them, but I’ve accepted I’m a part of them and can work to dismantle them. That’s where I think my work as a white, anti-racist ally beings. “Seeing myself in a system with people as opposed to a sympathetic observer on the sidelines changed my relationship to the problem,” writes Irving. “I understood then that it was possible to be both a good person and complicit in a corrupt system” (p 99).