Thomas Dineen's essays and reviews have appeared in The American Conservative and other publications. He lives with his wife and daughter in northern Baltimore City.
“Let me make one thing clear: I don’t hate whites. I love whites! I’m white, I grew up in a white family, and I have lots of white friends.”
The speaker was Debby Irving, author of Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race (Elephant Room Press, 2014, 288 pp.) and self-described “racial justice educator.” She had come to educate 200 whites like me gathered to hear her at Friends School of Baltimore. The headmaster of the school has just made the book mandatory reading for the faculty, and I was curious to know what my daughter would be taught next year.
It isn’t just my daughter. In addition to elite prep schools, Irving’s speaking tour will take her to colleges and universities such as Berkeley, Otterbein, Shippensburg, the University of Virginia, Wellesley, and Williams. At Brown University, Irving appeared this February at a symposium on “Unpacking Race: An Essential Conversation in Schools and Homes,” concerning difficult questions such as “What roles do white educators and white adults play in creating equitable communities?” At the Curry School of Education at UVA, Waking Up White had been chosen as a “common read for all faculty, students, and staff” and would be “woven into everything from fall orientation to professional development and lectures” throughout the 2015 academic year. Irving’s success is unsurprising: the book is blurbed by Van Jones, the 9-11 Truther who was forced to resign from the Obama administration for calling Republicans “assholes” in public, and the recommendation of such a notable figure must carry great weight. Irving has been successfully educating affluent liberals in all their diverse habitats: private schools, tony colleges, and the occasional “White Privilege Conference.”
After being introduced, Irving projected a collage of the American presidents on a large screen. Aside from Obama, it turns out that all of them have been white men. (A black man in the audience later expressed chagrin that our current president was also “half white.”) Then came images of U.S. currency: Washington on the $1, Lincoln on the $5, Jackson on the $20, Franklin on the $100. The money they pay our wages in is also white and male.
I gathered that Irving thought that honoring the white men who have served our country was a problem. Our education had begun.
Yet our problems are far deeper. Babar the Elephant, the beloved children’s book character from the 1930s, also is a bigot. Though he seems a genial pachyderm, Babar would have done well to “check his privilege,” given that he is relatively fair-skinned, aristocratic (King of the Elephants), male, and—most damning of all—known to battle “dark-skinned savages” during his adventures. The evidence is clear: For nearly a century, children have been ingesting white supremacist propaganda disguised as a harmless bedtime book.
Irving then began the autobiographical portion of her presentation. Born into a well-educated, well-off family, Irving rarely encountered anyone but other whites while growing up in the Boston suburb of Winchester, Massachusetts. Graced from birth with a lumpen-Sontagian intuition that the white race was more cancerous than not, Irving was always a good person keenly sensitive to the immemorial victimization of blacks by whites. Her family, unfortunately, did not share her acute perception of white racial villainy. Her mother shockingly told the young Irving that Indians might bear some responsibility for their own fate, and that choosing to drink too much alcohol might harm them more than persecution by whites. Irving’s mother also failed to denounce the long, evil history of white imperialism, Christianity, and capitalism, and thus left her five-year-old daughter horribly miseducated. Such horrors might happen to any child.
Irving then emphasized that it is not just the mothers of five-year-olds who are failing their children. History, as taught currently in American universities, is part of “The Master Narrative” told by dominant white conquerors rather than their dark-skinned victims. I gathered from her speech that American history professors teach a Birth of the Nation narrative of American history where heroic Klansmen perpetually battle black savages. I confess I was a little startled to learn this. When I was in college, unflinching condemnations of racism in the work of historians such as John Hope Franklin and Eric Foner were the touchstones of American history. I concluded that the profession must have fallen off sadly in the last generation.
Irving then told us of her move from Winchester to Cambridge—only six miles as the crow flies, but an emigration that brought with it an astounding mental transformation. She was no longer cocooned in the dreary, white backwoods of Winchester, but came to know a remarkably diverse set of friends and peers—progressive gay folks, progressive immigrants, progressive artists, and progressive community activists. Living with them, she realized just how awful it had been to grow up in Winchester, and how much she needed to do to redeem the Winchesters of America, so that no five-year-old would ever again learn about Indians without learning as well about the evils of white imperialism.
It wasn’t easy for Irving to take on this new role. Her lineage was attainted as that of a potential oppressor, for it consisted entirely of whites long established in America. “My family owned this huge chunk of land in the north of Maine,” she announced apologetically at her talk. She gave a sort of uneasy smile that I gather is what long-established whites do to beg pardon for being well off. Then she added, with the delight of a lottery winner: “And my parents sold their house for...guess how much? A million dollars!” As a flourish of affluence, it fell flat with the audience: a million dollars no longer buys much of a house in suburban Maryland. Yet it was sufficient: Irving had established herself as a cushy oppressor, recognized her white privilege, and given weight to her desire to renounce it.
Irving then opened the floor to questions.
The audience was more affirming than questioning. One white woman piously declared, “I believe we all belong to the same race...the human race!” I was not sufficiently educated, for I asked a question or two that called in doubt some of Irving’s premises. Apparently I exceeded my quota of skepticism, for Irving soon told me, “Sorry, but you’re a white man taking up too much time and there are others who want to speak.” After that I was silent perforce.
Voiceless, I wondered about the effects of Irving’s tour of college campuses. Berkeley will learn to its horror that all the presidents before the current one were white, and this one has a white mother. Otterbein will discover the awful truth that our currency honors the service of white men. Shippensburg will recoil from Babar, portrayed in his true colors. The University of Virginia will shake its collective head to learn that five-year-olds are not fully instructed on the evils of European imperialism. Wellesley will delight to know that the political monochrome of Cambridge is infinitely superior to the racial monochrome of Winchester. Williams will be educated on the Irving privilege incarnated in their Maine latifundium. At the Curry School of Education, the white men will learn that they should shut up—or perhaps there will be no discrimination there, since Debby Irving is no racist. The injunction to silence doubtless will be extended to everyone who questions Debby Irving rather than affirming her.
Now I know what my daughter will be taught next year. Many of our sons and daughters will learn the same lesson, in college campuses across the country. Irving loves whites, some of her best friends are whites, and she’ll take the microphone away from you if you ask her hard questions.
Image Credit: Waywuvel, cropped. The use of this image should not be taken to constitute an endorsement of the NAS by Waywuvel.