Debbi Irving [ TEDxFenway ] Seven years ago, I had a series of wake-up calls that were so profound — that was in this course Racial and Cultural Identities that Mina just told us about. These awakenings were so profound that, when the course was over, I ended up leaving my job, withdrawing from my graduate school program, and embarking on what was a completely unexpected journey into the heart of American racism.
You can see what my life looked like.
What was so stunning to me in this course was that I discovered that my life is deeply tied to racism. I had no idea. I wondered how I’d missed the clues.
I grew up in Winchester, Massachusetts. Many of you probably know, it’s a beautiful suburb north of Boston.
This is what my childhood looked a lot like.
And it felt completely normal to me because all around me were people who looked and lived like my family, friends, extended family. Characters in my story books — even TV families looked and lived like my family.
The Brady Bunch — a blended family. This for me was diversity.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that constant exposure to people and perspectives, so similar to my family’s, was setting me up to develop a distorted world view. It was like living in a hall of mirrors.
A white bubble.
I have to say, I know not all white bubbles are all alike –because white American stories vary a lot, depending on class, era, religion, geography — among other things.
I want to be clear, I’m not speaking for all white Americans.
This is my story.
I’m going to focus today specifically on two ideas which are fundamental to the belief system I developed in my particular white bubble.
Neither were explicitly articulated to me. They were more built-in small moments, over time.So the first idea was that America’s playing field was level.
I heard phrases like “Land of Opportunity”, the “American Dream”, “Life, Liberty, Pursuit of Happiness for All”. “All Men Created Equal”. I thought that “man” part was a figure of speech.
And I thought All meant All.
The second idea is much, much harder to talk to you about.
Seven years ago I could never have admitted this to you because I couldn’t have admitted this to myself — and this is the idea of Natural Order.
The idea that by nature some people are more worthy, more capable, more fit to lead and other people are more dangerous, less ambitious, more criminal, less human.
And these ideas have a lot to do with race.
I know now that Natural Order is an antiquated idea and, unfortunately, I can tell you that it still lives quite actively in my psyche.
How did this happen?
Well, for instance, everywhere I went I saw that white men were in charge.
And here’s where the two ideas interlock.
If I think the playing field is level and I’m repeatedly exposed to images of white men at the top of organizational hierarchies — that sends me a powerful message that white men are superior.
That’s why they’re in charge.
Again, we’re talking about fleeting moments.
Phrases to contribute to huge ideas about inherent human difference.
Huge ideas about social order, social roles, who leads and who follows, who serves and who gets served.
Part of the reason these ideas were able to take hold so deeply was because I had no other narratives in my white bubble.
I didn’t know people with different experiences who probably would have had very different interpretations of all these slides that we’re looking at.
I so wish someone had explained this to me earlier. Because, without understanding my own inner workings, I ended up spending most of my adult life using my ideas about a
Level Playing Field and Natural Order to reaffirm my ideas about a Level Playing Field and Natural Order.
I was in my twenties, a job brought me into downtown neighborhoods, downtown Boston neighborhoods, where there were dilapidated buildings and falling apart schools and invariably these neighborhoods were full of black and brown people.
You know this neighborhood. This is the kind of neighborhood were Michael Brown and Freddie Gray lived and died.
I couldn’t bear that this counted for normal for the children in this neighborhood — so I wanted to do something about it
I came up with a plan. Interestingly, I didn’t spend a lot of time talking to the actual people in the actual neighborhoods. Because my belief system had already told me that I had little to learn from inferior people about their own circumstances.
I mean, in hindsight, it is preposterous – but you know, I was trapped in my own paradigm and I didn’t know yet that there was an incredibly different explanation for what I was seeing.
So I raise money from my white social network and I created after school programs and field trips for these disadvantaged children and then I was really kind of confused when they weren’t that appreciative.
But that didn’t stop me.
Not then and not later when I became a classroom teacher.
My patronizing Savior Syndrome –looks a lot like Scarlett – came with me everywhere I went. Until the age of 48.
So in the first hour of that fateful class the professor told us – the white professor told us – we’d be doing a deep dive into our own racial identity and I remember looking around the room at my racial mix covert and thinking “what am I gonna do?”
I didn’t know what I didn’t know
About halfway through the course my belief system was just buckling, under the weight of history and narratives that I’d never learned in school or through family stories, and then came the straw that just broke the camel’s back.
We’re watching a film one night. They were talking about the GI Bill and I’m thinking, “oh I know the GI Bill, because my dad he was in World War II and he used to say that the GI Bill was a great example of how America took care of its own. And he used that GI Bill to go to Harvard Law School for free. My parents bought their first home with a GI Bill backed loan.
All of a sudden the film starts talking about the fact that the GI Bill was not accessible to most of the 1,000,000 black GI’s who also laid down their lives in that war.
I realized in that moment that racism was not just prejudice.
Racism was the power to put prejudice into life-defining laws and policies.
Here’s how it worked — because racism is a smooth operator — it didn’t say anywhere in that Bill that black guys need not apply.
Here’s how it worked.
The Federal, at least on the housing front, the Federal Housing Authority (FHA), at the time, assessed lending risk on two criteria 1.) the condition of the building 2.) the skin color of the residents.
Written into FHA guidelines were these words, “the presence of even one or two non-white families could undermine real estate values.”
So, based on this government warning, private banks all across the country created color-coded maps.
A green town would be like a Winchester, a white town, and green would designate best lending areas.
Those areas that I had been calling disadvantage, thinking people didn’t know how to help themselves, have been outlined in red –designating Hazardous Lending Area
Winchester was not randomly white.
Winchester had been made white.
By intentionally obstructing black and brown people from buying homes there.
OK, so let’s say back to the idea of that American Dream.
Would we say that education is a critical component of the American Dream?
And yet, in America, most public education is funded by property tax — which is connected to property value, which is at least – and this is still true – connected in part to skin color. Which creates wildly divergent educational opportunities, along racial lines, and produces results that look a lot like Natural Order.
Like white people are awesome and black and brown people are a problem, living off the government, angry ungrateful, unmotivated.
This is such a twisted story.
Because I had never thought about it this way.
I’ve got to say, my white family? We got White Only Land Grants, Social Security, citizenship status, GI Bill benefits, preferential public education — to name a few.
I think about the psychological impact of America’s racial scheme on me, because with all those white perks came optimism, a sense of belonging, and the belief that I was safe at the hands of authority.
I can’t even imagine what the opposite of that feels like.
No one alive today created racism.
We didn’t ask for it. We didn’t create it. Yet there is an immense responsibility and opportunity for everyone today to evolve — to use that word — America beyond this archaic and inhumane people scheme.
I’ve had more than a few people of color say to me, “Debbie, you’re wasting your time. White people know exactly how the system works. They deny it because it works for them.
I know those people exist. Push them over there.
Because I also meet white people every day who are more like me – good intentions, bad information.
Fortunately, not all people of color have given up on white people.
This is my colleague Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr, and in many ways his childhood was a mirror image of mine, because he grew up in one of those red lined neighborhoods — where he was exposed to negative stereotypes about white people
He got out of that neighborhood
He got to college where, for the first time in his life, he met real-live white people and learned that yeah there are some hateful white people.
And yet there are a lot that just lack education.
So Dr. Moore has dedicated his life to educating white people.
Among all he’s done, one of them is to create the White Privilege Conference — now in its 17th year.
So what do we do?
This is a huge problem.
And yet, all racism begins and ends with individual thoughts, actions, feelings. And so this individual work, to think about our own belief systems, is a surprisingly crucial piece of moving beyond racism.
So I thought what would be helpful would be to share with you three of my personal Racial Justice Practices:
The first is curiosity. I will always make snap judgments. This is part of being human, but I practice slowing down and asking myself questions like, “whoah why did I just think that thought?”
Or “what’s really going on here?” or “whose perspective am I not hearing?”
Courage. I spent most of my life just terrified, especially when it came to talking about race, terrified of saying something stupid, saying something offensive, rocking the boat, creating conflict and then terrified that I wouldn’t be able to handle the fallout if I did any of those things.
I can tell you that courage begets courage. It gets easier
Tolerance. OK, misused word in this business.
Tolerance is not but me tolerating you because wouldn’t that be setting the bar pathetically low?
Tolerance, tolerance for me is about me tolerating my own feelings of discomfort as I bumble along imperfectly discovering new blind spots and feeling anger and grief and embarrassment — the very feelings I was taught to fear and avoid.
So this is the thing about finding myself in the story of race.
It hasn’t just been about connecting to my own racial history.
It’s been about reconnecting the parts of my own humanity that I had to dumb down in order to not see or feel racism.
Racism crushes human potential for all of us.
And I believe we’re all better off when we’re all better off.
Life, Liberty Pursuit of Happiness for All.
You know, that’s still my North Star.
For every American who can make the time to understand what’s behind racial tension, I believe that we’ll have an increased chance of pulling together as a nation and as a species.
FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: Pierre Metivier