One Classroom’s Waking Up White Experience

Hi Debby,
     

Lark Hammond from Exeter here.  In my semi-retirement I taught only one course this winter, and for the final (analytical) paper, students could choose to write on one or more of the works we had read, which included Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Achebe's Things Fall Apart and his article on "An Image of Africa: Racism in Heart of Darkness", as well as several chapters of Waking Up White.
 

Again, and even more than before, now that I have some experience teaching your text, I find it is THE missing link that helps all the other things I teach to snap into focus–it completes the picture by putting white culture and white dominance under the microscope.  And it's personal so that students can understand it even if some find it rather unbelievable, at first, that someone could NOT be aware of pervasive racism.

One (white) girl looked at "sleep and ignorance" and "darkness", using Conrad's text and yours: "Heart of Darkness depicts ignorance as a dangerous component involved in European imperialism, while Waking Up White discusses in depth the common, oblivious perpetration of systematic racism." 

In her "writer's process questions," she gives a perfect testimonial for you:   "After reading Waking Up White I became very interested in race relations.  I began to think, "Why is this happening?" and "Why doesn't it just stop?"  I've come to a few conclusions, and one of them blames a lot of all this on ignorance."

The conclusion of her paper is also rather nice:
"The real truth is only visible in light.  Irving educates the reader about her enlightenment while Conrad shows the reader the darkness.  He even makes the reader feel the ignorance by only allowing us to see what Marlow sees.  If Marlow is in the dark, then so are we.  Irving urges the reader to turn on the light and see what has been in front of us all this time we have been in the dark."

The most original analysis came in a paper by an Asian-American girl comparing Achebe's Things Fall Apart with your Waking Up White.  She looks at the negative consequences of "maintaining dominance through emotional restraint and individualism"  for both Okonkwo, the pre-colonial Ibo protagonist of Achebe's novel, and for American race relations.  Okonkwo, "a champion of masculinity," wants his son to be just like him, fails to see his good qualities, and ultimately drives him away.  She compares that with your experience: "Irving examines how she imposed her own cultural practices onto others, which ultimately inhibited her ability to understand other races."  . . .  "In Waking Up White, Irving affirms that her own difficulty in understanding the racism that divides America resulted from characteristics of her culture such as emotional restraint and individualism.  Things Fall Apart reveals that these characteristics even pose problems in a racially homogenous society like Umuofia."

In her conclusion, she analyzes a quote by another Ibo character, an old man: "Uchendu touches on an important fact: a true supportive community stems from the culture of the "motherland"–which, in Ibo culture, equates to traits such as empathy and interdependence."   I love her concluding sentence: "The texts Waking Up White and Things Fall Apart reveal  that an empathetic and interdependent society functions better than a society based around dominance, emotional restraint, and individualism."
 

An international student wrote about the "blatant misconceptions" that underlie racism and the destructiveness of colonization, tackling both the global and personal significance of such attitudinal obstacles to understanding.  He drew from Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Achebe's Things Fall Apart,  Adichie's "The Headstrong Historian," and your Waking Up White.   In analyzing Things Fall Apart, he applied the idea in WUW that the belief that your way is the right way blinds you to good qualities in others: "Yes, the Ibo did have more cultural superstitions than the Europeans and did not wear as many clothes.  However, these cultural differences made Europeans blind to the Ibos' more sophisticated or "humane" qualities such as their respect for nature and land, complex ceremonies, and intricate usage of language."   . . . "As Debby Irving narrated in Waking Up White, many people today grow up with racist ideas or prejudice engrained in their minds because of societal norms. [ . . .] Learning to rid ourselves of the misconceptions that society places us in can be seen as the most fundamental step towards abating prejudice and racism.”   . . .  “Perhaps the Europeans would not have been able to sustain their prejudiced views if they truly understood African culture as Grace of ‘The Headstrong  Historian’ was able to by the end of her journey to understanding her African roots.”   . . . “Coming from [my country], a country that is unfortunately and, quite frankly, racist, I grew up with many biases and prejudices against African cultures.  If it were not for the close reading I did of an African culture in Things Fall Apart during my English studies, I would have sustained my misconceptions." . . .


My only black student this term wrote a close analysis of Waking Up White. In his paper he also uses Achebe's comments on Conrad's racism, and references to Heart of Darkness, to show how ideas about white supremacy have been passed down for generations, so that, as you say, white people today "did not invent racism, [but] inherited it." In his author's process questions he says: "Being an African American male, Waking Up White truly allowed me to see what it is like for a white person to come to the epiphany that racial injustice does occur.  I have had some white people tell me that since I am not enslaved and have equal rights, that I have an equal chance of being successful.  I have learned in my short journey that this is not the case and that the color of my skin will put up barriers that I will have to cross.  Nevertheless I feel that it is important to learn as much as I can about the system and the way it works in order to prepare myself for the many challenges to come.  I wanted to convey the message that avoiding the issue of race is not going to help bring racial equality and that talking about it and trying to understand both sides is the only way things can ever change for the better."

He goes on to explain: "Before deeply studying the argument Debby makes about it being more productive for white people to not feel guilty, I would have supported that they should feel guilty.  A while back I read an article that said, "black power equates to white guilt."  Now I see that true power lies in white people sympathizing with black and seeing how white privilege works in order to set up a more equal system.  I believe that the first draft of my paper would not have been as good because I tried to write more about black suppression versus white privilege.  After the first draft was deleted (accidentally!) I was able to write the second draft after much more thought which I think allowed me to better organize my ideas and arguments." < n. b. I gave this student your unpublished Top Ten Tips for Readers of Waking up White before he wrote the second draft. .>

Another  (white ) boy uses a quote from Waking Up White as an epigraph.  His conclusion is good:
"Kurtz's pride causes him to disdain both the everyday occupations that protect others from madness and the simple people who would otherwise fill his loneliness and restrain his wild desires.  As Debby Irving writes, only a heart that is "spacious and undefended" can "carve  . . .  enough space for everyone else" (Irving, 246).  Kurtz does not have enough space in his heart for the things that could save him, filled as it is entirely with images of his own greatness, and without them he is left exposed to the "fascination of the abomination."  What Kurtz "lacks," the weakness of character that makes him vulnerable, is humility."

I thought you'd find all this very heartening.  Your book is not a magic bullet IN ITSELF, but in combination with other texts and some careful teaching, is IS A GAME-CHANGER!  I've been trying to teach about race for 27 years, using a combination of 'standard' texts and 'diverse' texts, and I am getting through to white kids (and Asians) now more easily and more deeply than I ever have before.  THANK YOU!!!!!

Oh–here is a link to the (revised) description of the Exeter Diversity Institute for humanities teachers and administrators, which I am co-leading, along with Erik Wade, a (black) history teacher, with help from Rosanna Salcedo, our (Latina) Dean of Multi-cultural affairs. 

If you think it would be helpful information in your travels and presentations, please give us a shout-out.

Thank you again!
Lark Hammond