While nearly everyone has heard of actions and events in history that relate to racism, they may not have learned the true story, according to Debby Irving, author of “Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race.”

Irving said many beliefs society has about race and race relations were formed during childhood and passed down through many generations, without anyone questioning them.

“Doing anti-racist work requires thinking back to childhood and questioning what was learned,” said Irving, who grew up upper class in Winchester, Mass.

On Monday, Irving gave a free virtual talk on Zoom about understanding racism, called Waking Up White: A Conversation on Bias, Privilege and Race.

For more on Irving, visit debbyirving.com.

During the two-hour conversation, which included a PowerPoint presentation, Irving answered questions.

She said her job is to continually notice where she might have a “blind spot” in something she learned in her past, and “correct that information, and integrate it so that I can continue to broaden my perspective.”


The more Irving learns about racism, the more she said she realizes, she came out of her childhood “so unbelievably ignorant.”

One example Irving gave of this was being taught that Rosa Parks “was an old lady who was too tired to stand up on the bus, and that’s what sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott.”

Irving later learned that at the time of the incident, Parks was 42, “and at 60, I don’t think that was very old,” Irving said.

Irving continued, “And there was nothing random about her getting on the bus that day. There was nothing feeble about her. Rosa Parks was a highly trained, highly sophisticated activist. Her particular area of interest and expertise was about getting the rights for Black women who were raped in the South by white men, and the right to legal recourse and abortion should that rape turn into a pregnancy.”

The day that Parks stepped on the bus in Montgomery “is the culmination of months and months of late night meetings to develop a highly choreographed strategy to disrupt a system,” Irving said. “The transportation system in Montgomery was chosen, and her being the one selected, was all part of a very strategic plan.”

The plan, according to Irving, involved who should be the person on the bus, which bus, what time of day, what’s the script, and what’s the follow-up.

“There was nothing haphazard or feeble about that,” she said.

Irving, who had been a kindergarten teacher, said she shared the myth version of the Parks story with her class.

Additionally, she said while she knew about Dr. Martin Luther King and his dream, she never learned too much else about him.

“What we don’t hear about it is the rest of his work, including something he calls the triple evils of militarism, poverty and racism, and how those three isms circle together that holds a cap on the whole thing,” she said. “We don’t hear about how frustrated he had become at the end of this life.”

Throughout her discussion, Irving provided many other examples of what she said are myths — another of which involves the children’s book “Babar the Elephant,” which, according to Irving, through its words and illustrations, taught children that Black people are criminal, dangerous, subhuman, and uncivilized.

“The text is telling us the cannibals are coming out of the jungle to attack Babar’s cousins,” she said. “This was one of my very first exposures to people with darker skin.”

Asking questions

Irving said the “essential first step” is to question past lessons and learned beliefs.

At the end of every day, she asks myself these three questions: “Has anything surprised me? Has anything challenged me? and “What am I curious to learn more about?”

According to Irving, a “fundamental” first step in becoming more aware of unconscious bias and mitigating biases is to “be willing to acknowledge that you are holding a lot of bias and to get really curious about it,” she said. “So often, people say, ‘I don’t have a racist bone in my body,’ and as long as were in that defensive or afraid to or we think it will signal that were a bad person — that’s the worst.”

Breaking down stereotypes

Irving said she first became directly exposed to those who are underprivileged after graduating college.

“I grew up in white bubble Winchester. I went to white bubble Kenyon College in Ohio,” she said.

At the age of 22, she had a job creating after-school programs in Boston for underprivileged youth living in the inner city.

“For the first time in my life, I encountered neighborhoods that were poor,” she said.

When she tried rationalizing their living conditions to herself, she said that “every nasty stereotype I’ve ever been exposed to starts coming up to explain what I’ve seen — they don’t know how to take care of their buildings, probably don’t care about school, not very smart, lazy, parents probably don’t care about education.”

She said she later learned that poor communities suffered “economic castration as a result of 1930s New Deal housing and lending policies.”

“Money got pumped into the Winchesters and the Dariens of the world,” she said, adding this explains why the wealthier towns across the United States have better public services such as libraries, transportation, libraries, food supply, access to health care, books, and education.

“All the money was going into the towns like Winchester,” she said. “If my belief system has not been updated, you can throw all the data in the world at me and I would misread it because this is how our belief systems work. If you had shown me the race wealth gap, I would have assumed that white people are clearly harder working and smarter, more responsible with their money.”

Irving said that she now looks at that same set of data and attributes the situation as an “inevitable outcome of hundreds of years of policy after policy after policy diverting wealth towards a small group of people and away from everybody else.”

Affects of pandemic

In regard to COVID-19, Irving said the reason African Americans are experiencing higher death rates and case rates is a result of systemic racism.

“It’s an inevitable outcome of creating a housing situation where Black and brown people are disproportionally crammed into crowded inner city housing, have front line jobs, have to take public transportation to get to those jobs, don’t have access to health care,” she said.

Combating racism

Suggestions Irving provided during her conversation about how to change society’s beliefs about race revolve around education.

“Start a book group, make sure there is a budget for professional development for teachers and administrators,” she said.

She said while students are the most willing to learn, “we need teachers and administrators who are also willing to learn. We also need parents. The entire school community all need to come along.”

Parents “must be willing to listen to questions from their children and do research,” she added, “No matter how uncomfortable it is or if we don’t know the answer, honor the question.”

According to Irving, adults should have an open mind and look for multiple perspectives. “As white people, it is crucial to hear the voices of the people of color,” she said.

She spoke about “breaking the code of white silence.”

“The vast majority of white people were taught not to see or talk about color and race. So, we don’t have the skills, vocabulary, concepts,” she said. “We are often raised to say, ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all, and that means that we may grow up adverse to conflict. We have trouble talking about anything that rocks the boat. Our emotional capacity may be fragile, so it’s very important to start talking about it.”