One of the biggest outcomes of being born in 1960 during the civil rights movement, according to Debby Irving, a racial justice educator, was being raised to be colorblind.

“I remember growing up, we were not supposed to talk about race or see race. We are all just human beings,” said Irving, a Cambridge, Mass., resident.

However, it was only after taking a graduate school course in her late 40s on race relations that she said she learned her long held views on race and the way people of color should be treated are wrong.

In fact, those views actually make racism worse, according to Irving.

From 5 to 6:30 p.m. on July 13, Irving will be giving a free virtual talk on Zoom about understanding racism, as it relates to her book, “Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race.”

The event is called Waking Up White: A Conversation on Bias, Privilege and Race. Community partners for nclude: the YWCA of Darien/Norwalk and The Darien Library, as well as the Town of Darien; A Better Chance Darien; Darien YMCA; Darien Community Association; The Darien Youth Center; The Darien Times; Liberation Programs; Person2Person; St. Luke’s Center for Family Justice; Everwell; Hayvn; State Rep. Terrie Wood; Darien Human Services; Dr. Tara Levinson, PhD, NSCP; and Christa McNamara, Darien Board of Selectman.

To register for the event, visit the YWCA Darien/Norwalk website, and click Events & Activities.

“Waking up White,” which is self-published, is Irving’s first book. Published in 2014, it has been on The New York Times Best Seller List with about 300,000 copies sold. To read more about Irving and her book, visit her website at

Following the conversation, there will be information about a community-wide book read with discussion groups that will be meeting in September.

“So much of the way we learn about racism, we learn through visuals,” said Irving, adding she’ll paint a picture of how “we white people were made ignorant and protected.”

During the talk, she’ll also address the effects of racism in light of COVID-19.


Irving grew up in Winchester, Mass, which she said is a very wealthy town, and “a lot like Darien.”

Through her research, she said she learned that her family’s wealth was “not fairly earned.”

“We are on stolen land,” she said. “The entire U.S. economy is built on free labor.”

Irving added that “the entire institution of enslavement — that is what built the U.S. economy.”

In the past, she said, “Black people could not move to a Winchester or a Darien.”

Graduate course

In 2009, at the age of 48, Irving took a mandatory graduate school course called “Racial and Cultural Identities,” and it got her thinking about race relations in a way she never had before, she said. Irving has been as a community organizer and classroom teacher for 25 years. She has two grown children with her husband Bruce, who is a Darien native.

In the course, she said she thought that she was going to learn about families of color, but instead was asked “to do a six-month deep dive into my own racial and cultural identity,” she said. “By the time that course ended, I learned so much history that I had never learned in school. I started to understand what systemic racism is.”

Irving recommends all white people develop their own racial identity. “Until we do that, we can’t have any meaningful conversation with people of color,” she said.

After she took the graduate class, she wanted to keep “learning and learning,” she added.

Understanding racism

Irving said she learned that racism is not about whether or not or people are nice to each other.

“It’s the system that the entire United States is designed around,” she said.

According to Irving, by ignoring or not acknowledging a person’s race, one will never learn about it.

“Racism is a complicated social issue,” she said. “If you don’t talk about it, you don’t get the language for it, you don’t understand the concepts, you don’t understand the history,” she said.

Although she was a history major in college, she said she didn’t learn any of the history about racism and race relations that she now learns every day.

Irving said people of color have to talk about race “every single day” because they have to navigate through “a hostile world.”

“Every day, people of color are weathered and warn down because of white ignorance and white cruelty,” she said.


Irving said white people should not need to ask people of color about their history.

“People of color are so tired of educating us,” she said, adding that white people should do their own research.

“There is no shortage of ways to hear from voices of color about racism, such as videos and radio shows,” she said. “We don’t need to further exhaust people of color in our community by leaning on them to teach us.”

“Listen and learn”

The very first step white people need to take in order to understand people of color is to “listen and learn” from them, according to Irving.

“Often, white people want to jump in and fix,” she said.

The more she learns about racism, the more she said she realizes there’s still more to learn.

Real “turning points” for her have been “that moment” when a friend or colleague of color will point out something she has done or said that can come across as racist, she said.

“I’ve learned to not be defensive,” she added.

Examples of commonly used conversation starters that Irving said she’ll no longer use are “Where are you from?” and “What do you do for work?”

“Those are the number one icebreakers in white culture,” Irving said.

According to Irving, those phrases can be interpreted as placing someone in a hierarchy or inferring they don’t belong somewhere.

Instead, Irving recommends a good icebreaker can be, “How’s your day going?”

“I’m still learning every day,” Irving said.