Author Debby Irving Presents Discussion on Race

By David Micali '21 | February 27, 2019

Debby Irving

On February 21 at 7 p.m. in the Dana Center, Debby Irving spoke to a crowd of people about her book, Waking Up White. Her event, entitled, “I’m a Good Person! Isn’t that Enough?,” was meant to read in a snarky tone. According to her, this was her thought when it came to race for 25 years and it served as the number one barrier from understanding the complex issue of race in America.

Debby Irving grew up in Winchester, Massachusetts, a “wealthy, white suburb” just north of Boston. She grew up in the 1960s in what she called her “white bubble.”

She never found it odd that every single person in the town, from the teachers to the bank employees to her neighbors, were white. According to her, she had no reason to find this odd because this image was reinforced as “all-American” in a series of paintings by Norman Rockwell which sat on “everyone’s coffee tables.”

This idea that a town full of only white people was normal was also reinforced in the television shows she watched like Father Knows Best. According to Irving, this show not only had the subtext of mother and children know nothing, but also emphasized that one should always be happy.

Growing up, her family had a saying: if one could not be polite and pleasant company, one should go to their room until one could be. This reinforcement of always being happy made it so that when there were protest over the Vietnam War in Winchester, Irving thought the protestors should “buck up and get over it.” When hearing people complain, no matter how valid their argument was, she automatically switched to judgement.

Irving was also taught that in America, the playing field was equal and looking around Winchester, she saw not “one single story” that contradicted that.

Even having an MBA degree in history, Irving felt uneducated about African American history.

Debby Irving never knew about how most of the 1.2 million African American World War II veterans were ineligible for the GI Bill. According to Irving, the GI Bill was a “thank you package” for veterans of World War II, known as GIs.

The four-pronged package gave GIs the choice of a farm loan, a small business loan, free higher education, or an amazing mortgage. Due to the time limit of her speech, Irving focused on the mortgage aspect of the bill.

Banks would draw color-coded maps across American cities, known as redlining. The red areas of the map were considered hazardous and had a high risk of defaulting on their loan while green areas were best. It was no coincidence that red areas always appeared over black neighborhoods and green areas were always white neighborhoods.

The Federal Housing Administration advised banks at the time that the presence of one or more “non-whites” can lower property values. The GI bill required that a person live in a green zone in order to be eligible for a mortgage and since African-Americans were drawn into red zones, they were unable to receive the benefits for serving their country.

The African American novelist and playwright James Baldwin said that “white people are trapped in a history they don’t understand,” and when Debby Irving realized that her family were given government benefits that others were not given because of their race, she began to feel “like a welfare baby.”

Debby Irving says then when people learn about this, they often ask what they can do.

First, she said, one should look at different perspectives and seek out the voices not being represented. Second, one should be “radically curious” and not be afraid to admit that they do not know. Finally, one should build courageous conversation skills because if one never has these conversations, nothing will change.

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