Waking Up White

Updated: Dec 14, 2019


When I was invited to join a group counseling practice, the owner, an African-American psychologist, asked that all her team read the book, “Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race,” by Debby Irving. Before reading this book, I thought I knew all I needed to know about race in order to be an effective therapist. As the granddaughter of Jewish immigrants from Tsarist Russia, I grew up very much aware of being from a minority culture. All four of my grandparents left everything behind to come to America. They arrived with nothing, just in time for the Great Depression, and my parents grew up in poverty, excluded from certain neighborhoods, schools, and associations because of their Jewish identity.


When I was a little girl, we Jewish kids were a visible minority in school because we were the only ones absent on the “Jewish Holidays.” I remember neighborhood bullies riding their bicycles through my mother’s vegetable garden, our mailbox being vandalized repeatedly, and seeing swastikas painted on our garage door. I knew what it was like to be singled out because of my perceived race. Who had the right to accuse me of being privileged? Of being unaware or uncaring about the disparities of opportunity people of color? Of sharing in the responsibility for the repression of generations of Black- and Brown-skinned peoples? Wasn’t I the child of immigrants, who arrived on these shores penniless, and worked for every cent they had? Hadn’t I worked and struggled every day of my life? No one gave me any handouts.


When I was in grad school, working on my Master’s in Counseling degree, state licensing boards and national certification boards began requiring coursework in Multicultural Competency for graduation, board certification, and licensure. I was annoyed at having to take (and pay for) credit courses covering material that I thought I was already proficient in. And besides, I married a Latino and some of my best friends were Black. So, this made me culturally aware, right?


The first two times I read “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh, I only half-saw what the author was saying, so defensive was I at the notion that I was not a “woke’ White woman. It took a third reading and several years to really begin to open my eyes to the reality that I was the recipient of invisible, unearned privilege. That my white skin was a ticket, silently opening doors on well-oiled hinges so they gave no indication of how difficult they were for others to pass through. I began to look around me and see what had previously been invisible: the way I was greeted in stores and encouraged to look, examine, touch the merchandise; the way police treated me with respect, and assumed that I was not a threat; the fact that Black parents had to give their sons, The Talk, something my parents never had to think about.


Peggy McIntosh’s article made it possible for me to read Debby Irving’s book: Waking Up White. I still found myself getting defensive, but started looking at each instance of resistance to dig deeper, and find those hard truths I was afraid to face. Speaking of faces, I never wanted to identify my own as White, because I wanted to separate myself from the perpetrators of Slavery, both historic and modern. I wanted to play the Immigrant card. “Hey, my family just got off the boat, so don’t lump me in with the racists!” But I had to realize that even if that were a legitimate argument, it can’t take away from the fact of the freedom I walk in, just by being White. I suddenly understood that I never had to worry that I would be turned down for an apartment because of my skin color. I never had to wonder whether the job I didn’t get was due to my race. When I am pulled over by the police, by only fear is that I’m going to get a ticket. I never thought of these as privileges bought by my White skin. I just thought that’s how it is.


I was working with a client; an older man, a Vietnam Veteran. During the initial intake, I ask all clients to give me some insight into their trauma history, to help me develop our plan of treatment. As the weeks went by, this man who had responded “none” to the question of trauma, related more and more horror stories about being stopped by the police, being held on suspicion, of seeing friends shot in the street; and on and on. About one month into our work together, I finally challenged him: WAIT A MINUTE!! When I asked you about your trauma history, you told me “none”!! How is this possible? He responded, “I never thought of that as Trauma. I just thought that’s how it is.”


So yeah. I’m beginning to realize just how little I know and how much more I need to learn. I’ve always been an avid reader. Only recently, I realized that all of the books I read assume that the characters are White. So, I’m changing that. I’m changing the authors I read, the movies I watch, the podcasts I listen to. I’m seeking out voices that are NOT like mine, whose views and perspectives are different than mine, to open my ears to hear what life and dreams and hopes are like for people who don’t have the invisible privilege that my skin color affords me. I don’t want to be a clueless White chick whose clients walk away feeling unseen and unheard. I want to make a space where my clients are free to be brave and talk about the difficult issues. And to do that, I need to be brave first, and open my ears to hear and my eyes to see.