by Debby Irving

“Data is like a Rorschach test.” Brandeis University’s Tom Shapiro said this to me when I confessed to him how I would have once interpreted the below data.

  • US Racial Wealth Gap: Average Household Wealth
  • White              $ 656,000
  • Latino              $   98,000
  • Black               $   85,000     (2013 Institute for Policy Studies)

Only ten years ago, I would have seen the above as evidence that white people were smarter, harder working, and more financially responsible. Because I thought racism meant white people not liking people of color, I remained clueless about the vast racialized systems and structures that shape the lives of all Americans, including mine. The process of “Waking Up White” has been an education in how an entire population, myself included, can be duped into ideas about human superiority and inferiority along racial lines.

Data is fascinating in that, without drilling into the story behind the data, it can serve to reaffirm ideas we already hold. Which is what happened to me.

  • US Incarceration Rates by Race and Ethnicity
  • White   380     per 100,000
  • Latino   966     per 100,000
  • Black   2,207   per 100,000     (2010 Prison Policy Initiative)
  • CT Public School Graduates’ College Graduation Rates
  • White              53.8%
  • Hispanic          21.4%
  • Black               24.4%     (2008 Connecticut State Department of Education)

Pre-wake-up, the three sets of above data would’ve reaffirmed my embedded racial beliefs, ideas I’d ingested early and often about white people as harder working, more responsible, less threatening, smarter, and less of a drain on society. Can you see how this data could support each and every one of those beliefs?

What’s astounding to me is that in my white, suburban childhood no one even mentioned white people’s supposed superiority. My ideology formed around counterpart ideas that were more explicit; ones about black and brown people as lazy, irresponsible, criminal, dangerous, less intelligent, and content to live like sloths off of hard working white people.

My understanding was that the US specialized in fairness, offering everyone a chance at the “American Dream,” through sheer hard work and good character. In that scheme, those who achieved success had earned it. If white people were in positions of leadership — more specifically, white male Christian people – that meant they got there on their own merit, right? This thinking allowed me, at a very early age, to form ideas that connected ability to biological type and, in my imagination, white trumped all other racial types. It felt obvious, and in my all-white world, no one ever challenged my racial beliefs. We didn’t talk about race. It was considered rude.

In the white silence, my ignorance deepened as I collected evidence in support of what I already thought was true. Images of thriving, white all-American prototypes saturated my world through real life, TV Shows, textbooks, literature, and dollar bills. It felt wonderful to be part of a country ruled by fairness. I was emboldened imagining myself part of the superior race. The seduction of contempt is powerful.

The reality is far from fair. Embedded in US society lives a web of systems that differentially distribute access to rights, resources, representation, and respect. Creating room for this far harsher reality has been the ultimate waking up challenge. I resisted it for decades. As I’ve learned that there is a drastically different explanation for the above data, I’ve had to do battle with feelings of defensiveness, guilt, shame, and entitlement.

Here’s just one example of what I’ve learned. Following WWII, the US government transferred $120 billion to private citizens through the housing portion of GI Bill, a benefit package offered to returning veterans. Despite that fact that 1.2 million African-American GIs, as well as Latino-, Indigenous-, and Asian-American GIs also fought in WWII, 98% of GI Bill housing wealth went to white GIs, like my father. Though the GI Bill didn’t specify “whites only,” US housing and lending policy at the time restricted who could live where according to racially “redlined” maps. The GI Bill was only good in white-designated neighborhoods. My socially engineered, racially segregated, white world, where stories of rags to riches abounded, all but guaranteed I’d have no exposure to real black or brown people to pull me from denial.

Racism 101 is about this paradigm shift. Until white people understand the degree to which “we don’t know what we don’t know,” data intended to explain racial disparities in health care, food supply, transportation, education, lending, housing, and law is more likely to reaffirm old ideas than to inspire new ones. Waking up is hard to do. It’s also the only option to make a fair and just America a reality.


Debby Irving is a racial justice educator and author of Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race. She will be speaking on Saturday, Jan. 20 at First Church in West Hartford as part of “Racism 101” which begins at 9 a.m. 

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