Suburban Sontag: Waking Up and Whacking Whites

waking up white“Let me make one thing clear: I don’t hate whites. I love whites! I’m white, I grew up in a white family, and I have lots of white friends.”

The speaker was Debby Irving, author of Waking Up White and self-described “racial justice educator.”  Just as when someone says, “Don’t take this as a criticism…”, you know that criticism will surely follow, her claim foretold a rough evening for whites like me and most of the 200 others gathered to hear her at Friends School of Baltimore. The headmaster thought highly enough of Irving’s memoir to require his faculty and trustees to read it.

Immediately after he introduced her, Irving projected a collage of the American presidents on a large screen. Her message: Aside from Obama, all of them were white guys (a black fellow in the audience later expressed chagrin that our current president was “half white”).  Then came images of U.S. currency: Washington on the $1, Lincoln on the $5, Jackson on the $20, Franklin on the $100.  More white males.

Not exactly a revelation to me or anyone else, but I began to sense that Irving sincerely didn’t hate whites…only white males who exerted power.

This was well-trodden ground on the Left, yet Irving wanted to show how pervasive the sickness was.  For instance, did you know that Babar was a bigot?  Yes, the next racial villain in Irving’s lineup was Babar the Elephant, the beloved children’s book character from the 1930s.  Though he seemed a genial pachyderm, Babar would have done well to “check his privilege,” given that he was relatively fair-skinned, aristocratic (King of the Elephants), male, and–most damning of all–known to battle “dark-skinned savages” during his adventures.

To Irving at least, the evidence was clear: For nearly a century, children the world over had been ingesting white supremacist propaganda cleverly disguised as a harmless bedtime book.  Not the kindhearted family guy he appeared, Babar was in fact a ruthless antagonist of non-whites…as were all white, male Homo sapiens.  Most just didn’t realize it.

Irving’s paranoid, extremist line of thinking was predictable.  The first plaudit on the back cover of Waking Up White came from black radical Van Jones, an Obama official forced to resign after publicly calling Republicans “assholes” and signing a petition proposing that the Bush administration “may indeed have deliberately allowed 9/11 to happen.”  Nice bedfellow.

Nonetheless, the early chapters of Irving’s book contain some nuanced, insightful views about race.  Born into a well-educated, somewhat old money family (we’ll get to her social pretensions later), Irving rarely encountered anyone but other Euro-Americans while growing up in Winchester, Mass.  She viewed herself then as a “good person,” by which she appears to mean “extremely eager to affirm and be liked by poor minorities, especially blacks.”  From early on, she regarded blacks uncritically, as the victims of whites from time immemorial.

Indeed, for Irving, racial oppressiveness emerges as the most notable characteristic of white people.  I heard frequent echoes in her book of Susan Sontag’s infamous assertion in Partisan Review (Winter, 1967) that “Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, Balanchine ballets, et al., don’t redeem what [white] civilization has wrought upon the world.  The white race is the cancer of human history.”

Debby Irving turns out to be a soft-edged, less acute, suburban Susan Sontag.

Irving describes, with much hand-wringing, how unforthcoming her family had been about white racial villany.  When the author was young, her mother airily replied to her questions about “what happened to the Indian[s]” by focusing on their intemperate taste for booze, rather than on how whites had abused them.

Unmentioned by either Irving or her mom was the Indians’ equally keen taste for grisly forms of torture–gang-raping children and grandmothers, skinning or burning captives alive–cannibalism, and non-stop intertribal warfare.  Irving also neglects to mention that whites eventually introduced Indians to democracy, the rule of law, international commerce, modern technology, and effective medical treatment.

This is not to deny the brutality with which whites sometimes treated Indians and other defeated peoples.  Yet the benefits of European conquest and colonialism were undoubtedly, according to NYU professor William Easterly and many other authorities, “in the long run more powerful than the negative effects of oppression.”

Irving also laments her mother’s failure to denounce the “larger historical pattern of white Europeans [sic] invading countries, exploiting resources, and ‘civilizing’ people they considered to be savages, all in an entangled quest to dominate through Christianity and capitalism.”  (I suppose Irving excuses the empire-building of Genghis Khan and Imperial Japan because they weren’t white.)

She goes on to claim that history, as taught currently in American schools, is part of “The Master Narrative,” in which dominant white conquerors, not their dark-skinned victims, spin the tale.

Irving’s datedness is astonishing.  Has she never heard of Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the U.S., first published in 1980, with over two million copies now circulating in school and college classrooms?  Zinn gave voice to minorities and spawned legions of Marxian academic disciples; his historical approach is becoming more mainstream by the day.

Irving moves from Winchester to Cambridge, Mass., which proves transformative:  “After ten years of living in Cambridge, retreating into my white cocoon came less easily than I’d hoped.  I’d spent hours with friends and colleagues–including gay folks, immigrants, artists, and community activists–from a range of backgrounds.”

Yet they likely had one thing in common–leftism.  This was Cambridge, Mass., after all, one of the most liberal cities in America.  Living there no doubt exposed Irving to a broader range of people than she knew in her hometown, but does this really constitute “diversity”?

I wonder how many NRA members, Mormons, pro-lifers, or Tea Party activists Irving got to know in Cambridge?  I’d say none, because for her, “diversity” means roughly “people and activities that have nothing to do with mainstream, center-right, middle class whites.”

But what about political diversity?  Was Irving concerned that conservatives were marginalized in many important contexts (e.g., nearly all of academia, aside from some seminaries and military institutes)?  It’s unlikely; in the superficial view of Irving and leftists of her ilk, diversity is skin-deep rather than ideological.

Being entirely white and long-established in America, Irving’s lineage marked her early as a potential oppressor.  “My family owned this huge chunk of land in the north of Maine,” she announced at her talk with a please don’t hate me grimace.  Then she added with the delight of a lottery winner: “And my parents sold their house for…guess how much? A million dollars!” (as if that were an astounding sum to this audience).

She went on to describe, rather vulgarly, the money and property she’d inherited from her parents and other ancestors.  Irving’s strange guilt-cum-glee tone seemed based more on class insecurity than on her desire to show how cushy her life had been compared with the lot of blacks.

Yet growing up white and growing up well-off obviously don’t overlap much of the time–ask a redneck or Appalachian.  (As a side note, in my experience, working class whites tend to discuss race with total candor and little self-doubt, as do genuine patricians. With her constant sense of embarrassment about race and obsession with not offending others, Irving comes off–at least in attitude–as bourgeois despite her pretenses.)

Still, I was curious about the depictions of middle class Gemütlichkeit early in her memoir.  I noted that Irving felt comfortable with her close-knit family and was drawn to whites as friends, notwithstanding her desperate attempts to “diversify.”  So when she opened the floor to questions, I asked her:

“You said that whites ought to convey your thoughts to other whites.  Is this because you think we tend to communicate most easily with people we’re biologically close to…our family and, by extension, our race or ethnicity?”

She responded, “So, assuming there’s no biological basis for race, you’re asking how races can get along and better communicate?”

“Actually, I do believe there is a biological basis for racial differences.  I’d be happy to get your opinion on that and how these differences influence how races interact with each other.”

Irving replied with several minutes of opaque commentary that made little sense to me and didn’t answer my question.

I noticed an older black woman sitting nearby, shooting me condescending looks as Irving rambled on.  She raised her hand, Irving handed her the mic, and the woman turned to me:

“About what you said earlier, you should read such-and-such book.  It will show you something about white racism.”

“Thanks for that advice.  By the way, do you think only whites can be racist?”

Her eyes were daggers:  “You people are, like, 25 percent of the world…”

“It’s less than that…as low as 9 percent of the world,” I told her (“white” being narrowly defined; the exact percentage is debatable).

“Whatever–9 percent…and you people rule everything!” she concluded resentfully.

Had this woman heard of Carlos Slim, the Mexican magnate worth over $65 billion, who’s responsible for about 40 percent of Mexico’s economy?  Surely she’d heard of Oprah…born poor and black, she’s now worth over $3 billion.  And Obama had been president for the last seven years.  Didn’t these and other minority potentates belie her assertion?  More broadly, what about the explosive growth of India, or China’s emergence as a huge economic force?  “White power” was waning everywhere.

I tried to address this but was interrupted by Irving, who agreed that I really ought to read not only the book the woman had mentioned, but another one Irving had in mind, too.  I began to understand the game: Instead of responding to questions posed by skeptics, “racial justice educators” and their fellow travelers merely directed them to approved books.  The unconverted could seek enlightenment there.

This all felt vaguely Evangelical:  Irving’s conclusions about race weren’t subject to debate; you had to take them on faith or immerse yourself in sacred texts.  Why is something so?  Because it says so in the Bible/Koran/Upanishads…or in this seminal book about race.

Irving went on to take questions from more sycophantic members of the audience, including a white male (!) whom she permitted to speak at length because he dutifully drew analogies between German guilt for the Holocaust and Euro-American guilt for the plight of minorities.  He was sitting near me, so Irving took the opportunity–after saying Amen to the fellow’s “white Americans=demi-Nazis” observation–to gaze at me and sanctimoniously intone,

“Even if you’re having trouble accepting my message, imagine if it were true.”

That would take an imagination more creative than mine, but Irving’s mechanical delivery suggested that she’d often used this gambit against skeptics.  Again, she was waxing religious…we had to make the leap and  just believe in her racial conclusions, no matter how many statistics needed to be overlooked and key terms manipulated.

For example, Irving has an idiosyncratic definition of racism.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.”

Irving’s definition of racism, by contrast, is what most of us know as institutional racism: she calls it “the system that allows the racial group that’s already in power to retain power….Though reverse racism is a term [Irving sometimes hears], it has never existed in America.”

Anti-white reverse racism sure seemed to exist that night in that very room.  Disagreeing strongly that only whites can be racist, I asked her, “But according to your definition, if a white person lives in a non-white place, such as China, couldn’t that person face racism?”

Irving glared at me:  “My book deals with the United States of America.”

“Yes, and I noticed on your website that you distinguish the terms prejudice, bigotry, and racism…”  I thought the author would be pleased that someone had cited her website (or even knew she had one), but she sounded impatient to move on: “Yeah, yeah…bigotry and prejudice are sort of the same thing…”

Not wanting to get bogged down in fine distinctions when several non-whites and non-males wanted the mic, she then said, with no discernible irony:

“Sorry, but you’re a white man taking up too much time and there are others who want to speak.”

It had happened for centuries and was happening that night:  White guys presuming to speak their minds.  In the end, was this any less damaging than invading third-world countries or assaulting dark-skinned Americans?  Debby Irving, however, was not afraid to put down oppressors like me (and Babar the Elephant).

She curtly turned from me and handed the microphone to a white woman who piously declared, “I believe we all belong to the same race…the human race!”  Even from an audience of the already converted, this bumper sticker platitude evoked only tepid claps.

Had I not been silenced, I would have asked Irving for her thoughts on minorities other than blacks and Indians, given the impressive social outcomes of some groups.  She tended to conflate vastly different minority cultures.  In Chapter 12 of her book, she writes, “Surely, if I were internalizing a false sense of racial superiority [by being white], indigenous children, black children, and Chinese American children were internalizing something too.  And it sure wouldn’t be superiority.”

I immediately thought of “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” a Wall Street Journal essay by Amy Chua that caused a sensation in 2011, and of Chua’s international bestseller (and Time cover story) Battle Hymn of the Chinese Mother, which expanded on the essay.  Had Irving somehow not heard of this much-discussed author?  In her essay and book, Chua depicts how her strict, traditional Chinese parenting helped her children excel in academic and extracurricular pursuits.  (Given that Chua is a Yale professor, her kids had pretty good genes, too.)

Indeed, despite Irving’s murky generalizing about non-whites, the Chinese and other minorities exposed to structural racism in the U.S. often don’t see themselves as downtrodden.  Why do Asians and Jews often shine academically and professionally, whereas blacks, Indians, and most Latinos don’t?  I thought the answer lay partly in genetics, and would love to have heard Irving try to deny it.  She never considers the question of nature versus nurture in her book.

Irving’s empirical credibility continued to dwindle when she questioned, toward the end of her talk, why anyone would expect blacks to be more violent than other races.  I then knew she had taken leave of reason; the black rate for committing homicide, for example, has consistently been about eight times as high as the white rate (1980-2008, U.S. Department of Justice).  Was anti-black racism entirely to blame for high black criminality, or were there other explanations…absent fathers, contempt for school, and hatred of the police, to name a few?

And why did Irving feel free, in her book and talk, to stereotype whites negatively (e.g., as emotionally repressed), yet castigate as racist those who make general observations about blacks and other minorities?

Ultimately, race for Irving is a zero-sum game.  Blacks won’t get ahead until whites “wake up,” admit their guilt, prostrate themselves, and cede more power to non-whites  She offers little concrete guidance on how to achieve this, however.

We see how poorly the “white disenfranchisement” strategy has worked in other countries with troubled racial histories, such as South Africa: Falling white birthrates and flight from cities, skyrocketing violent crime, destructive protests, and entrenched inequality between races (regardless of extensive efforts to help blacks).

Waking Up White?  Just as the best rejoinder to the “Black Lives Matter” movement is that “All Lives Matter,” those of every race ought to examine their ingrained assumptions.  If we’re white, it is no doubt valuable to reflect on how we perceive and are perceived by other races, as Irving recommends.  But blacks and other minorities need to consider their own cultural contexts, as well.  I look forward to reading Waking Up Black (or Asian…or Native American).

But I doubt the abject self-abnegation prescribed for whites by Irving will improve matters.  Show me a society in which such an approach has succeeded for whites or non-whites.



Irving’s book on Amazon:
Babar the Elephant:
Susan Sontag quotation in Partisan Review (1967):
NYU professor William Easterly on colonialism:
Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the U.S. on Amazon:
Debby Irving’s website:
Amy Chua’s essay in Wall St. Journal:
Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Chinese Mother on Amazon:
U.S. Dept of Justice statistics on black crime:


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