Author, activist talks about role of white privilege and systemic racism

Racial justice educator and author Debby Irving will present a talk called “I’m a Good Person, Isn’t That Enough?” from 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 10, at the Methodist church. The event is sponsored by Vashon SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) and hosted by the church.

Some islanders will recognize the author by her book, “Waking Up White: Finding Myself in the Story of Race,” which was recommended by Sustainable Vashon’s community-building initiative, Vashon Reads about Racism, Culture and White Privilege, which was rolled out in June of 2016.

Irving, who is white and grew up in a sheltered, upper middle-class family in Winchester, Massachusetts, became aware of the racial divide while living in Boston during the 1960s and ‘70s. From 1984 to 2009, she worked in urban neighborhoods and schools and wound up feeling helpless in her attempts to understand the dynamics of racial disparity. A course she took at Wheelock College in 2009 called “Racial and Cultural Identity” shook her awake, as she recounts on her website. She writes that she realized she had “missed step #1: examining the way being a member of the ‘normal’ race had interfered with my attempts to understand racism. What began as a professional endeavor became a personal journey as I shifted from trying to figure out people whom I’d been taught to see as ‘other’ to making sense of my own socialization.”

Her book delineates her journey away from racial ignorance, during which she came to understand how and why our cultural beliefs develop along racial lines. Her current work, including the talk she will be giving, is “all about educating other white people who are confused and frustrated by racism.”

“I think of everything I do as a tool,” Irving said in a recent phone interview. “I have workshops and community dialogues, and [I] work cross-racially. I feel strongly that we need to change the way we teach our students, and we need to educate our teachers about why this matters. Very unaware white parents are afraid, and when they are introduced to white privilege, they ask, ‘Is it a real thing?’ More aware white parents think kids can’t handle the idea, that it’s too scary. We need to work through this and educate people about what is really going on with our racial caste system.”

Irving will be conducting workshops at various Seattle schools before she comes to Vashon. She said Vashon was one of the “early communities to adopt my book, which is used as a community conversation starter. I got many meaningful letters from islanders who were part of that all-island read, so Vashon stuck in my head. When someone wrote and asked me to come, I said, ‘yes.’”

That someone was Katie Bunnell, event coordinator for SURJ, which was founded by islander Janie Starr last year. Vashon’s SURJ, which addresses systemic and individual racism on Vashon and beyond, is part a national network of groups and individuals that organize white people to work on behalf of racial justice. Vashon SURJ holds general meetings from 3 to 5 p.m. on the third Sunday of the month at the Land Trust Building.

As for Irving’s talk, she said she’ll introduce people who have not read the book to the issues, while simultaneously taking people who have read her book to a deeper place.

“After the first half of my event, everyone has the same exact information, so then they talk in smaller groups,” she said. “I can facilitate a discussion, and we share outward as a community. When I leave, the community is fired up and talking about race. It is an information-packed and inspirational talk designed to help us learn how we talk, how deep we go and how we turn that into action.”

Tickets are a suggested donation of $10 to $25 at the door. No one will be turned away for lack of funds. Childcare is available with advance registration — send an email to merrileerunyan@gmail.com. All other inquiries should be sent to kdbunnell@gmail.com. Irving’s book will be available for purchase, and there will be an author signing after the event.

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