Recently our superintendent Mr. Metz referenced Debby Irving’s book Waking Up White (2014) and the role of examining who we are as we enter the conversation on race. In a district with an overwhelming majority of white educators, this practice of examination needs supports to become intentional. I need supports for it to be intentional for me. Without them, I slip into the patterns in which I have been socialized of portraying my white experience, my values, my beliefs as normal. The more work I do in this area, the more I realize I have to do.
One example of that was reading Waking Up White myself this summer. Historical facts such as the atrocities committed against our Native peoples, racial discrimination in the G.I. bill, and the War on Drugs while powerful, were not new to me. But I have so many more layers to examine beyond that. One of the early chapters that struck me and the factors that influence me as I enter the conversation on race were in regards to my family values.
Irving examines how she constructed her belief system and what was deemed good and consequently, although often unspoken, what was bad. She writes, “A ‘good attitude’ was highly valued and rewarded. I learned to stuff down my negative feelings and to buck up with expected chipperness. Each cultural norm motivated me to fit in while judging others who didn’t. I learned to become deeply uncomfortable around people who exhibited any of the disapproved emotions” (p. 10).
While I cannot identify with her upperclass childhood environment, the similarities of her family values and mine were astounding. As she reflects throughout on the book on the impact of this, I couldn’t help but engage in my own reflection as well. Not only how had this impacted me, but how did it impact the students, families, and community members with whom I work? How did my whiteness as normal influence what I thought merited complaint? How did and does my inability to see the impact of my values come across as judgement or paternalistic “support”? Where did and do they cloud my view and understanding of other perspectives?
Irving ends with a prompt that I would invite you to consider. As you reflect on it, think about what is the impact on our students and how they need to show up when they enter our rooms? What values do we hold as absolutely right and who is empowered by them? Who is disempowered? Isolate race as you reflect.
“What values and admonitions did you learn in your family? Think about education, work, lifestyle, money, expression of emotions, and so forth. Try making a list of ten principles, values, and unspoken beliefs. Siblings and cousins can be good resources for thinking about this. Now consider what conclusions you drew about people [students] who [do] not appear to follow your family’s belief system.” (p. 12)