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Story of class and privilege needs to be reevaluated, says racial justice educator

If one practical thing can be taken away from Debby Irving’s presentations delivered to an overwhelmingly female audience at Washington State University Vancouver last Monday, it is that one must carefully consider the factors that shape one’s worldview.

Irving is a racial justice educator and writer raised in the suburbs of Boston. She said that she had a “blissfully sheltered, upper middle class” childhood surrounded by white, Protestant family members that presented themselves as able bodied and heteronormative.

Early in her childhood years she watched “Babar the Elephant,” a cartoon that shaped her initial understanding of race. The cartoon, Irving said, presents dark-skinned characters as “uncivilized.”

Other factors such as the portraits on dollar bills, the concept of a heteronormative family with the father as the head and even the layout and the architecture of her hometown continued to build Irving’s “very flawed belief system” that had “many omissions.”

“This was my white bubble,” Irving said. She pointed out that she was raised not to “see” racial difference. However, that became a problem, she said.

Irving would go on to finish college, teach and work for nonprofit organizations, attempting to bring diversity to the institutions she worked at. However, despite all of her well-intended efforts, Irving said that she was constantly aware of a “tension …  an elephant in the room” whenever the issue of race was discussed.

In her first presentation at WSU Vancouver titled “Leveling the Playing Field—Interrupting Patterns of White Privilege” Irving asked the audience to identify the social category that had to struggle the least for the the American ideals of freedom and equality. Irving and the audience concluded that Protestant white males are the most privileged class in American society. A couple of audience members challenged minor details of her presentation, but their remarks were met with slight annoyance from the rest of the audience.

Irving credits a graduate course she took at Wheelock College in 2009, titled “Racial and Cultural Identity,” for helping her understand that the perceived problem lay in her own white, Anglo history. She said she realized that she “ended up internalizing a lot of ideas about being superior just because I was a member of this group that called themselves white that didn’t seem to be ailing and fumbling around and suffering and not achieving the way I observed black and brown families and people were.”

As a result, Irving shifted her focus from merely helping people of color to changing the social structure she believed was responsible for constructing the flawed paradigm of her childhood.

In the spirit of Ralph Ellison, who in his essay “Change the Joke, Slip the Yoke” calls for a change of artistic representations that facilitate racial oppression, Irving now travels the country encouraging her audience to reconsider the story of race in the United States.

Worldview is everything, according to Irving. To Irving, lenses that are gradually crafted, piece by piece, day after day, through the seemingly ordinary things—such as friends and family members, the cartoons seen as a child or the buildings driven by on a daily basis—all of these construct the perspective through which one interprets the unfolding story of the universe.

In her second presentation at WSU Vancouver, titled, “I’m a Good Person, Isn’t that Enough?” Irving presented a number of images and examples that she said pointed to the establishment of white dominance in America.

One of them was “American Progress,” a painting by John Gast that portrays the settlement of America at the expense of the indigenous population.

Irving also showed a collage of all American presidents prior to Barrack Obama and pointed out the lack of color in the picture. Irving said similar images and symbols create a false perception of American history and encouraged the audience to seek out other perspectives.

The reconsideration of American history Irving calls for is already an active conversation on American campuses. Early last month, the New York Times reported that Yale University will change the name of one of its colleges honoring John C. Calhoun, a “19th century white supremacist statesman from South Carolina” and the seventh vice-president of the U.S. WSU Vancouver is also no stranger to events devoted to racial justice. This semester various clubs and departments hosted events in order to raise awareness for Black History Month, indigenous culture, immigration and women’s rights.

However, Irving did not call for her audiences to distance themselves from their history. “Every human story… is incredibly complicated,” and people should embrace that complexity, she said. “We need to be able to consider multiple perspectives in the moment and to think about how that lives today.”

At the conclusion of her last presentation, Irving offered three practical suggestions for action. “Lift up history for all,” she said. Then she encouraged the audience to be “radically curious” and try to find out what they fail to see. Lastly, she urged people to be confident to start and maintain conversations on racial issues. “It is not rude to talk about race,” Irving said, “It is an essential skill to dismantle white supremacy.”

More information about Irving and her story can be found at http://www.debbyirving.com.

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