Book Note: Waking Up White

Debby Irving grew up in New England during the Civil Rights Movement. Shielded by her parents from all things unpleasant, she is clueless to the racial tension that surround her. But she experiences a dramatic awaking as an adult. Irving spent her entire life believing that everyone had the same opportunities that she experienced as an upper middle-class white woman. As an adult in Boston, she soon discovers that her world is a world constructed by the color of a person's skin. And it's not the same for everyone.

Content Overview

In Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race, Irving shares her struggle understanding racism and her white identity. In short essays, she unpacks her journey, one devastating realization at a time. According to Irving, she has written the book she wished someone had handed her decades ago. She shares how her long-held beliefs and her good intentions stood as obstacles to understanding the full effects of race in America. Irving also provides exercises at the end of each chapter to help the reader explore their own racialized ideas.



From the start, Irving is up-front and honest about the privileges she has enjoyed throughout her life as an upper middle-class white person. She is also very aware that her ignorance regarding race was a result of how her parents raised her and how she chose to move in the world. It would be easy for the reader to dismiss her and even judge her, and therefore dismiss this book. She knows this, and shares mistake after mistake, so the reader can avoid them or see themselves in the same mistakes.

The book is laid out in short chapters that are easy to consume and hopefully set aside for personal contemplation. However, Irving's writing style tends to ramble and repeat. I felt like several chapters were simply fillers. She uses personal stories as allegories to explore racism and its effects. In some cases, these felt justified. In others, they felt demeaning to the actual experience of racism.

This is not an academic or in-depth examination of white privilege, but it is a wonderful introduction for people who have not examined their own whiteness or are looking to. Her vulnerability and willingness to share takes the edge to urge to defend and qualify, allowing the reader to ask themselves what they would do in a given situation or how they would have responded prior to reading the book.


  • Like many whites, Irving didn't believe that she belonged to a race like people of color. While she might have checked Caucasian on a form, she thought of it simply as a category with little meaning. 
  • Internalizing racist ideas is a process that begins when we are children, through witnessing the actions of others, listening to what is said and not said, by watching media and its representation or lack there of.
  • Some narratives told about the countless opportunities offered to American citizens in order to achieve the American Dream are false, or at least incomplete. One such story is the opportunities provided by the G.I. Bill, which disproportionately offered whites a boost up in life.
  • "Skin color symbolism + favoritism+power = systematic racism"
  • Choosing to be "color blind" is a choice only available to those belonging to the race in power. For everyone else, they must be consistently aware of not only the color of their skin but also the race of those in power.
  • White culture is not the Klan or Neo-Nazi's. White culture consists of prevailing ideas, attitudes, and beliefs embedded, and favored, within American society. Many of these cultural aspects will feel "right" or natural to most whites. But numerous elements can alienate or dehumanize people from other cultures, including fellow Americans.


Favorite Quotes

“Understanding whiteness, regardless of class, is key to understanding racism.” 

"In policy after policy, act after act, the United States has reaffirmed its commitment to being a melting-pot society adhering to Anglo-Saxon standards, as opposed to a mosaic nation built on the diversity of multiple cultures."

"If there’s a place for tolerance in racial healing, perhaps it has to do with tolerating my own feelings of discomfort that arise when a person, of any color, expresses emotion not welcome in the culture of niceness. "

“As long as the dominant culture holds fast to a story of white as right, the possibility of hearing other truths gets shut out, and the cycle continues: white folks experience people of color’s versions of events as incongruent and therefore inadmissible.”