Union Church program steps boldly in topic many wish to avoid
Speaking at Union Church, “Waking up White” author Debby Irving said America has been home to historically discriminatory systems that many white people are not aware of. “It’s a “heartwarming experience” when people have “the courage to begin to think and act differently,” she said. (Jim Slonoff photos)
By Ken Knutson
“I’m a good person,” says Debby Irving, author of the book “Waking up White,” in discussing the mindset many white people have when it come to their role in racial injustice. “We can be really good people and we can have really good intentions, but we don’t know what we’re dealing with. Most white Americans have no idea about the structural design of the country or of the institutions of this country.”
Irving led a discussion on race at Union Church of Hinsdale Saturday morning as part of a series on white privilege launched last fall by the church’s adult education committee. The program also featured panelists Andrew Johnson, a Union Church member of Native American heritage; Aaron Wilson-Ahlstrom, director of programs at Experience Institute in Chicago; and Jocelyn Jones, executive director of The ARK of St. Sabina.
Irving and program attendees spoke with The Hinsdalean after the program to share takeaways from the event.
In discussing discriminatory systems in America, Irving cited redlining, or the denial of services to residents of certain areas based on the racial or ethnic makeups. Black veterans of World War II, for example, were denied GI Bill benefits made available for returning servicemen as a result of the practice.
“Because of structures already in the country’s lending and housing system, loans were made or denied based on the skin color of the residents in the neighborhood,” she said, adding that minorities’ higher education opportunities were also severely limited. “There’s barrier after barrier through history to people of color that was not there for white people.”
Attendee and church member Carol Stram said the term “white privilege” is not meant to shame but to shine a light on the ingrained societal advantage white people have enjoyed.
“It’s just a fact,” Stram asserted. “It’s not a racist issue. It’s about understanding the subject of racial discrimination against people of color.”
Union Church Associate Pastor Bromleigh McClenehan said Irving’s history lesson was disquieting to many in the largely white audience.
“She wanted to bring us along with her on the process of having her eyes opened to the reality of systemic injustices,” McClenehan said.
Attendee Penny Davey said odious aspects of our country’s heritage must be made known if there is to be advancement.
“We don’t know what we don’t know. Part of that is the history that we’ve been missing or that we’ve never been exposed to,” she said.
The attendees said the program challenged them to examine their attitudes when it comes to race. Stram said people need to be honest about ingrained prejudices that shape their attitudes.
“A young black male with a hoodie on is seen as much more threatening to the community than a white male dressed similarly,” she said.
Attendee Kim Kiyosaki said Irving’s upbringing in a community much like Hinsdale — namely Winchester, Mass. — made her observations easy to relate to.
“I laughed when she referred to her community as ‘the bubble’ because my family refers to Hinsdale as ‘the bubble,’ ” said Kiyosaki, whose husband is of Japanese heritage. “When we first moved here, people would tease him about being the diversity in Hinsdale.”
Irving said having a social circle that includes black and brown friends altered the lens through which she viewed stories of, say, a police shooting of an unarmed black man.
“If I didn’t make those relationships, I could easily see those images and think the (shooting victim) must have done something wrong,” Irving commented.
Johnson said he fears the trend in society is toward factionalization and fear.
“I think this is one of the most dangerous periods since 1950,” he remarked. “I’m very concerned and somewhat afraid. Things seem to be as bad as they were then.”
Kiyosaki said Irving suggested a 21-day racial equity habit-building challenge, including identifying both cases of injustice and those social groups working for reform in that area.
Stram said people of color cannot be expected to do it alone.
“In order for things to change in terms of system injustice, then white people have to be involved in order for things to get better,” she said.
Changing the status quo is never easy, Irving acknowledges, but ignorance is no excuse.
“It’s very possible to never talk about race at all,” she said. “If you don’t talk about something, you don’t learn about it. It has everything to do with all of us — you’re either upholding the barriers without knowing it, actively upholding them or working to remove them.”
Stram said church leaders were a bit apprehensive about holding the program but decided that faith communities can be a powerful catalyst for change.
“We didn’t know how it would be received. White people don’t want to feel badly about who they are,” she said. “Our thinking was that church should be a safe place, and if you can’t talk about these difficult topics there, where can you talk about them?”
Davey said the program was eye-opening, and she hopes it continues to stir conversation and inspire new patterns in the community.
“We’ve been woken up, and we would like to keep waking others up,” she said.