“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” This statement from James Baldwin was quoted by Debbie Irving in her book, “Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race.”
About 30 members of my congregation, in three small groups, are reading and discussing this book over several months. Irving’s memoir, which is not faith-based, was recommended for study a few years ago by leaders in my denomination.
Now engaged in it, I understand why.
As we read of her discoveries about the sources of her values and biases, we are encouraged to do our own reflection, and are given questions to help us do that.
Prejudices and stereotypes do not develop in a vacuum. All of us have been shaped by values and attitudes learned in our families and experiences out in the world, but oftentimes we underestimate their power to create harmful perceptions and hamper relationships with those who we perceive as different from us.
While working in urban schools in the mid 1980s, Irving started noticing racial disparities and became increasingly disturbed by the racial divide she saw. She had a nagging feeling her efforts to help were doing more harm than good.
Irving felt she was missing something, and this propelled her to take a class in 2009 entitled “Racial and Cultural Identity,” never guessing that it would force her to turn the lens on herself.
As we read what she has learned, we become aware of our own narrow lenses and begin to understand misperceptions we have based on what we weren’t taught and weren’t exposed to, for a myriad of reasons.
The journey, while requiring an open mind and challenging at times, is a hopeful one because we are never too old to learn and to change our ways of thinking and, most importantly, our behavior.
Whether you come from a faith perspective and-or are concerned about the divide in our country along the lines of race, religion, politics, education and economic status, I encourage you to read the book. Better yet, gather with others to discuss in your neighborhood, your workplace, or your church.
While it may seem like a small thing, to the extent it helps us better understand and care for our neighbors, it is no small thing. Irving writes, “No one alive today created this mess, but everyone alive today has the power to work on undoing it.”
If you decide to take the journey with Irving, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know.
Rev. Christine Herrin is the pastor at Lowcountry Presbyterian Church in Bluffton.