I’m a good person! Isn’t that enough? No it isn’t

David Micali, Crier Staff

At an event entitled “I’m a Good Person! Isn’t That Enough?” Debby Irving spoke to a crowd of people about race and how being a good person is not enough to combat racism.

On Feb. 21 in the Dana Center, Debby Irving, author of the book Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race, spoke to a crowd of students, faculty, and citizens which spilled into the second level of seats. Her event, entitled “I’m a Good Person! Isn’t That Enough?” was meant to be read in a snarky tone. According to her, this was her thought when it came to race for twenty-five years, and it served as the number one barrier from understanding the complex issue of race in America.

Debby Irving grew up in Winchester, Massachusetts, a “wealthy, white suburb” just north of Boston. She grew up in the 1960s in what she called her “white bubble.” She never found it odd that every single person in the town, from the teachers to the bank employees to her neighbors, were white. According to her, she had no reason to find this odd because this image was reinforced as “all-American” in a series of paintings by Norman Rockwell which sat on “everyone’s coffee tables.” This idea that a town full of only white people was normal was also reinforced in the television shows she watched like Father Knows Best. According to Irving, this show not only had the subtext of mother and children know nothing, but also emphasized that one should always be happy. Growing up, her family had a saying that if one could not be polite and pleasant company one should go to their room until one could be. This reinforcement of always being happy made it so that when there were protest over the Vietnam War in Winchester, Irving thought the protestors should “buck up and get over it.” When hearing people complain, no matter how valid their argument was, she automatically switched to judgement.

Growing up, Irving was taught that in America, the playing field was equal and looking around Winchester, she saw not “one single story” that contradicted that. When she looked at the all-white male list of presidents, she simply assumed that they were president because they were the best. When she thought of CEOs, she thought of white men because she never heard of any other stories. As a result, despite having an MBA degree in history, she never heard of “Black Wall Street.”

Black Wall Street was located in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was home to wealthy African Americans and contained 600 businesses, six private planes, one hospital, one bank, and its own school. That all changed on Memorial Day, 1921. On May 30, a 19-year-old African American encountered a white girl in an elevator. What happened next is a matter of debate. Some say he raped her while others say it was just assault. Some have even said that he tripped and steadied himself against the girl. Whatever really happened, white protestors descended on the town armed with fire bombs and razed 35 blocks of Black Wall Street to the ground in response. As people fled their burning homes, they were gunned down by the white mob and their corpses were repeatedly stabbed and mutilated. When the police, national guard, and eventually, the air force came in to suppress the riots, they supported the white mob. Estimates at the time put the death toll at 36; however, a 2001 reexamination of the evidence suggests that the real number is between 100 and 300 African Americans. The event was considered the biggest act of terrorism in the United States prior to Sept. 11, yet Debby Irving had never heard of it.

Additionally, Irving grew up believing that Rosa Parks, the woman who refused to give up her seat for a white person and was arrested for it, was some “old lady” who was tired. In reality, Rosa Parks was 42 years old and she was not “some” lady either. Rosa Parks was a “sophisticated activist” who fought for the rights of black women who were raped by white men in the Jim Crow South. Her arrest was not random but rather a well thought-out protest that was planned weeks in advance to protest segregation. Everything about the event from the date to the time to the bus to the line was planned. Debby Irving was never taught women were part of the leaders of the civil rights movement and thought it was just Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Irving was also taught that the Dr. King had a dream that people would be judge not by the color of their skin but the content of their character. Though he said that, Dr. King wanted not only to do that, but also wanted to get rid of the root causes of systemic and institutionalized racism. For a person such as Debby Irving, the idea that Dr. King only wanted a colorblind world played into her narrative and reinforced the idea that she was one of the good people who was doing her part to end racism. After a three minutes break so the audience members could discuss what they just learned, Debby Irving told about how most of the 1.2 million African American World War II veterans were ineligible for the GI Bill.

According to Irving, the GI Bill was a “thank you package” for veterans of World War II, known as GIs. Her family and her neighbors benefited greatly from it. The four-pronged package gave GIs the choice of a farm loan, a small business loan, free higher education, or an amazing mortgage. Due to the time limit of her speech, Irving focused on the mortgage aspect of the bill. Banks would draw color-coded maps across American cities, known as redlining. The red areas of the map were considered “hazardous” and had a high risk of defaulting on their loan while green areas were “best.” It was no coincidence that red areas always appeared over black neighborhoods and green areas always appeared over white neighborhoods. The Federal Housing Administration advised banks at the time that the presence of one or more “non-whites” would lower property values. The GI bill required that a person live in a green zone in order to be eligible for a mortgage and since African-Americans were draw into red zones, they were unable to receive the benefits for serving their country. Irving showed a redlined map of Manchester. Most of the city was either considered “definitely declining” or “hazardous” with the “infiltration” of Greek and Polish families. The only green area of the city was an area of north of Webster Street, home to “business executives and professional people.”

The African American novelist and playwright James Baldwin said that “white people are trapped in a history they don’t understand” and when Debby Irving realized that her family were given government benefits that others were not given because of their race, she began to feel “like a welfare baby.” She has come to realize that her advantage was at the expense of others. Poor African American neighborhoods were not the way they were because the families there did not work as hard as white families, but rather, they were not given the same advantages as white neighborhoods.   

Debby Irving says then when people learn about this, they often ask what they can do. First, she said, one should look at different perspectives and seek out the voices not being represented. Second, one should be “radically curious” and not be afraid to admit that they do not know. Finally, one should build courageous conversation skills because if one never has these conversations, nothing will change.