Because of their long, peculiar history of marginalization and persecution, Jews are often “highly attuned to injustice,” said writer and lecturer Debbie Irving.
Irving, who calls herself a “racial justice educator,” will speak about the responsibility Jews and other white people have in addressing racism in America when she speaks at Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit on Wednesday evening, May 11.
Irving, who grew up as a wealthy Protestant in a Boston suburb, is the author of Waking Up White, And Finding Myself in the Story of Race, a first-person narrative about recognizing her own “white skin” privilege. Her talk, sponsored by the Summit Interfaith Council, is part of an initiative “to raise awareness about ongoing issues of racism in our country and in Summit and surrounding towns,” said Beth Hatikvah’s Rabbi Hannah Orden.
“For centuries, Jewish people have been ‘other-ized,’ persecuted, and marginalized,” Irving told NJ Jewish News in an April 26 interview. Now that Jews in recent times have entered “some circles of power,…if they really allow their Jewish identity to become front and center and focus on the values around injustice, the Jewish people are the ones who actually are in a position to dismantle the system in ways that other people might not be.”
Irving said that as a child, “my contact with blacks and other people of color was absolutely zero.” Her perception of them “was two-dimensional, like a cartoon. My life was a white upper-class bubble…. I did indeed hold ideas down deep that white people were superior.”
In Waking Up White, she writes that “education is key” to overcoming white racism and educating grown up white people, “especially about how racism works and how it is possible to be complicit in it. You have to get to the policy makers and the teachers to implement an anti-racist curriculum because it is the older age group that is holding the system in place by perpetuating myths.”
To Irving, some of those myths are being expressed in the rhetoric being used in the current presidential campaign. While such ideas are not new, she told NJJN, several candidates have “unearthed the degree to which white people are full of hatred and anger — not just toward our government, but they are terrified that this country is, in their minds, being taken away from them.”
As questionable as such attitudes may be, Irving said, they are “as real as real can be to somebody who feels they are losing something to somebody in another group — like it’s harder to get into college or they feel like they are not going to get a job.”
She said some white people when they feel economically disenfranchised have “the superficial knee-jerk response to turn and blame the most visible obvious person and not look at the system that pits us all against each other.”
Since her book was published in January 2014, Irving has devoted much of her life to her work as a “racial justice educator.” She is constantly on the road, fulfilling at least 100 speaking engagements each year. “I like to be out there in conversation with communities because I learn so much when I hear what is on people’s minds,” she said.
In that role, she said, “white supremacy is one of my favorite terms for educating people. White supremacy is not just about the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis. It is what the United States is founded on. It means that white, male, Christian, heterosexual, able-bodied, owning-class people are supreme.”
To her, the people shut out from that supremacy need to “understand the power we have in joining together to dismantle and challenge the power of white supremacist philosophy.”
Is she optimistic or pessimistic about the likelihood of the wounds of racism being healed? That “depends on the day,” she said. “There are aspects of our world that give me hope, and other aspects that make me want to crawl in bed and put a pillow over my head.”
What especially troubles her is “how vulnerable human beings are to greed and exploitation and personal gain in a society which promotes those things. The combination of white supremacy and capitalism is the perfect way to seduce people into taking advantage of other people.”
On the other hand, she said, “what gives me hope is the younger generation. It has an increasing number of people coming out of colleges where there has been a major investment in educating about oppression.”
Such learning, she said, has given young people the “ability to separate myth from fact and the ability to be critical thinkers. They are more sophisticated and open-minded and more aware of our archaic systems that have been in play for hundreds of years.”