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Whites Don't Speak About Whiteness


I facilitated a second book club event on Whiteness yesterday. All participants., myself included, were white women. The conversation was a quiet hum, much like this club members often are in front of each other.

The book we discussed was, “Waking Up White”, by Debby Irving (2014). It describes her journey of becoming conscious of the impact of being White in America. She describes how she became conscious of privilege, status, having access to opportunities and social connections that gave her significant advantages in her career and the way she was able to raise her family. I chose it because I thought it seemed to be an accessible story of awakening to Whiteness in our North American culture.


We agreed to the following guidelines for the duration of the conversation, as the best means of establishing and maintaining harmony in the room:

  • Confidentiality: We agreed not to tell people outside of the room what anyone said in the room and, therefore, to maintain confidentiality

  • Sharing the air: We agreed to give everyone equal time to speak.

  • Using “I” statements to ground the conversation in personal experience.

  • Paying attention to how we might find ourselves judging others.

  • Welcoming discomfort.

I asked the room how often they spoke about race. A prolonged period of silence ensued. It emerged that this was everyone’s first occasion. People were shaking their heads in disbelief. What can explain why these white people had never spoken about race before they had walked into this room? Reflecting later, I thought not HAVING to talk about race as if one’s survival didn’t depend on it is in itself, a white privilege.


As I wondered further, I thought what a lost opportunity this was; if we never discuss race, especially with folks with other skin colours and cultural histories, we can’t learn anything at all from the insights, pain, humour and humility that can emerge when these different personal experiences and points of view are revealed. Sharing our experiences of exclusion and loneliness dispels it.

So what are the beliefs and assumptions that preclude self-awareness and awareness of others? What emerged around this question this week includes:

  • I expect to feel comfortable everywhere I go.

  • My need for comfort is more important than your need to discuss an issue that is important to you.

  • I do not tolerate being uncomfortable.

These are associated with one of the values and beliefs that Irving discovered within herself: the right to comfort - entitlement. Can we take a breath and ask ourselves what cost we pay for our so-called comfort? Who wins what by hiding behind White comfort?

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© 2019 by Margot Hovey, PhD