Let’s Go There




I woke up yesterday to news of nine dead in Charleston. Black people dead at the hands of white. Not the other way around. There’s a pattern here, newly visible to some,  a 400-year unbroken chain to others. Just as I was making my way through the South Carolina shooting coverage, news of a second church shooting came in, this one in Tennessee. No casualities, and yet it hit me. I literally had trouble catching my breath.

I’ve wondered when I might deepen the conversation with my Waking Up White audience. At what point do I move beyond talk of diversity, inclusion, and multiculturalism and into something more substantial and revealing? The time is now. And I’m going there. At least by the end of this blog.




See, there’s language that puts into a single story the past week’s range of racial events — from Rachel Dolezal to the South Carolina church shooting. Language that puts into a single story 400 years of unbroken trauma thrust upon people of color at the hands of white people. Language that puts into a single story every non-Anglo ethnicity struggling to be seen as worthy, of women fighting to be treated as equals, of the gender non-conforming coming out of hiding, of the non-hetero campaigning for marriage rights, and of those who believe in no God or a non-Christian god requesting open-mindedness. There is language that gets to all of this. In just two words.




For racial justice educators these two words are essential. To remove them from our lexicon is like taking the chef’s knife away from the chef. Like the knife, these two words cut swiftly to the heart of the matter. These two words comprise the essential tool in the racial justice toolbox.

And yet, too often, we avoid them. At least around white people. Instead we use soft words like diversity, inclusion, and multiculturalism, language invented to keep white people comfortable enough long enough to entertain the idea that maybe the playing field isn’t completely level, and maybe some marginalized people in white-dominated, Christian-dominated, male-dominated, hetero-dominated spaces (where every serious decision is made) might want to be seen or heard or valued.


Elephant Room Press


I spent 25 years participating in (and sometimes even leading) diversity, inclusion, and multicultural initiatives without even realizing these were antidotes to a disease. The disease itself, and the dreaded language that describes is, was the elephant in the room. Frankly, I wish someone had just given it to me straight. Because while I was being coddled with soft and comfy language, the diversity, inclusion, and multicultural efforts I engaged in sputtered and stagnated.

So, let’s go there.


Lets Go There 


Let’s name it.

White Supremacy. White Supremacy is the disease that creates the problems that diversity, inclusion, and multiculturalism positions, offices, and committees attempt to address.

Are you having a reaction? Do you want to click away from this blog? Am I making you uncomfortable? If so, I get it. Hang in there. I freaked out the first time I heard this language–as it’s meant to be used.

I was at one of my first “diversity” conferences when an older white Unitarian Universalist minister sitting next to me shared with the group a whiteness curriculum he was working on. “We’re working to make visible connections between historical White Supremacy”, he explained (gulp), “and present-day White Supremacy.” (gulp, gulp, gasp)




Full-blown panic overcame me. My mind raced. “Holy shitballs, is he a white supremacist?” “Did I come to the wrong conference?” “Am I in danger?” “Where’s the nearest door?”

In my mind, the term White Supremacy was completely and totally connected to extremist hate groups. I didn’t yet understand it as an organizing principle or a philosophy, which is what it is and how it becomes like the chef’s knife, cutting to the core of what we’re dealing with.

So what does it really mean?

Let’s start with the Oxford Dictionary definition:

Oxford Dictionary


White Supremacy – The belief that white people are superior

to those of all other races, especially the black race,

and should therefore dominate society.


See? It says nothing of hate. It speaks to a perceived natural order of things.




“Hmmm,” I’ll bet you’re thinking, “I still don’t see why you need the term white supremacy. Can’t you use a term like white dominance? Or white superiority? Something less jarring?”

Well, I’ve tried. But here’s the thing: only White Supremacy ties together the whole social order, beyond just white, and puts a bow on it. The term is jam-packed with a laundry list of unspoken values. White Supremacy describes the social order in which one kind of human being is superior to all others. And that human is: white and male and Christian and heterosexual and wealth-oriented and able-bodied and Anglo or at least willing and able to act Anglo. People who can’t fit neatly into these categories and want access to power and privilege will hide their sexuality, Anglicize their names, fake ability (think Franklin D. Roosevelt), play up their wealth, act “male,” and hide their religion. Rewards come to those who were born, or can pass their way into, that perceived “best” group—“best” as defined by White Supremacy.

White Supremacy founded this country. It justified displacing and exterminating millions of indigenous people, for profit. It justified enslaving and trading fellow human beings, for profit. It continues to justify a system in which an elite few populate a hierarchically constructed top and are able to parcel out, or not, resources to the rest of us. It’s 180° away from America’s stated democratic ideals. And it continues to be the organizing principle that constructs American institutions, American hearts and minds, and the American master narrative – that one that tells us America was built by and for white people.


Country Club


And get this: beyond who the White Supremacist culture values is what the White Supremacist culture values. In other words, if you can’t look like a high-class, white, Christian, heterosexual, able-bodied dude, at least act like one. Oh, and don’t get in their business. Don’t rock the boat. Show emotional restraint, be on time, be efficient, and act independent. Also, choose data over anecdotes and intellect over instinct. And for God’s sake, understand that you exist in a hierarchy and stay in your damn place. There are all kinds of names for people who act outside of their assigned social boxes: bitch, uppity, pussy, crip, and NOCD among them.


Father Knows best


It’s this White Supremacist, stay-in-your-box, better-than/worse-than, bullying backdrop amidst which racial hatred, homophobia, misogyny, religious intolerance, classism, and other forms of oppression fester. And don’t be fooled–White Supremacy can come in seemingly benign packaging. I’ve always found it easy to point my finger at people I see as “bad” and “mean” and “racist” – yet, to some degree, all of it also lives in me. Images of white, male, Christian, able-bodied, hetero as normal and superior saturated my young life. How could I not have internalized White Supremacist norms? I would be lying to say I’m anything other than a recovering White Supremacist.

How about you? Can you go there? Can you examine how White Supremacy manifests in your school? Your company? Your town? Your mind? Your heart? Can you see it? Feel it? Name it? This is what eradicating racism, I mean White Supremacy, requires. Let’s go there.

Fist Bump



Images Found on the Below Sites

Chain dunjinni.com

Language cam.ac.uk

Chef  dreamstime.com

Elephant my Elephant Room Press publishing logo

Let’s Go There english.insightworld.org

Panic claudiabscott.com

OEDictionary theguardian.com

Hmmmm sodahead.com

Country Club jantoo.com

Father Knows Best amazon.com

Fist Bump suzannehawkes.com


23 thoughts on “Let’s Go There”

  1. Dear Mrs. Irving. It was a great pleasure to meet and listen to your lecture on waking up white.   Your talk highlights the mental fixations that white Americans are gripped by that embeds many from seeing the "root" cause of the social, financial, educational and psychological  maladies and deprivation created by Slavery, apartied and institutionalised racism in our country.  

      If I am in the country I will come to Boston in Nov.  I would like to introduce you to my friend at the Schomberg Library in Newyork. In Harlem. Which was a place that was historical black now is becoming gentrified. At real estate…  Also it is essential to understanding the African american experienced you must find time to read the  the Autobiography of Malcolm x. By Alex Halley.  The best documentary on his life is called "  Make It Plain. ".  spike lee's film was based on a place play written by Charles Baldwin … It gives only an vague interpretation of a brilliant American orator.   His life in not just a journey from an racist pseudo Muslim religious cult to pure Islam. By a story black folk struggles against racism.   I have a friend who is an admintrator at the Schomberg who know Malcolm X.  This library is one the most important one related to Black History and culture in the USA.     The psychologist  Amos Wilson book is properly titled. black on Black violence; The psycho dynamics of self annihilation in the service of white domination…. His lectures and writing address the mind set of institionalzed racism it in impact on black folk especially youth in America.    I would love to my participate in one of the forums you hold. Thank you again for your courage.. Self analysis, self effacement, compassion and selflessness…. It is so needed.


    Peace be upon you

    With deep concern for Humanity

    Ahmad Ghazal Q.

    • Thank you Ahmad for coming to last Friday’s event and for sharing parts of your own story so openly. It’s a rare occurance for isolated white communities to hear the impact of whiteness on a person of color. Thank you for your efforts to connect me to other people and places you feel could benefit from my perspective. Finally, I join you wholeheartedly in deep concern for humanity. Thank you – Debby 

  2. Hi Debby–

    I just finished your amazing book after having heard you on the Diane Rehm Show a few weeks ago. It was such an eye-opener for me! Like you, I espoused the same protests you did: "I'm a good person! I'm not a racist!" And like you, I share a lot of your personality traits (work hard, stick to it, I can fix this, etc, etc). Unlike you, I grew up having black friends (my dad was military so I never really felt segregation until my dad was stationed to an air base in NC in the late 60s). Curiously enough, I have never had the kind of frank discussions with these friends as you have had in your workshops, diversity training, etc. You opened my eyes that for the situation in our country to get better, I MUST CHANGE MYSELF! 

    I read your book as I did when I was a student at UNC-CH in the 1970s: annotating with lots of underlining, stars, arrows and such as if I were going to be tested. Today over coffee I told a group of my girlfriends that your book is life-changing and I would like them to read it (and I'll re-read it) and would like to engage in each of the exercises at each chapter's end. Most of them, however, protested (as I had in my mind when I heard you on the radio!)…"that's not me! I think race relations used to be that way, but we've come so far…blah…blah…blah."

    My question for you is, is there a place I can buy multiple books at a discount so I can hand them out? I've already asked that my local library order the book (which they said they will), but I am eager to get on with this (you know, as the White Culture is wont to do…LET'S FIX THIS! NOW!) and I would consider buying copies for my girlfriend's book club. Especially here in Goldsboro, NC, I believe there is/will be a resistance to reading your book. If I could hand my pals copies and we could read it together and have frank discussions, role playing (gasp!) and complete the exercises you suggest, I believe I would feel much better than just standing by, waiting and seeing if anything changes. I am seen as the only "liberal" in my group of friends (many are die-hard right wing, hard-core tea-party loving, Rush Limbaugh listening, FOX news watchers) so I might be beating my head against the wall. But I am willing to start the dialogue, and would especially like to include some of our black friends as well to get their perspectives. 

    I've already loaned out my copy of your book to the only other liberal/Democratic friend I have in our county, and she has led workshops on African-American culture and history in the Raleigh/Durham area (much more culturally diverse and socially aware than Goldsboro). She is interested in getting the dialogue started here in Goldsboro (her hometown), and she's so much more knowledgable about the history of Wayne County than I am (l moved back here to care for ailing parents after having lived in Kansas for 31 years–another hotbed of conservative, right-wing folks!). Together, perhaps we can start to open the eyes of our community to the systemic racism that exists and is getting worse!

    If you can give me any suggestions about getting discounted pricing on your book, or how to tiptoe into this project, I'd appreciate it. (I can't tell you how many times reading your book I gasped out loud, and thought: "Holy crap, I've done/said the same thing!" I was humbled in so many ways…even in the ways you related to your husband early in your marriage–I have a lot of apologizing to do to my ex-boyfriend, and some of my friends as well!)

    Keep up the fight to bring awareness to those still blind to the problems of racism…I hope to join you!

    Susan Moneypenny

    • Hello Susan – I love the idea of you gasping out loud — recognizing yourself in my story. You are not the first to report that response! Here’s the information on bulk book sales. Bulk Rates | Debby Irving. Shipping included. You can also try to engage skeptics (or even liberals who think they know is all as I did) through my website and TED Talk, both linked below. Thank you so much for putting my story to such good use! – Debby

  3. Synonyms for white supremecy: Doctrine of Discovery, Manifest Destiny, American Exceptionalism, Biblical Literalism, etc.


  4. Debby, thank you.  I have been struggling with my silent complicity regarding race relations.  Even though folks have told me that I communicate well, my lifelong self-satisfaction that I could articulate "truth" was blind to the bias of the elephant in the room.  It is easy for me to self-righteously point my finger at the overtly (as in an over-the-top Hollywood-style) racist young man who declares that black men are raping "our" (white chattel) women, and "nobly" murders — black women; but when I look deep into my (white Jesus–Roman Catholic–patriarchal–honor (lust after) the virgin–love my (white) neighbor('s wife)–soul, I shudder to acknowledge the darkness there.  I shudder when I realize that my intellectualized humanity is infected with a fear-avoidance-anger-hatred lesion that results in my self-righteous silence, akin to  the observation made about johns' exploitation of prostitutes:  the johns (men like me) don't have to beat prostituted women to to make the women comply with our wishes; the pimps (men like Dylann Roof) do it for us.  This is the Great Sin of Omission of white people.  To repent of this sin can only be done by looking UP to our black brothers and sisters, our wounded soldiers who can teach us (if we but close our mouths and open our minds) more about the ignominy of war than a library's worth of heroic war novels and movies can ever do.  We must acknowledge the stain on our hands and remove those hands from the reins of power.  This is an inevitable outcome of recognizing white supremacy for what it is, and going there (giving up dominating power).  Do we white people have the humility, the trust, the confidence, that folks not white can be our power-equals???

    • Your words, “I shudder when I realize that my intellectualized humanity is infected with a fear-avoidance-anger-hatred lesion that results in my self-righteous silence” just smacked me in the gut. Thank you for putting words to the impact White Supremacy has had on your humanity. It dehumanizes us all. I’m currently at a five-day intensive training with Lee Mun Wah where these ‘lesions’ are what I’m being trained to tap into to support individuals and organizations willing to go there. ‘Self-righteous silence’ is quite a privileged power stance, isn’t it?

    • Thank you Karen. I’ll post and tweet this and hope others do the same! How NOT to teach racism to our kids takes learning and intentions.


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