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Workshop on race and privilege offered

MIDDLEBURY — Debby Irving, author of “Waking Up White,” believes it is important to have hard conversations about race and racism, even in one of the whitest states in the country.
That is why she is returning to the Congregational Church of Middlebury this Sunday, Jan. 27, from 3 to 5 p.m., to facilitate a workshop called “Interrupting Patterns of Privilege.” The workshop was organized by the local chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice, or SURJ, a group that works to educate people about racism.
Irving said her upcoming workshop is intended as a continuation of the event she held on Dec. 2, although newcomers are also welcome. Her last workshop, titled “I’m a good person. Isn’t that enough?”, was attended by over 200 people and covered race-related moments in U.S. history that are often glazed over. This included racist housing and lending policies from the 1950s, Black Wall Street and Native American boarding schools.
While Irving was already scheduled to return to Middlebury for the second installment of her workshop series, her Sunday talk comes in the wake Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan’s announcement last week that he will not file charges in the case of reported racial harassment of former Vermont state Rep. Kiah Morris, D-Bennington. Morris withdrew her re-election bid last summer after receiving repeated racist taunts against her and her family.
At a Jan. 14 press conference, tensions came to a head when Max Misch, a self-described white nationalist who had threatened Morris in the past, arrived at the event. East Middlebury resident Joanna Colwell, who helped start the Middlebury chapter of SURJ, was at the press conference and said that she was among those who stood to wall off Misch from the rest of the room.
Colwell feels that events like the press conference, and the harassment Morris experienced as a legislator, show why workshops like Irving’s are important.
“In the case of Rep. Kiah Morris, the complacency of liberal, progressive Vermonters, and the inadequacy of the laws to protect people of color led to this situation where just a few aggressive racist trolls forced our only Black female legislator from office,” Colwell said. “White people really need to own this. Racism is our problem and we need to do way more to dismantle it in ourselves, our families and the wider community.”
Colwell hopes that Irving’s facilitating expertise can help the local community understand racism better.
“Debby Irving is a great example of how no matter what our upbringing was, we can embark on this journey to understand ourselves better,” Colwell said. “One of the most important things to understand is that we can be good, caring people and also be oppressive to people of color.”
At her Sunday event, Irving plans to continue the community discussion about power, privilege and racial identity. She said her goal is to reach those who are interested in working toward racial equality and help them gain the information and skills they need.
“We are incredibly skilled around the cultural norms of whiteness,” she said. “There’s a whole different skill set to being connected to a person across difference.”
This is a path that Irving has walked herself. As an upper middle class white child growing up in Massachusetts, Irving said she did not understand systemic racism until she took a course in graduate school about racial and cultural identity.
“I, like most white people in the U.S., had no idea how racism operated and for that reason I was able to see myself as outside the problem, as if racism was a problem for black and brown people. It allowed me to approach the issue from a place of being a white savior,” she said. “What I missed was that there was this big system that had advantaged me at the expense of these people I was trying to help.”
Irving describes her book and her workshops as an attempt to help other white people explore how white culture perpetuates racist structures and ideas.
“If we are all exposed to racist ideas every day that means I am full of racist ideas. That doesn’t mean I am a mean-spirited, bigoted person,” she said. “We can never undo the level of exposure, all we can do is manage it. And once we’re able to identify it, we’re also able to filter out new exposure as it comes to us.”
Irving is the first to admit that this work is challenging and upsetting, and in her workshops she tries to create enough space for everybody’s thoughts and feelings.
“Feelings are big and it’s really hard to set aside your own feelings and your own reality, to suspend that long enough to take in another person’s,” she said. “There is a level of maturity required to do that.”
Yet she strongly believes that helping others learn how to engage around issues of race is the only way society can move forward.
“I think when it comes to white person-to-white person, there’s nothing more powerful than doing our own work and sharing what we’re learning.”

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