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The elephant in the room

Caitlin Kemp

The crowd gasped, then the room quickly grew silent. Men, women, and students of all colors and backgrounds sat in chairs quietly, all trying to process what they had just learned. Debby Irving had known this was coming, as she had a slide in her presentation made for a moment of reflection. 

“Until 9/11, this was often referred to as the No. 1 act of domestic violence on U.S. soil and most people around the country have never heard of it,” Irving explained to the audience. 

She was right, no one knew about this tragic event. It was something so powerful and important, yet neglected from history education. It was the complete destruction of Black Wall Street.

Irving is a racial justice educator and author of the award-winning book Waking Up White, which tells the story of her journey away from racial ignorance. Springfield College hosted her on Wednesday night for an event open to all Springfield faculty, staff, and students.  

The journey started back in her hometown of Winchester, Massachusetts, which she described as only having white inhabitants. Her issue stemmed from how she was raised and the views that were instilled in her from a very young age. She was taught to never talk about “taboo topics,” because her family believed talking about it just added to the problem. The work of Norman Rockwell is what she compared her life growing up to — a picture perfect white nuclear family in the 1960s, living the “American Dream.” 

When she grew up, she began to work with a nonprofit organization helping inner city children and families. Her work was something that was not as impactful as she thought at the time, and it wasn’t until years later, she finally figured out what was going on. 

She recalled, “I think, ‘I’m a good white person.’ I want to help and fix these people who I have been taught are inferior to me… I knew there was an elephant in the room, but I didn’t know it was me.” 

Being the “elephant in the room” is a phrase that Irving used frequently throughout her presentation. The turning point for her realization of this didn’t come until she was 48 years old taking a racial and cultural identities class at Wheelock College, which was required in order to get her Master’s Degree in Special Education. The course opened up her eyes to her own ignorance and Irving decided that she was going to write about what she was learning so that “other Debby Irvings don’t have to wait until they’re 48 and maybe end up in a graduate course!” 

Along with telling her personal story and how she got to where she is now, Irving also informed the audience of many things that are widely unknown, such as Black Wall Street. Black Wall Street was an extremely successful community in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the early 1900s that was home to bustling black businesses, restaurants, theaters, and even its own school district. Yet, a rumor of a sexual assault brought the end to its existence, when mobs burned the businesses and homes to the ground, and hundreds of citizens of color were murdered. 

Black Wall Street, along with many other events, are impactful pieces of history that no one talks about. She also discussed another piece of unknown information, explaining how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t only have a dream, and that the iconic speech became iconic because it fit into the colorblind shell of society with the line reading, “…one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Rosa Parks’ well known story, too, might not be what everyone learned in elementary school. The refusal to stand up wasn’t just a choice she made because she was tired that day, but rather a deliberate action that was planned for months. Irving wanted to make it clear to the audience that there is so much to be learned, still so much knowledge to be gained. 

Audience members thanked Irving over and over when the presentation was concluded. 

Springfield College student Ty Coney expressed his gratitude for her presentation by sharing a bit of his personal story of being biracial. 

“Not only did I get to see the things that growing up white why I have that mental state, but also get a glimpse of what my father might have went through and what my grandfather might have went through when it came to all these things and living through all these things,” he said. “So I just want to thank you for letting me see that through this presentation.” 

Many other people spoke up in similar ways, feeling like they have finally been heard and understood by a person who is white. 

“What to do now” was the topic of Irving’s finale. Knowing people would want information on how they can help make a change instead of continuing the issue, she addressed what to do if one were in that situation. The key step she suggests is to find the people who are already doing the work and learn and be involved with them. Smaller personal actions one can take include changing what someone is being exposed to on a daily basis, self-educating before trying to get involved, understanding history, and having multiple perspectives. She also put great emphasis on being radically curious, vulnerability, and breaking the code of white silence. These are all things that anyone can do to make a difference in awareness and knowledge. 

Kris Rhim, another Springfield College student, expressed his feelings very frankly about the presentation. 

“I liked how she split us up into groups and I had a good discussion… [a woman] asking us questions like ‘what can I do?’ and ‘how can I be an ally?’ which is important, and like Irving said, having white people talking about this is important,” Rhim shared. 

Irving’s presentation was shocking and extremely raw. It informed audience members and sparked a yearning for more knowledge inside of many. Springfield College moves forward in working on its own diversity and inclusion every day, and having Irving come to speak was an opportunity for this campus to continue that process. 

Photo Courtesy Springfield College Marketing & Communications

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