From the time she was a child attending an elementary school in Alexandria, Va., Aimee Appell, pastor at Peace Lutheran Church in Washington, knew “something was off.”
This was in the mid- to late-1970s, just a few years after desegregation.
The student body at her school was 75 percent African-American, and the teachers were mostly African-American, but the gifted and talented program that Appell was in was made up mostly of white students. Even as a child, she wondered why that was.
“I knew it wasn’t that the other kids weren’t as smart as me,” said Appell. “There was something else going on. So most of my life, I’ve been trying to figure out what that is.”
Now in her mid-40s, Appell has gained some new insights on that through a book, “Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race,” a memoir by Debby Irving.
Appell, who received the book as a gift from her best friend back in September, has been leading a five-week discussion group on the book at the Washington Public Library. She also organized two other discussion groups on the book that are being held at the Neighborhood Reads bookstore across the street from the library.
Between the three groups, about 30 people have been meeting to discuss the book and reflect on their own stories, “unpacking” the cultural assumptions they had been making without ever realizing it and how that has affect the way they relate to people.
For Appell, she realized there were cultural reasons why more black students were not in the gifted and talented program with her.
“Their culture told them that you don’t go ask for a special place in a classroom,” said Appell. “A white parent wouldn’t hesitate to call up to request or even demand that their child be put in a special class, but a black parent wouldn’t do that, because they were taught to respect the principal and that would not be showing respect.”
Small but significant insights like that are found throughout the book, said Appell. Some are historical, some are cultural, some are just anecdotal, “but it all comes together to make for great conversation with people.”
Wanted to Read It With Others
Appell had received the book as a birthday gift from her best friend, an African-American woman who grew up in Richmond, Va. The women had met as students at the University of Virginia, where Appell studied anthropology.
Her friend’s church in Richmond had given out the book to members and encouraged them to have an adult study of it. She thought Appell also would be interested in it, so she mailed her a copy.
Appell only has to read the book’s introduction to know it was the kind of book she did not want to read alone.
“It’s deep stuff,” she said. “It’s heavy work of really unpacking our cultural assumptions and really digging into the things that we don’t think about, but form the way that we see the world. So that by itself was, ‘OK, this is the kind of thing you really need someone to reflect with.’
“And the book itself, at the end of every chapter, has a question that (the author) encourages people to journal about. She has written (the book) knowing that people are really going to need some time to reflect on this stuff that’s in it.”
As a pastor and also chairperson of the local Neighbors United-Undoing Racism group, Appell knew there were others in the community who wanted to have these kind of conversations as well, people wanting to ask these same questions.
Through Facebook, she asked if there was anyone else who would be interested in reading the book along with her, and right away 30 people responded.
That was too many for one group, so she came up with three times and found two other people to help lead the other groups:
Paul Schwartzkopf, a retired pastor who is a member of Peace Lutheran and lives in New Haven, has been leading the Monday afternoon group, and Andrea Asselmeier, the new pastor for Emmaus Homes, has been leading the Tuesday evening group.
The readings were broken up in to about 50 pages each week since the book is 250 pages. Next week is the last meeting, but Appell said if there is enough interest, she will organize and lead a second round of discussions on the book.
People who are interested, should contact her at Peace Lutheran, 636-239-1878, or through Facebook.
‘Gently . . . Unpeeling Those Layers’
In the first section of the book, Irving writes about her childhood and where she came from, so the discussion group spent the first meeting sharing their own experiences.
Everyone in all of the discussion groups has been white, and that is OK, said Appell. In fact, that’s kind of the point.
“It is really aimed at white folks to try to help us to peel back those layers and those defenses,” Appell explained, noting that along with race, each person’s experience is based on where they fall in the class system.
“People in our (discussion groups) are doctors, teachers, housewives, all across the board,” said Appell.
Some grew up in Franklin County, some grew up outside the area, some on the East or West Coast. Appell probably has the most racially diverse experience of everyone who has been participating.
She graduated from T.C. Williams High School, which was featured in the Hollywood movie, “Remember the Titans,” about the integration of the school’s football team in 1971.
Irving, who grew up in a wealthy part of New England, writes about how her cultural experience was to follow the rules of “polite conversation,” which meant whenever a conversation turned to race or got uncomfortable, she deflected to something neutral, like the weather.
“So she’s trying, gently, through telling her own story, to help other people begin to unpeel those layers and get to where they are having real authentic conversations,” said Appell. “She’s trying hard to pull away the guilt white people often feel, which leads to them deflecting the conversation or shutting it down.
“But if you really want to see something change, it’s going to take a little bit of work, so let’s have the conversation,” Appell said.
The most eye-opening lesson from the book for many readers was the effect of the G.I. Bill on American racial divisions. It was a great benefit for white soldiers returning from World War II, affording them free college educations and in some cases, even free law degrees.
But there were very few spots open to African-American men in colleges back then, and so very few of them benefited at all from the G.I. Bill, despite having served their country in the same way as white men, said Appell.
“It could have been a great opportunity to narrow the divide between African-Americans and white people in America and to have almost some reparations,” but instead it was the opposite, she noted. “It ended up broadening the gap.”
And today the descendants of those white soldiers who attended college on the G.I. Bill continue to benefit from that, although most of them don’t recognize that because they have no idea, said Appell.
‘I Didn’t Understand the Concept at First’
Kathy Hurlbert, Washington, who grew up “in the lap of white privilege” all her life, said she first heard about the concept of white privilege sometime in the 1990s.
“Like most white people, I didn’t understand the concept at first — because I didn’t have to,” she told The Missourian. “My parents worked hard to make it into the middle class. I bought into the ‘we made it by ourselves’ delusion, but I have learned that I always had the wind at my back. The class is showing me how much of my life was always privileged.”
The discussion group has been “a safe place to talk about white privilege and learn to admit it . . . understand it . . . do something about it,” Hurlbert added.
Diane Disbro, director of the Scenic Regional Library branch in Union, said reading and discussing the book in a group setting has brought these 30 people “closer to understanding what it is to not be WWE (white western European),” and that effort to increase empathy can only have a positive impact on the broader community.
Molly Derner, who has participated in the group discussions, said the talk was often direct and even uncomfortable, but also worthwhile.
Looking ahead, Appell has several hopes for what can happen next.
She knows that the people who have been attending the book groups were already more open to these kind of discussions, so in a way it is like “preaching to the choir.” But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be a “trickle down” effect.
“One of the things that I want to have come out of this is that people set aside the defensiveness and just believe when someone tells them that this was and is their experience,” said Appell.
“Having read a book like this allows us to enter into a conversation like that a little more willingly. It’s not going to change the world,” but it’s something people can do to make a difference.
“Have that conversation and learn a little bit more. In a way there’s an empowering element of that,” said Appell.
Copies of “Waking Up White” will be available at Neighborhood Reads bookstore, 401 Lafayette St., in Downtown Washington. Call 636-390-WORD (9673) to reserve a copy.