BENTON TOWNSHIP — Debby Irving is a recovering white person.

By the age of two and a half “I was swimming in racism,” afloat in a sea of messages that told her that whites were superior to black and brown people, Irving said Thursday as part of the Community Grand Rounds series.

Even into adulthood and a career as an educator, Irving carried, unquestioned, many of those attitudes.

Irving, author of “Waking Up White,” related that as an elementary teacher she pushed white students harder to achieve than she did black students. When a black parent demanded a more rigorous education for their children, she unconsciously felt threatened.

Her book recounts her awakening to the roots of these beliefs and how they pervasively infect every aspect of American society.

It caused her to ask the question “I’m a Good Person – Isn’t that Enough?”

In terms of racial equality, her definitive answer is “Nope.”

The Community Grand Rounds effort was launched in response to research that found black residents in Berrien County had much higher rates of mortality than whites, and that systemic racism played a major role in creating that gap, said Lynn Todman, executive director for population health for Spectrum Health Lakeland.

The event, sponsored by Spectrum Health Lakeland, the Todman Family Foundation, the First Presbyterian Church of Benton Harbor and the Berrien County Health Department, drew more than 300 participants at the Hilton Garden Inn.

Irving told of growing up in the 1960s in all-white Winchester, Mass., a Boston suburb, in an era where the illustrations of Norman Rockwell and television shows such as “Father Knows Best” reinforced a Caucasian-centered, and male-dominated, universe.

These images were bolstered by a society that always showed a white male at the top, from the president of the United States to the head of the local school board.

The racial myopia wasn’t limited to black people. When Irving asked her mother what happened to all the Indians, she answered “They all drank themselves to death.”

Society also fostered the myth of the level playing field and “justice for all,” and that all it took to achieve the American Dream was hard work.

Irving said she swallowed it all until she began to learn that such benefits as the GI Bill of Rights largely excluded the 1.2 million black veterans of World War II from buying a home or pursuing a college education.

The footprints of redlining in housing “are remarkably intact today,” Irving said.

All of this has led to the “economic castration” of entire communities, where disparities in education, food, and transportation persist, Irving said.

Whites reap the benefits, she added. “You can’t have the short end of the stick without someone getting the long end of the stick.”

When asked about the possible closure of Benton Harbor High School, Irving said she would rather see the construction of a new campus where black students are valued, rather than sending them to white schools where racist attitudes might persist.

Taking action

And the end of her talks, audience members inevitably say “Tell me what to do,” Irving said.

The author prescribed taking the “21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge,” with actions that can be taken to further the understanding of power and privilege.

Community Grand Rounds has taken its own steps. In addition to the speakers series, the organization holds “Brave Talks” among community members to discuss the issue of race.

It is also lobbying for institutional changes in policies that perpetuate inequality, Todman said. The group has been recognized with an offer from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to evaluate its work, she said.

Community Grand Rounds also is sponsoring a community discussion of “Waking Up White.” Gatherings will be held  at 6 p.m. Nov. 12 at the First Presbyterian Church of Benton Harbor, 475 Green Ave.; and Nov. 14 from 3-5 p.m. at the St. Joseph library and 6-8 p.m. at the Benton Harbor library.

Along with copies for sale at Forever Books, the St. Joseph library will have 35 copies available, and an audio version can be downloaded.

Audience member Harold Bragg, of Coloma, acknowledged that “there is not an overnight solution” to racism that has been going on for centuries.

Bragg’s own family left the South to find a better life in Akron, Ohio. When Bragg, who is black, attended Kenyon College, he requested a roommate but was given a single room.

When he questioned this, the dean told him he didn’t know how a white student would feel about the arrangement.

“He didn’t ask me how I’d feel about it,” Bragg said.

He offered that the education being offered through Community Grand Rounds was a big step in the right direction.

“You are a blessing,” he told Irving.

Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak