Awakening from “Woke”

My daughter Aselefech (an Ethiopian adoptee, almost 30 years old, raised by her white dad and me) asked me why I was doing so much race-related reading and writing and attending of events these days. She knows I was raised and educated with a solid social justice lens. I lived 30+ years in a predominantly black county. I am the mother of 4 black now adult children, plus a black-Latinx granddaughter. I am (relatively) woke.

With all that, at 60, I am realizing how much I don’t know, how much I don’t deeply understand about race (maybe intellectually but not in other ways), how much better I need to unpack my backpack of racist thought, and how much more I need to do besides having a “Black Lives Matter” sign on my front lawn.

I’m reading (fiction: The Hate U Give  by Angie Thomas (my granddaughter’s black teacher gave the book to to my granddaughter, who’s going into 6th grade); non-fiction: So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo). I’m attending workshops (A couple weeks ago, Confronting White Womanhood; This week, “Did That Just Happen?! Casual Racism at Work,” and “Breaking Down White Fragility with Robin DiAngelo”). I’m perusing The Root,  Color of ChangeThe African American Literature Book Club, Very Smart Brothas, and more.

And of course, I need to better understand the experiences of Asians, LGBTQI folks, Native  Americans, and other marginalized, oppressed groups. I need to understand intersectionality. And I need to stay focused and not get overwhelmed, thus giving up on any of it. I cannot do it all. That’s okay.

I am talking with friends and family of color, while bearing in mind it’s not their job to educate me.

I am working on understanding clearly what cultural humility, systemic oppression, and allyship are, and being able to express my views with clarity, confidence, and respect.

I am practicing not hopping on too high a horse about how much I am learning—it’s a pony just now. I want to share, I’m enthusiastic, and I recognize I need to step back, whether with white people or people of color.

And of course, I’m doing this while working, writing, doing laundry, gardening, walking the dog, grocery shopping, watching Netflix, and staying on top of my connections with family and friends. I am juggling many items, and dropping no small quantity. I am way behind in many areas. Waaaay behind.

I ask forgiveness of others as well as of myself, and keep moving. Keep reading and discerning. I am recognizing the complications of race, the devastating history of racism, and the entrenched “well-intentioned but with damaging impact” views that I hold. I am beginning to understand the role of anger, the delicate balance of politeness and demand for change, the times when I should offer and not offer to help.

I am doing this for my children, for my grandchild, and for their grandchildren. I am doing this for me. I am doing this because I’m a nice white lady who holds power. I’m doing this because I finally realize I am overdue in doing this. I need to talk the talk, walk the walk, stay in my lane, and extend myself beyond my comfort.

It’s time.

I’ll close with this excerpt from “Do You Think You’re ‘Woke’? It’s Not a Compliment” by John Vercher.

“Woke” is tired.

It’s tired because it’s so very tiring.

Chances are, though, I don’t mean “woke” the way you think I do. It means something far different for people of color than it does for well-meaning white people who use the term to describe themselves.

It means that we can’t afford not to think that this brutal extinguishing of life was racially motivated, at the peril of our lives. We must, quite literally, be awake to the very possibility that it could happen to us at any moment. To be woke is to take the word at its original definition. To enter every situation, no matter how mundane, with eyes wide open.

And to know that that still might not be enough to stay safe.

…Woke isn’t self-celebratory. To see it as such makes it the new “open-minded.” It makes its opposite the default, makes closed-mindedness and racism the norm.

To be truly woke today is, without hyperbole, physically and emotionally exhausting.

Today, when the police are called on black men and women for cookouts in public places, “excessive fouls” during pickup basketball games at the gym and using the wrong coupon at a drug store.

Imagine, just in the space of reading this, what it would be like to second-guess your every action when you leave your home.

To not listen to that new podcast, that audiobook, that new single while riding the bus because having your headphones in might decrease your awareness of your environment.

To keep your driver’s license and registration visible and accessible at all times so that it never appears that you’re reaching for anything.

To wonder if a look towards someone will be interpreted the wrong way. If you should say hello or keep your eyes forward.

To question whether or not you should wait for a train.

It might seem impossible to you. Sometimes it feels like it is.

If you’re someone who considers yourself an ally, if you’ve ever referred to yourself as woke, and while reading this you felt discomfort for even a moment, then use that feeling to redefine the term as it applies to you.

It’s not about the television shows you tell people you watch, the books you tell people you read or the causes you tell people you support.

It’s about what you do when no one is watching. Speaking up when you witness injustice, from racial jokes to verbal attacks to physical intimidation. Be aware of the devastating impact of those acts, both physically and mentally, to marginalized communities so that you can take action without thought or need for gratitude or celebration.

Because you’ll have that gratitude, and you’ll be celebrated by the people to whom it matters most, even if we don’t have the opportunity to tell you directly.

Being woke, being open-minded, isn’t a compliment. It doesn’t make you exceptional. It makes you human.