What it means to be “woke”: An activist’s confession for this time

I can’t remember when I first heard the word “woke.” But I remember that shortly after hearing it, shortly after recognizing what it meant, I began to see that it wasn’t a word I could use to name myself. It wasn’t a word I should use to describe the way I move in the world.

That’s not to say that I don’t try to move in a way that keeps me alert to the many ways oppression is given new life. But it is to say that as a white person I can never be sure that my way of seeing myself, and the many ways my self-understanding plays out as I live and move in the world, isn’t skewed. I can’t be sure because I continue to be entangled with white supremacy and all the gifts and graces afforded to me because I am white. I can never be sure that I am fully aware of the power and freedom I have and how that power and freedom makes it easy for me to make choices without giving thought to this reality:

My decisions do not exist in a vacuum.

Yesterday, I attended a book launch event and I decided to live-tweet it. This is what I often do. Live-tweeting gives me something to do when I get fidgety and it reports out interesting material to those followers who happen to see what I’m writing at any given moment. The event organizers didn’t have a hashtag, so I used the name of the speaker as the tag in order to gather the tweets later if I wanted to archive them as notes. Because tweeting is what I do, this seemed like a no-brainer.

And this is the problem.

I didn’t engage my brain. I didn’t think about what it means for me say “tweeting is what I do” without recognizing my connection to the larger community of social media followers and retweeters that might see my tweets as something more than mere reportage. I gave little thought to the meaning of the free publicity I provided and was oblivious to the reality that because of my position, my privilege, that act carried with it the power of endorsement.

In fact, that awareness didn’t rise in me until after the event when I was on the phone with a Black colleague who wanted to know why I chose to live-tweet. Worse yet, I could not stop myself from the inevitable dive into the salty tear-filled pool of white fragility as I recognized that my assumptions about what matters and my lack of awareness regarding the influence I have were problematic.

The hard reality that white folks have to face every day is that we cannot ever rest on the laurels of our so-called “wokeness”. Neither should we have to depend on Black neighbors, church members, friends, partners, or colleagues to call us out when we act in ways that are harmful. We need to pay attention, to remember that the goal is to dismantle any system, organization, or collective and to disempower any individuals that benefit from the power of white supremacy which permeates our existence.

The title “woke” is not ours to claim. But the work of staying awake to the impact our way of life has on those around us is essential to our ability to participate effectively in the dismantling of white supremacy.  We must do the hard work of interrogating our understanding of the position and power we have, and with the knowledge of the reality of our position, carefully, and with great intentionality, choose our way of moving through the worlds we inhabit. We need to spend time engaging not only in the broad strokes of system analysis, but we need to do the deeper dive into situational and personal analysis, recognizing that it isn’t enough to have the right analysis, it isn’t enough to say the right words, agree with the right people. We have to be intentional about actually using that analysis to guide every choice we make.

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