“I’m woke!” The term “woke” has become the punchline of many a joke among free thinking, politically savvy people in America. It is a guaranteed laugh generator and a sure fire way of endearing yourself in most social groups. It is also another example of how repeated media messaging dilutes the empowering experiences of black and brown people. “Huh? How did this read go left so fast?” I’m glad you asked. Too often you hear media anchors and political professionals use this term to characterize the personality and political expectations of a particular group of people. Accompanying the term are descriptors like “extreme”, “far left”, “too liberal” and my least favorite, “Black Twitter”. The experience of people in America not classified white has been a mind bending, soul stirring, emotional roller coaster that even the most accomplished social and political scientists are hesitant to define. Everything our country stands on has a, “But in your case” clause.
Let’s start with President Lincoln’s promise to right the most obvious social and moral wrong of American history- kidnapping and enslaving Africans brought to America, classifying them as property and using them to advance economic interests including building permanently historic structures they were never allowed to enjoy. After the Union army defeated Confederates in the Civil War a promise to make restitution to former slaves through land and property was made but never realized and continues to go unfulfilled. Yet to satisfy the concerns of the “economically disadvantaged” former slave owners, government ensured they were paid handsomely for their troubles. Yet in the case of Reparations and in the face of irrefutable data on generational wealth, the very same arguments and efforts blocking the “40 acres and a mule” promise still remain effective. Being able to literally use the same arguments more than 100 years later is one of the best examples of the, “But in your case” approach to equity.
Then there’s the cherished and regularly celebrated U.S. Constitution. Politicians quote it more than any document created since Europeans arrived on Native territory. Some might even call it America’s true Bible. It is written, “All men are created equal”. Except if you’re incarcerated. Jim Crow laws and the prison industrial complex continue to ensure there are a group of folks (currently 75% black and brown) not eligible to enjoy these inalienable rights.
Then there were the Patriots. Black men who actively chose to risk their lives for America’s ideals. Even though they were prevented from voting, they fought in the Civil War and every other American war to ensure democracy triumphed over tyrannical rule anywhere. Then they came home to a country where they were no longer treated as property, just beneath human dignity. We will never know the actual number of lives lost to brutal beatings and lynchings that occurred because someone classified as white said a black man or woman did something wrong. We didn’t accurately or consistently record life and death events on black and brown people. While some can trace their lineage back to specific people in Europe, the family trees of black people often stop at the late 1800’s if they’re lucky. Today with the magic of DNA testing non-white people can obtain detailed knowledge of their ancestral geographic connections back to their African tribe inviting a celebration of what it means to be from a region or tribe with specific characteristics, practices and culture. It also means my life did not begin at American slavery.
Last example is how the devastation of the terrorist attack on 9/11 was the impetus for the Patriot Act giving authorities the ability to decide on the rights of a person perceived as a threat. Over a short period of time this bled into local police policy creating the unconstitutional , “stop and frisk”, “meet bail or sit in jail” and police rights policies used arbitrarily and most often when engaging black and brown people. As we became more aware of these “but in your case” scenarios, we woke up to the understanding that white supremacy, systemic and overt racism are as much American pastimes as baseball, apple pie and celebrating Independence day with fireworks.
So “woke” is not a term used to relax the atmosphere of a party or to ingratiate yourself with an unfamiliar group or a social anxiety reliever. It is the psychological, spiritual and intellectual understanding of American history and my individual place in it. It is the awareness of the ideologies passed on with the property willed to designated recipients reinforcing hundreds of years of abuse, hatred and pain smothering black and brown people. It is no longer denying how this country was created, how some benefitted from those efforts and how some are still suffering because of the trauma of decades of economic oppression and a government that does not always respect its inhabitants, It is the experience of a deeper understanding of my people.
When people use the term in a pejorative or sarcastic manner it reveals the psychological and successful impact of modern white supremacy and systemic racism. When a person realizes how they have permitted, excused or offered demeaning sentiments or been passive participants in the continued destruction of the lives of people of color, waking up is liberating.
For anyone (other than a comedian) to attempt to belittle this experience disguising it as sarcastic humor says so much about our collective denial and active resistance to a society that has yet to live up to its promise of a more perfect union. Being woke is the experience of seeing America and her history as she really is. It is the imputis of calling people out on apologizing or excusing racist acts and policies. It is no longer dismissing the impact of everything on my life but most importantly a long history of systemic racism. It is the equivalent of wearing my favorite fur coat, it is light, comforting yet fiercely protective against natures’ harshest elements. I wear my wokeness elegantly, effortlessly, proudly and courageously. Joke if you like, I will never go back to sleep.