A Year Later, One Thing Is Clear: Being ‘Woke’ Isn’t Nearly Enough

It is now a year since the release of Beyoncé’s visual album, Lemonade. If you are a student of African American history, the title should have been a signal that this was a work you needed to see, listen to, and think about. And if you did, what you learned was that being “woke”, or aware of the ways in which racism and sexism work, isn’t nearly enough. To truly be free, we have to understand how racism and sexism are embedded in American society and how they can be unlearned.

When Black Lives Matter activists disrupted the 2016 presidential candidates, they made it impossible to ignore the need for real change in the U.S. criminal justice system. The movement has done the country a service by making history’s most oppressed group visible, but in the year since Michael Brown died in Ferguson, Mo., and the Black Lives Matter movement was born, it has accomplished little else. The movement’s leaders seem to think that continuing to repeat the great civil rights rallying cry “Black Lives Matter” is a substitute for policy ideas and concrete action.

A year ago, student activists at the University of Texas at Austin were celebrating after regents there had rejected a plan to rename a campus building honoring a former governor who had been a segregationist. “We are humbled and inspired by the support our campaign has garnered,” the student activists said at the time. But the celebratory mood didn’t last long. “The regents’ decision,” the activists said in a statement released a few days later, “has left us with many questions, concerns and fears.”

word-image-4063 A year has passed since the murder of George Floyd and the American Spring that followed. Corporations, sports leagues, marketing firms and all manner of nonprofit organizations have publicly stated that they endorse our country’s anti-racist vision. And after a year, everything became clear: Waking up wasn’t enough. Instagram hashtags didn’t even exist yet. Declarations of alliance have not eased the burden on black and brown people. Virtue signaling was just an empty gesture. As Malcolm X once said: It’s not the chip on my shoulder, it’s your foot on my neck. After all the false realizations and solidarity shows, it’s probably both.

Sentimentalism without substance has created a vacuum that is now being filled by a wave of reactionary responses to the fact that the world has suddenly felt the pain of black Americans. Whites, it must be said bluntly, do not make the same massive effort to re-educate themselves out of racist ignorance. It is part of their sense of superiority that whites in America feel they have so little to learn. ~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We see this emergence of new racial voting restrictions, designed solely to deprive black and brown Americans of their rights, after elections in which they played a crucial role in tipping the balance of power toward authoritarianism. We see this in the canonization of the Big Lie into Republican dogma.

We see this in literally washing away the attacks on our democracy on the 6th. January. And we see it every morning when right-wing cable news broadcasts lies about critical race doctrine to awaken white America in a racist frenzy. for the Negro… realizes that with every modest advance, the whites immediately make the argument that the Negro has made enough progress. Each step forward reinforces the constant tendency to go backwards. ~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This is the state of affairs in America for black and brown people.

A year when many claimed that racism was the real scourge, but few actually did the work necessary to dismantle and change the architecture of the world. All this is happening at a time when repressive forces are creating new and even more terrifying forms of oppression. And if the word rearchitect makes you think, you’re right. The lack of action is largely due to the fact that most white people see themselves as ignorant participants in systemic racism. They do not see how their own lives confirm the racism that suddenly frightens them.

The reality is that white America as a whole has knowingly participated in and contributed to the entrenchment of racism in our social structures. …Most white people in America, including many people of good will, assume that equality is a free expression of improvement. White Americans are not even psychologically organized to bridge the gap – in fact, they try to make it less painful and less obvious, but essentially they perpetuate it. ~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The pursuit of a good life as a white American has always been a pursuit that has come directly at the expense of black and brown America – from gaining access to prestigious universities and pursuing success on the career ladder to leveraging comparatively higher generational wealth to get a good neighborhood with good schools.

Because so much of white American life is unconsciously but inextricably tied to the enslavement of black and brown people, it might seem that whites cannot be true allies in the fight against systemic racism. Fortunately, that is not the case. Whites can work together with their black and brown brothers and sisters, but they must do so in a meaningful and rigorous way. The concept of superiority is so entrenched in white society that it will be many years before skin color is no longer a factor in judgment. ~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

That’s what it looks like. Awareness, again, is only the first step. Yes, it’s important, but ultimately not enough. Those who wish to engage authentically in the fight against racism must not only realize how deep and wide systemic racism is – how it permeates every corner of the lives of not only enslaved people, but also those of enslaved people. No one is immune to this hyper-endemic disease. Our black culture(s), customs, loves, hopes, fears, aspirations, resolve and resignation depend on our context. We rise and fall despite, in spite of, and even because of the pervasiveness of institutional racism and its byproduct, white supremacy. Still I rise, taken from a poem by Maya Angelou, is not cerebral but at the heart of our experience.

But like the black experience, the white culture, customs, loves, hopes, fears, aspirations, determination, and rejection are part of a larger cultural context. Our entire social existence is mediated, changed and recreated by the inevitable influence of racial construction in this country. This is the essence of critical race theory and how it can help us understand how we got to where we are today. If you stick a knife 15 cm into my back and pull it back 15 cm, that’s not progress. Even if you remove it completely, it’s still not progress. Progress is healing the wound, and America hasn’t even begun to pull the knife out yet. ~ Malcolm X In addition to a full understanding of the depth and breadth of systemic racism and how it can alternately promote and end lives, those who wish to do anti-racist work must train and develop their skills in this area.

As an educator, this means using two CRTs that are deadly for white supremacy: culturally sensitive teaching and, yes, critical race theory. But you don’t have to teach children in the classroom to do anti-racism. Read people like Derrick Bell or Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, Kimberle Crenshaw, Dr. Goldy Muhammad or Dr. Muhammad Khalifa.

Those who spread lies about critical race theory may enjoy the privilege of condemning what they know nothing about, but we who are dedicated to building a body of anti-racist work must actually receive and engage with the ever-evolving body of anti-racist knowledge. Finally, we must have the courage to change our present society so that it becomes more just and equitable. What does real equality mean in terms of political rights, economic well-being, educational opportunities and treatment of the natural world? These are all questions we can answer if we make a strong and meaningful commitment to anti-racism.

This process of mutual empowerment is essential to our collective liberation. Because, as Lilla Watson said, If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is linked to mine, then let us work together. In fact, we are connected to a whole world of racist structures. Imagine the beauty of a world filled with love, equality and understanding.

We can do it. But that takes much, much more than empty gestures of performance creativity.The year 2017 was a difficult time for many marginalized people, as the political climate in the United States continued to grow more contentious and discriminatory. It was a difficult year to be “woke,” or to be fair, to be a part of the marginalized population, at least if you have any connection to social media. The politically charged language used during the past year will continue to haunt us as we turn the page on 2017 and look towards a difficult 2018.. Read more about woke colleges and let us know what you think.


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