By Kris Nystrom
"To be antiracist is to conquer the assimilationist consciousness and the segregationist consciousness."
"Racial solidarity: openly identifying, supporting, and protecting integrated racial spaces. To be antiracist is to equate and nurture difference among racial groups."
~ Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist
Get a bunch of privileged white folks together talking about antiracist efforts and you’ll inevitably start hearing about things we do to prove our empathy, our consciousness, our enlightenment. We all want to get to the other side of prejudice. We all want to be an ally.
But we can never be woke.
Elijah C. Watson, News and Culture Editor at Okayplayer, has written about the origin of the term woke, which he traces to a 1962 New York Times article “If You’re Woke You Dig It” by William Melvin Kelley. It came into popular use recently through songs by Childish Gambino and, particularly, Erykah Badu’s “Master Teacher.” Keyed on black identity, woke represented a state of awareness encompassing past and present expressions of American racism. Watson suggests woke was killed when it appeared in a 2017 Jeopardy! category “Stay Woke,” which appropriated it as a cultural trend:
"The moment was a sobering representation of the continual mishandling of blackness in America. Our culture is treated as a trend. But for black people stay woke is anything but — it’s a fucking lifestyle for us. Each and every day, having to be aware that because of the color of your skin you could be legally defined as someone’s property; you could be shot and hung for allegedly talking to or whistling at a white woman; you could be arrested and placed in one of the most dangerous jails in the country for a crime you never committed. Woke was simultaneously a cool and militant descriptor for our experience, a word that channeled our reality into something empowering. Now, it’s gone."
Allies who want to step into discomfort and take part in evolving our culture through antiracist work must also step off the notion that this is about us. Instead of using the power that comes with privilege to name what it means to be a teacher of color, we must give up privilege and give over power.
If we’re genuine about our aims for equity and social justice, us privileged white folks need to make space for teachers of color. We need to step aside—we cannot name the identity we want others to assume—and step back—listen, openly and objectively. Our role is not to give or tell, which is magnanimous at best and patronizing or worse. Our role is to understand, stand alongside, and become aware. But not woke.
CTCTE’s efforts to engage antiracist work is risky, but it’s also vital. It’s risky because we are confronting an evil past that is present, both in our communities and in our own, culturally wrought, thought patterns. It’s almost certain we’ll make mistakes. But we’re committed. This cannot be a trend. Most of us are allies; board and membership representation are nowhere near the color of our state. Our aim is to use our resources, including the cultural capital that comes with white privilege, to divest power to teachers of color. The Conversations as Teachers of Color series is a start. Please join us.
Watson, Elijah C. “The Origin of Woke: How Erykah Badu and Georgia Anne Muldrow Sparked the ‘Stay Woke’ Era.” Okayplayer, 27 February 2018, https://www.okayplayer.com/originals/georgia-muldrow-erykah-badu-stay-woke-master-teacher.html.