In today’s highly charged political landscape, “woke” has come to mean two very different things depending upon which side of the aisle you find yourself on.
In 2011, I embarked on a path of education that would change my life. The first step was in a class called “Sex, Violence, and Hollywood,” the subject of which was the portrayal of women and violence across popular culture. It was the first time that I learned that my feelings about how women are presented in books, videos, movies, and virtually every other medium, were justified. That my unease with Hollywood’s incessant use of women as objects was valid and shared by many. That the connection between sex and violence, and the acceptability of both, was not a myth of my own making. How Hollywood’s unyielding portrayal of people of color in the most negative ways was by design. This enlightenment would ultimately become an irrevocably altered worldview. And, when I wrote about the world that I saw from this new perspective, I spoke of the scales that had fallen from my eyes, and the blinders that I no longer wore. What I was also saying is that I was awake. Wide awake. Woke. Quite possibly for the first time in my life.
But, what does it mean to be “woke”? Well, that depends on who you ask and when.
One of the earliest references to being “woke” is from 1923 when Marcus Garvey called upon people of color to become more socially and politically aware. To be mindful of the basic survival tactics that people of color must employ in order to survive. Literally. Since then, others have called upon the Black community to remain woke, and vigilant. In 2014, following the death of Michael Brown and the DOJ’s investigation into the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department, being “woke” meant being mindful of police brutality and unjust law enforcement actions against people of color. It was then that being woke became a part of the Black Lives Matter vernacular as the movement called for our country to open its eyes to the violence being committed against people and communities of color.
In today’s highly charged political landscape, woke has come to mean two very different things depending upon which side of the aisle you find yourself on. On the left, to be woke is to be socially aware and act as an advocate for change. On the right, being woke is political correctness gone too far. For those on the right, there is no need to shine a light on the deeds of the past. They like their narrative just the way it is–devoid of any wrongdoing on the part of the white hegemony that rules this nation. Take, for example, the legislation in Florida known as the Individual Freedom Act (IFA) m, a/k/a the Stop WOKE Act, that dictates the subjects that may and may not be discussed in our classrooms and by whom. The IFA is but one of the many steps Florida’s leadership has taken in order to quelch disagreeing voices. They would rather silence Floridians rather than allow this nation’s history to be seen for what it truly is–brutality and trauma against people of color at the hands of a hegemonic and violent ruling mob. The lawsuit brought by employers and consultants, which argues that the IFA bars speech not conduct (and the two things are vastly different in terms of their constitutional permissiveness), has resulted in a temporary injunction against the implementation of the legislation. In the words of the Honorable Mark E. Walker, Chief Judge of the United States District Court, Northern District of Florida, Tallahassee Division, ”if Florida truly believes we live in a post-racial society, then let it make its case. But it cannot win the argument by muzzling its opponents.” While legislation may be constitutional in prohibiting certain conduct, it is a very different perspective when it attempts to limit speech. The lawsuit over Florida’s legislation will take a while to conclude. But, when it does, it may very well set the tone for the rest of the country and the legions of individuals who believe in keeping things as they are instead of growing and reaching for the more perfect union that was the promise of this country.
And, Florida is not alone in its endeavor to silence the voices of the opposition. As of July of this year, 42 states have taken one step or another to restrict the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and/or the way educators may speak on the topics of oppression, as well as the books they may use in that effort. In one of the more surreal examples of this, there is a school in Texas that is named for George Dawson, a man of color who only learned to read and write at the ripe old age of 98. The Carroll Independent School District began to look at banning a chapter on lynching in the book about Mr. Dawson’s life when it was added to the syllabus by a 7th-grade journalism teacher at Dawson Middle School.
In the opening chapter of Life is so Good, Mr. Dawson recalls the experience of witnessing his friend being lynched following accusations of rape. The same school district that found Mr. Dawson’s name worthy of being attached to a school, now says that his experiences, specifically the lynching of his friend, are not appropriate for its journalism students. Ironic is it not? Perhaps Texas is employing a little of the cancel culture they decry in trying to gloss over its own history of lynching—more than 600 lynchings occurred between 1862 and 1945—by pretending that it is a subject too weighty for students. Make no mistake, lynching is an incredibly heavy topic, but it is our country’s history and no amount of whitewashing will change that. And, what lesson is taught to our future journalists when the class created in furtherance of the 1st Amendment also provides a lesson in lying? But, it does not end there. As recently as two weeks ago, a teacher in Oklahoma was fired due to her having provided a QR Code for the Brooklyn Public Library’s initiative to make books, including those that have been banned, available to students across the country.
Those who are against CRT and certain books lean into this idea that learning about our nation's violent past serves as a prejudicial ideological tool that causes today’s students to feel guilty about or responsible for actions in which they had no part. They claim that CRT teaches that people should be judged based on their gender, race, ethnicity, or national origin rather than the reality that people are judged based upon those factors through no fault of their own. They also say that it may lead to bad feelings on the part of those same students. One can only surmise that they are referring to the truth of our racial history instead of the whitewashed version upon which so many of us were reared. The idea that the Civil War was fought, Lincoln spoke, Reconstruction began, and all has been right ever since is one of the biggest lies ever told. But, told it must be in order to maintain the mirage that racism is a thing of a bye-gone era, long eradicated, and forgotten about.
Do I think I am responsible for the actions of my ancestors? No, I do not. Do I, or even should I, have a sense of guilt over their actions? No, I do not think I should. Do I feel bad because I am white? No, I do not. Do I believe that my privilege comes at the cost of someone else? Yes, I do. Do I have an obligation to eradicate oppression where and when I can? Yes, I do. It is not a multiple-choice quiz. What is right, is right. Those that continue to live with their head in the sand, or try to force us to look away and ignore the truth are accomplices to one of the greatest crimes ever committed. The GOP fails to realize that their willful refusal to ignore this country’s racist history does not alter the truth. Rather, it serves to shine a light even brighter on the atrocities we have committed against our own. How they do not see that is dumbfounding.
The divide between the races in America is not new nor is it a result of any one recent activity. It is a divide that is thousands of years in the making. The history of our country–really, the history of humanity–is centered on one group of individuals using institutions, laws, and violence in order to maintain control over another group. Every industry in this country has at its foundation a system of oppression against women and people of color. Main Street is paved with the blood of the oppressed. And, behind it all–whether it be in academics, finances, the environment, employment practices, or sports–is white, male privilege. Women and individuals of color are oppressed in order to allow white men to continue to control almost every aspect of our lives. If they further the lie that we are inherently inferior, they continue the lie that they are inherently superior. If they recognize our equality, they must also acknowledge the lengths they have gone to–and will continue to go to–in order to ignore and repress it.
The fact of the matter is that oppression is not a blue or red issue. It is a human issue that affects us all. We either feel its bite or its kiss. Regardless, we are all implicated. Every single one of us. And, those that have privilege also have a measure of responsibility to acknowledge it and work towards equal access for everyone. When one voice is ignored, it is incumbent upon the rest of us to make our own even louder. In doing so, we must also remember that it is a privilege to educate ourselves and speak on racism instead of living it.
Want to see more CRT in your schools? Want schools to stop banning books that teach our students to think critically? Send mayor/state/federal to 50409 and lobby your legislators to insist on an accurate representation of our country’s history. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
Save the date: Season Two of Resistbot Live arrives on September 25, 2022.
Thank you to Donna!