HECUA classrooms

When White Wokeness Comes at the Expense of People of Color

A tight close up of one hazel eye

HECUA programs offer students a chance to think deeply about the issues that matter most, and we’d like to share a piece of that experience with you. This semester, students in our Inequality in America, Art for Social Change, and Making Media, Making Change programs are writing a series of blog posts on a topic of their choosing. We asked Inequality in America students to consider a theory or reading that intersects with their lived experience. Making Media, Making Change and Art for Social Change students will offer a window into their creative processes, and describe how what they are learning guides their art. Over the next few months we’ll publish a number of these powerful reflections from our students. Please share them widely! You can find all of the posts by searching the HECUA classrooms category on our blog.

When White “Wokeness” Comes at the Expense of People of Color

by Elise Frieder

Woke. It’s a word that originated in black communities, and it is popping up everywhere. Woke is a slang term for social awareness, referencing waking up to injustices in our society. It has been used to describe activist spaces, organizations, people, and businesses. Our society has watched the term be co-opted by white people into a badge of pride they wear, or a safety pin. Being woke for many white people has become a self-proclaimed identity, a personality trait, and a way to stand out during a time when racial tensions feel to be at an all-time high.

It was July 6th, 2016. I was in my room watching Hulu when my roommate burst into tears. “Oh my god, someone was just shot in Minnesota.” We had been talking about police brutality only minutes before. He was scrolling through his phone when he saw the facebook livestream of Philando Castile’s death. I typed Falcon Heights, the location of the shooting, into google maps. It was less than seven miles away. Over the next few weeks, my mind swirled with grief, confusion, and regret. It had only been roughly seven months before that that another black man, Jamar Clark, lost his life in my home state. My progressive, liberal home state of Minnesota. After Jamar Clark’s death, I stood idly by watching the media slaughter his character. I stood idly by as the people of North Minneapolis demanded justice and proclaimed that officer-involved shootings of black men happen far too often.

After Philando’s death, I couldn’t help but think back to all of the incidents of police brutality that I had ignored. Jamar Clark, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray… the list goes on. Yet, despite decades upon decades of police brutality, until 2016 I did not take action. I was not the only one who felt this way. Support for the Black Lives Matter movement amongst white people from ages 18-30 rose by 10% from the start of summer 2016 to its end in September, and I anticipate that this number will continue to grow. This is not because BLM has mainstreamed its message. This is not because the situation has grown more dire. It is because with every person of color who is killed by the police, a journey into wokeness is spurred for a white individual. Black death has become a teaching moment for white folks.

After Philando Castile’s death, I desperately plunged into the depths of racial theory and analysis, attempting to make sense of what had happened. I read books and articles, watched documentaries, and wandered into the dangerous realm of asking questions. I asked my friends of color, “what were your first encounters with police?” “where in your life have you experienced discrimination?” “what do you think about what happened to Philando?” I was asking them to dredge up horrendously painful experiences so that I could receive a teaching moment. I was asking them to make themselves highly vulnerable so that I could improve my racial lens. This is something that happens far too often, especially to “well-intentioned” white folks. As white people attempting to understand the complexities of race, we often find ourselves putting the burden of our own self-development onto people of color through asking them to teach us, advise us, and continuously listen to us through this process. At first, it felt to me like I was simply trying to learn. But at what cost? The cost of my friends’ mental health?

Even in activist spaces, black and brown bodies come at the expense of white “wokeness.” During the protests that have gotten the most strained, black and brown people are always at the front lines fighting for their own liberation, putting their own bodies at risk of pepper spray, batons, and tear gas. People of color have done this for centuries. White people are praised for being in these spaces, for being brave. Yet, we can opt out at any time and go home because our lives are not directly affected. We have the luxury of shielding ourselves in the fight for black and brown liberation with black and brown bodies — even in activist spaces.

How, as white people, can we pursue wokeness without relying on black and brown loss? People of color do not owe us their experiences, their time, their explanations, their mental health, their safety, their bodies, or losses in their communities and families for us to learn. It is time for white people to learn how to carry this burden ourselves. Being woke, being “anti-racist”, becomes the exact poison that we are trying to rid ourselves of when we are woke at the expense of people of color.

I am still learning how to avoid this. I think there are three very crucial ways in which wokeness can be achieved without perpetuating black and brown loss. First is accepting the realities of black and brown folks without question. When our friends tell us that something they encountered was racist, it serves no one to ask them, “Are you sure?” Or to say, “How was it racist?” Their experiences are real. Their feelings are valid. Second is taking advantage of the art that surrounds us. Thousands of films, documentaries, books, pieces of art, and articles have been created surrounding race.  Rather than forcing your friends, coworkers, acquaintances, family members, and others to become vulnerable and relive painful experiences, art exists as our resource. Study, read. Rely on artists and authors who have shared their experiences willingly and openly to the public. Third, rely on one another. As white folks, we are in this journey to anti-racism together. We are there for one another to learn from and lean upon.

Woke is not a label, it’s not a self-proclaimed identity. It’s a commitment to creating an anti-racist world. It’s work. As white folks, we must practice what we preach and find ethical ways to better understand and combat racism in our societies. It’s time for us to read, listen, and challenge our own whiteness in hopes of making an anti-racist world.

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