The woke and the still-waking
In 2017, a political eternity ago, I gave a talk at the Obama Summit in Chicago. One section of it dealt with the question of so-called wokeness, which has in the years since between a national tinderbox, with more heat than light. I wanted to share that part of the speech today. The bottom line: Wokeness is good, actually. But we need a plan for the still-waking.
As our society fractures, some change-makers are drawn to visions of progress that don’t bother with suasion. I’m thinking especially of those of us who live in what we regard as the America of the future and who think of ourselves as “woke” — aware of injustice, committed to pluralism, willing to fight for it.
As wokeness has percolated from Black resistance into the cultural mainstream, it seems at times to have become a test you must pass to engage with the enlightened, not a gospel the enlightened aspire to spread. Either you buy our whole program, use all the right terms, and expertly check your privilege, or you’re irredeemable.
Is there space among the woke for the still-waking?
Today, there are millions who are ambivalent between the politics of inclusion and the politics of exclusion — not quite woke, not quite hateful.
Men unprepared by their upbringing to know their place in an equal world. White people unready for a new day in which Americanness no longer means whiteness. People anxious about change’s pace, about the death of certainties.
The woke have a choice about how to deal with the ambivalent. Do you focus on building a fortress to protect yourselves from them? Or a road to help them cross the mountain?
A common answer to this question is that the people angry at losing status don’t deserve any help. They’ve been helped.
I understand this response. It is hardly the fault of the rest of us that those wielding unearned privilege bristle at surrendering it. But it is our problem. The burden of citizenship is committing to your fellow citizens and accepting that what is not your fault may be your problem. And that, amid great change, it is in all of our interest to help people see who they will be on the other side of the mountaintop.
When we accept these duties, we may begin to notice the ways in which our very different pains rhyme. The African-American retiree in Brooklyn who fears gentrification is whitening her borough beyond recognition probably votes differently from the white foreman in Arizona who fears immigration is browning his state. Yet their worries echo.
When we learn to detect such resonances, we gain the understanding of other people that is required to win them over, and not simply to resist them.
It isn’t enough to be right about the world you want to live in. You gotta sell it, even to those you fear.
My school district recently passed an ordinance setting out when it is-and isn’t appropriate to summon a police officer to a school. Part of this was establishing that we do not want school resource officers posted in our schools. Because too often it’s a Black or Brown kid who ends up facing a person with a uniform and a gun. But the struggle is how to persuade those who resisted this ordinance. Those who see it as anti-cop. It’s not “anti-cop.” It’s pro-freedom and pro-equal-treatment-under-the-law, and pro-fairness and pro-humanity.
I think about this a lot, because my own "waking" was a process that required patience and compassion from lots of people who were already woke. It's hardly fair to expect patience and compassion from folks who have been historically marginalized by people like me, as you point out, but it's hard to see how change happens without it.
I wrote a little about my own journey and process here: https://armchairpundit.substack.com/p/losing-my-religion-pride-edition