The Nightmare of the Newly Woke
About this time last year, right before COVID-19 confined us to our homes and screens, I went to see activist and author Layla Saad on her book tour for “Me and White Supremacy.” The event, hosted by a local Black-owned bookstore, Uncle Bobbie’s, drew a primarily white audience. Sitting in the crowded church where the event was being held, I kept mostly to myself in a roomful of superfans who collectively gushed as Layla took the stage. With nearly every point she made, there was a deep bobbing of heads, punctuated with overly enthusiastic snapping, sometimes clapping. One white man in my row periodically shouted a passionate “Preach!” to add to the chorus of approval. With every blatant display of “wokeness,” I shrunk deeper and lower into my seat. It was too much, even for me. I couldn’t wait to get out of there. So when Layla finally took her seat to sign books and the crowd rushed to get in line to greet her, I slipped out the side door, annoyed, judgmental, embarrassed.
Then I remembered.
I remembered the me of just a few months ago. I remembered how I felt and acted, and my judgment turned to shame. I remembered how I enthusiastically told every Black person I encountered that I was the white lady who shared the Starbucks video. That tired, frustrated look on their faces that I couldn’t decipher at the time made sense to me now: I was insufferable, exhausting, immersed in all the things I just realized, the same things they had been living with since birth. I acted like racism was new when it was just new to me. I remembered how I sent articles I saw to my friends who are Black, likely triggering pain for them. And I realized I was almost as troublesome to white people. I could hear my condescending tone, recall the judgment I inflicted, the roll of my eyes that I tried to suppress when they asked questions that I thought they should have known the answers to. And here I was, barely past my evangelistic wokeness, judging fellow white people for being right where they were supposed to be in their racial identity development, right where I just was.
There’s this thing that happens when we white people first start to realize that racism is not just something outside of ourselves, but embedded in the way we see and move through the world, that it’s both inside of us and all around us. First we’re shocked and overwhelmed, then we read our first book and decide we’re experts. We “understand” the complexities of systemic oppression. We “get it.” We quickly become arrogant, self-important. We spew our newfound knowledge to everyone we encounter. We are evangelists! We start antiracism Instagram accounts and make TikToks confessing to the world that we’re racist. We speak for Black people in their spaces, defending them like they don’t have the agency or capacity to do it themselves. We condescend like the white saviors we are. We put our performative fists in the air in what we think is solidarity. And we are judgmental, shaming, and self-righteous to other white people who are, in truth, no worse than we are.
And while all of this is normal and expected in the process of coming to terms with your racial identity, it causes harm to Black people and runs the risk of pushing other white people who are just beginning on the path to antiracism back into complicit silence.
So if you’re currently among the “newly woke,” what can you do? Well first, take a long, hard look at yourself. I wish I had done that, but I was so full of myself that I couldn’t see past the moment. Don’t subject Black people to your overzealousness. Talk to other white people, send them the articles instead. Resist the urge to judge your white friends who haven’t arrived where you are yet. The path is long and bumpy, so remember where you’ve been and support them through it, all while knowing you will feel and act differently the further you advance in your own racial identity development. Be where you are as best you can, and keep learning, reading, watching, and listening about the Black experience.
And if you’ve made it past that stage? Take a deep breath and remember what a nightmare you might have been while you were in it. We white people are so used to being at the center of everything that we have a hard time seeing where we are as we move through the arena. Keep checking yourself when the urge to judge others arises. Like it or not, this is a complicated and delicate process, and we white people need to be patient with other white people. It’s not Black people’s job to tolerate us through it. Know that you’re also right where you’re supposed to be, and that you will be somewhere else the longer you are on the path. Although this is a lifelong process, there will come a point when all of us, with intention and action, reach the autonomy stage. That’s when we have a clear understanding of our racial identity and our role in dismantling racist ideas and narratives within ourselves and the systems in which we participate.
Do I think loving other white people through the process of racial identity development is coddling? (This is feedback I get, mostly from white people who are “newly woke.”) No, I don’t agree with that characterization. I believe we have to love each other through the process, push and pull, tug and ease each other through the emotions that are inevitable when we realize the racism is not just something outside of us, but deeply embedded inside. Supporting one another through the stages that we have already experienced is the kind of true antiracist action we need if we are going to use our privilege for progress. It’s how we gather our people.