“Who polices the woke?” The question caught me off guard.
My line brother posed it to me as I was on my way to a meeting. We are members of the first historically black Greek collegiate fraternity and are called line brothers because we joined at the same time. He called with a question that, up until then, I’d not considered. He wanted to know what was the mechanism by which we quantify someone’s degree of wokeness.
“Can a person be woke in one area but sleep in another?” Good question.
“Does being woke mean I have to agree with what all other woke folks say should be done about issues in the black community?” My L.B. is smart. I’d expect nothing else from an Alpha man.
His main point of inquiry centered on the illusive nature of ideas and expectations concerning those we identify as woke. He called me because he knows that as a philosopher of race, I teach, write and think about the intersection of race and public policy. To fully unpack his question, I think we need to first examine the contemporaneous use of the word “woke” vis-à-vis the movement for black lives.
Merriam-Webster defines “woke” as the past and past participle of “wake.” The Urban Dictionary says woke means “ … being aware. Knowing what’s going on in the community (Relating to Racism and Social Injustice).”
While these definitions are helpful, they do not get to the heart of why I think the notion of being “woke” has gained so much currency of late.
After the civil rights movement, black folks in America enjoyed previously unknown levels of upward socioeconomic mobility. While there have always been class divisions and marginal access to privilege based on skin color inside the community, the one unifying oppression with which all struggled was overt interpersonal racism and blatant institutional bias. With gains achieved in the 1960s and 1970s, many middle-class black folks retreated into suburban comfort while poor and working-class black Americans endured mistreatment and exploitation at the hands of a criminal-justice and capitalistic system that was no less racist than before—only slightly less blatant in its execution.
During this time of unprecedented opportunity, complacency set in for many. Indeed, there were always those like Louis Farrakhan, Jeremiah Wright and Cornel West who continued to shine a spotlight on racial inequality, but many—dare I say most—fell asleep and dreamed of individualized prosperity at the expense of communal empowerment. Apathy set in. We thought, “As long as me and mine are taken care of, then I need not concern myself with the concerns of the community.” The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter changed much of that.
After the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter began to be used by activists to bring attention to issues black folks are facing in America. The activists behind the movement for black lives have done more to bring attention to areas of racial inequity than, arguably, any other group of activists in the past 10 years. Things like public education funding, housing segregation, environmental racism and police brutality have become part of the national conversation partly because of the persistence these activists have shown in raising awareness of such issues. Inspired by these activists, public protests began to take place across the country. From marches in Baltimore and Chicago to the near boycott of a football game by players at the University of Missouri, race is once again a topic of public conversation.
This is the heart of what it means to be “woke.” The masses of black folks who were lulled to sleep by economic opportunity have now awoken to the fact that race is, and will remain, a central part of the black experience. Yet there is disagreement about who is allowed to be woke and what is expected of those who have now entered into this new existential state of being.
For me, being woke means awakening to the pervasive, intersectional insidiousness of white supremacy. This awakening is not limited to people of color. Black folks are not the only ones who needed a wake-up call.
Souls that inhabit white bodies can be allies and accomplices in the fight against oppression, in the same way that black folks can be agents and accomplices in promoting, promulgating and protecting white supremacy. As my grandmother once said, conjuring Zora Neale Hurston, “All your skinfolk ain’t your kinfolk.” Meaning that you can inhabit a black body and be an agent of white supremacy. Just ask Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, or any of the thousands of black Americans who are more concerned with white feelings than with black lives and bodies. Black folks don’t have the market cornered on being “woke,” and there is no agreement about how best to actualize the potentiality of the black community.
White supremacy frames black intellectualism as monolithic. Put another way, to expect black folks to think the same is an assumption filtered through a white conceptual lens. To quote Kanye West’s “New Slaves,” white supremacy says, “All you blacks want all the same things.” But this is not true. Black people may all awaken to the reality of institutional, covert and overt racism and still disagree about what is the best response to those ills.
A Hotep may respond by longing for a return to a
mythological past where black men were unquestioned in their authority and black women knew their place. Black libertarians may say that less government is the answer while maintaining that the invisible hand of capitalism will fix economic inequality. Each of these responses has historical precedent in the black community, and each of these positions needs to be challenged.
From W.E.B. Du Bois’ beef with Marcus Garvey to Mary Church Terrell’s disagreement with Mary McLeod Bethune, black Americans have never been homogeneous. We have a rich history of intellectualism, which, almost by necessity, means that we have ancestors who thought deeply and critically and, despite unapologetically loving black people, vehemently disagreed.
There is no litmus test for being woke. Like the libertarian, you can be aware of racism and fail to see how it intersects with economic inequality. Like the Hotep, you can become aware of the racialized nature of class and still hold to the oppressive ideologies of patriarchy or homophobia. To be woke is to be malleable—one can always be more critical, more empathetic and more sensitive to injustice.
My L.B. and I never fully explicated the idea of “wokeness.” We never figured out who was the arbiter of the concept. The best we could do was deepen our dedication and fight injustice wherever and whenever we found it. Really, that’s the best anyone can do.
Lawrence Ware is a progressive writer in a conservative state. A frequent contributor to Counterpunch and Dissent magazine, he is also a contributing editor of NewBlackMan (in Exile) and the Democratic Left. He has been featured in the New York Times and discussed race and politics on HuffPost Live, NPR and Public Radio International. Ware’s book on the life and thought of C.L.R. James will be published by Verso Books in the fall of 2017. Follow him on Twitter.