The Dilemma of The Woke White Woman

Karen Lanovoi
Feb 28 · 9 min read

Is there any such thing as a ‘woke’ white woman?

If so, what is she ‘woke’ to?

If she is so ‘woke’ why is she still talking about HER feelings?

What’s the dilemma?

What does ‘woke’ even mean?

Last question first. Let’s define ‘woke.’

Dictionary.com gets you this.

The term indicates a general awareness of systemic societal and racial injustice. It means you see it; you acknowledge it and you’re awake.

But…before you use the term; please read this.

First question. Is there any such thing as a ‘woke’ white woman?

The answer is different depending on who you ask. In short, YES, there are lots of passionate white women allies doing their very best but ‘woke’ is a co-opted term and it doesn’t fit. We could keep those quotations around awhile or maybe use the term Waking White Woman. That’s more accurate.

For context, you should read this.

Second question. What is she ‘woke’ to?

If you ask her, she is likely to say that she is ‘woke’ to the living, breathing, depth of cruelty of social injustices facing underrepresented communities. Injustices that the members of these groups always knew was there. Sadly, for many privileged Americans, this was news. The Waking White Woman now sees the problem; she cannot look away; she is horrified.

To the people of color in her life, family, neighbors, coworkers, friends, this might be white woman drama, but for the waking white woman, this perception is her reality. She is sincere, now that she knows it’s broken, she wants to fix it.

And yeah. Hell yeah, she should’ve known how deep the racism ran, but she didn’t.

Waking to this has meant seeing the racism in her own spaces. At work, at school, at home, at grandmas house and everywhere else.

For her, it’s been one gut punch after another since 2016, when the veil was lifted, when the election went horribly wrong and all suspicions of racism were confirmed in red ink. She couldn’t go back to sleep now if she tried.

For the more than two years of this calamity, she has wanted nothing more than to be an ally to those who are underrepresented. She wants to do good and make things right. She thinks she knows just how to fix things, only to be heartbroken when she fails. She still doesn’t know what she doesn’t know.

Third question. Why are her feelings always part of the discussion?

Now that she has awoken, she is overwhelmed by emotions. She is deeply disturbed by this sudden truth: surprise! America is RACIST! She should have known, and while maybe she suspected, she didn’t think it was THIS bad.

Watch this. Again.

Post-2016 Election SNL Skit.

Is any of the pain and disillusionment she feels equal to the decades of non-stop trauma of social injustice caused by the institutional powers that be?

No. Of course not. She knows that. She tries to know that.

These feelings are compounded by the shameful realization that not only was the suffering there all along but that in many ways she has been quietly and cluelessly complicit in the on and on-ness of it. And. Perhaps worst of all, she has a sinking feeling that she cannot fix it, she can never make it right.

She wants to try though. To do her part, but she still needs to learn to be okay with making mistakes and with inadvertently saying or doing the wrong thing herself. Taking whatever feedback she gets along the way and not letting it deter her or crush her. She needs to be okay with course correcting, not collapsing in tears because she erred or putting up her dukes because someone pointed it out.

Listen to this excellent conversation.

The Will to Change Podcast

Fourth question. What’s the dilemma?

Well, her eyes were initially opened because her rights were threatened. She marches, organizes, canvasses, writes letters and understands Black Lives Matter and DACA in a way she didn’t before the threat hit home.

Does she have the will and stamina to hang in for the whole battle? Or will she pack up her signs, her petitions, and her anonymous Twitter account if and when her rights are once again secured?

The truth is some like her won’t hang around for all of it, and many more will never join the fight. But among those who have joined the fight and who have at last awoken to this reality, you will find stalwart sisters. Imperfect allies, delicate allies, but allies nonetheless.

And. Yes. Someday, perhaps she can be a great ally. Once she gets past her own tears.

She could start with her other white lady friends that are still voting against their interests. She could start in her home, in her neighborhood, and her workplace. If she wants to help Persons of Color, then she could educate and shake awake the other white folks who are still asleep.

Talk with grandma, don’t avoid her. Try. Even though it’s exhausting and possibly hopeless. Try. And then try some more.

Here is an excellent example of a white woman using her privilege to handle an out of control hateful woman who was berating and verbally abusing two other women for simply speaking Spanish.

Here is a poor example. Ann Hathaway tried (and kind of failed) to use her privilege.

She tried.

Read this.

Finally a cautionary tale about a white woman who thought she was ‘woke,’ but when her mettle was tested, not only was she not ’woke,’ she was totally comatose.

Recently at a New York City Women’s event, one designed to be intersectional, intentioned to honor the efforts of various women that have worked as allies to improve the lives of the underrepresented, a ‘woke’ white woman threw a tantrum.

She felt she had worked hard to make a difference and was hurt and angry, (which she expressed by crying and screaming in the lobby of the event venue) when she discovered that in fact, she wasn’t among the women being honored that day.

The event coordinators had to step out and take time away from the event they had worked so hard to put together to coddle this woman, going so far as to give her a place at the table with the distinguished keynote speakers.

It was a Liberian woman who helped to organize the event who insisted she give her own seat at the table to this woman to cool the situation down.

This toxic expression of her feelings of resentment undid positive perceptions of her and her good works.

She wanted to help, but she expected to be honored for it. Revered even and she couldn’t cope with being ignored. Not even for one event.

How can we help her toughen up? Do we need to? Shouldn’t our energy be directed toward positive actions, building coalitions instead of soothing the feelings of the supposedly ‘woke’?

How can we help equip her with the grace and generosity displayed by the Liberian woman?

How can we help her understand she needs to invest in building trust with EVERY Person of Color she meets? Is that even realistic? No. Probably not, but that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t keep trying.

She needs to come to terms with the fact that it will be a long road before she gets a pass…. “white people, we need to earn the trust of every person of color in our lives, basically over and over again.”

This comes down to a matter of trust and a willingness to invest.

Read this.

And then read this.

What to do.

1. Educate yourself. Find alternative history. Understand how this has happened and what forces allow it to continue.

Don’t ask Persons of Color to define racism for you. Check out these resources for yourself. Learn.

2. Listen. Stop telling other folks what to do. Listen to them. Try to understand what THEY need. They are not you. They are not pitiable children. They have their own culture. Learn the real history of their people.

Don’t have discussions about how you will help them…without THEM. Understand.

3. Step aside. If you have a platform to speak, give it to a woman who has something to say, but no platform with which to say it. Stand with your underrepresented neighbors. Help them get representation. Help them to the polls. Let them speak their own truth. Listen.

So here’s the thing, if you haven’t already guessed I am a white woman and although now I think of myself as aware, I don’t, and I won’t refer to myself as ‘woke.’

Use of that term implies that somehow all the work is done.

It is not.

It implies that merely being awake to social injustice and educated about the power centers that lie among fellow white people is enough.

It is not.

If we sincerely want to be allies, then we need to work every day to keep aware. To be a worthy ally, we must invest in these relationships, by being trustworthy and by learning, listening and stepping aside.

If we sincerely want to be allies, it will be a long road. Settle in; it will be uncomfortable and quite possibly thankless. That’s okay. We will be models for all of our sisters and perhaps collectively build trust and goodwill and earn the titles of valuable ally and trusted friend.

Be a Better Ally. Build Trust.

Read this.

Above all, we need to check our feelings. We can’t expect anyone to be careful with us. We need to take responsibility for our own emotional response to the rejection we will sometimes get.

It’s okay. We won’t break.

If we genuinely want to lead the way for our fellow Waking White Women, let’s follow a woman of color, with her permission of course.

She was born with her eyes wide open.

Karen Lanovoi

Written by

A bio you want? Honestly? My resume reads as a squirrel scrambling across a Scrabble board. Somehow, it all adds up to me. On my best days, I know who that is.

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