On Being a Woke White Teacher

The first time I garnered credit for fighting racism, I was fifteen. On the heels of a racially-charged, violent attack/conflict/atrocity that is not my story to tell, I was part of a group of students that was asked to come together and plan a way to address the racism in our school. We planned as a group and then went classroom to classroom speaking to our peers in our 95%+ white junior high in Minnesota. The day we made our visits, I learned about the ugly, overt prejudice and hate held by my fellow freshmen — people I’d known my entire life and considered funny or cute or cool or maybe just okay but had never seen as racist. I heard their words, I spoke my truth, and I cried in the hallway. The next school year, our group was recognized by the state of Minnesota and won the Minnesota Peace Prize, and there I was, fifteen and receiving a prestigious award for anti-racist work.

It felt good. It felt good to be recognized for something that took tremendous courage from my fifteen-year-old self. It felt good to be part of a group that, according to the Prize, had made a difference. It felt good to have something that I could reference for years to come to demonstrate that I was part of the crowd who “got it”. The person I was then is so different from who I am now, it is difficult to remember exactly how I used this recognition for leverage and credibility, but I’m sure I did.

That was twenty years ago, and my list of anti-racist qualifications has grown: the American Studies Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, a purposeful, committed focus on culturally responsive pedagogy in my professional development as an educator, thirteen years spent teaching in schools with student communities comprised primarily by youth of color, and a laundry list of committee memberships, presentations, and soundbites in staff meetings.

All this work and I need you to know: I am deeply, deeply uncomfortable when referred to as woke, by anyone.

I hate it when any white person uses the word woke, either to describe themselves or to evaluate someone else. I hate it.

A quick search on Urban Dictionary will tell you that “woke” means to be aware. Long used by black activists as a call for a healthy level of caution, guard, and awareness, the term exploded into the broader, whiter internet post-Ferguson alongside the rising prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Now here we are: the phrases “get woke” and “stay woke” are used commonly by white social justice activists and random Facebook friends alike, and, as are all things culturally appropriated, their meanings have changed into something more vague, more self-congratulatory, and less action-oriented. People use woke to describe themselves as aware of everything from environmentalism to police brutality — most frequently as in the know about racism. A diverse group of white people have embraced this term: some who have long engaged in learning and activism paired with a bunch who read Ta-Nehisi Coates and follow Tim Wise and Shaun King on social media and stop there. Don’t get me wrong — Coates is a genius and Wise and King have important things to say. I just can’t get behind the label for myself or any other white person.

Problem #1: “Woke” implies the racial equity journey is no longer in the present. The moment we, as white people, shift into past tense to describe this journey, we’ve declared an arrival that is impossible. Claiming to be woke as a white person comes along with the belief that we know and understand, and not only is this impossible, it also gives permission to rest, to stop growing, to no longer turn the lens on ourselves to expose what we don’t know. Yes, I know that to some, the definition of woke implies a process and journey that one is engaged and invested in. Yes, I’m an English teacher and I notice things like verb tense more than the average person, but the fixed, past tense nature of woke is a big deal for me. It curbs the potential to recognize the ways in which white supremacy and racism live in our own actions and perceptions. It ignores the missed opportunities, the tough conversations with coworkers and family members and friends that we choose not to have. It ignores our shortcomings.

When a white person identifies another white person or says that someone needs to get woke, they imply that they, too, deserve the title — that they have the authority and credibility to dole out the label or lack thereof. As white people, I don’t believe we get to decide this. Our culture and community is too complex, changing too rapidly, the systems and problems too vast and pervasive, our own baggage too much, and our cushion of privilege too real. As individuals, we can commit to growing and learning, but there will always be more growing and learning to do.

Problem #2: The term woke, when used by white people, is divisive. I’m not so into being careful of my language or self-proclaimed identities to protect other’s feelings. It would be difficult to argue that I don’t buy in to liberal beliefs and systems. I will quickly and openly let you know that I am a feminist, that I believe my career to be social activism, and I have a long list of intellectual crushes. True story. I am learning to be aware of the ways in which these identities can quickly shut down dialogues, hinder mutual understanding, and prevent my ideas from being received openly with the possibility of changing hearts and minds. If we’re really invested in engaging ourselves and others and fostering shifts in perspectives that lead to social activism that improves our community, we (as white liberal activists) need to be aware of how our language fosters chasms rather than builds bridges.

I’m operating under the assumption that it is cool and progressive to be up on issues related to racial justice. I struggle to call it a trend, because there has never been a time when there aren’t activists fighting for equality and equity, but I think it is a safe statement to say that if we look to communities that are considered hip, there is a connection to being aware of social justice movements. If we buy into this divide or bolster it by identifying our in-the-know friends with trendy vernacular, we’re doing nobody any good. Instead, we are alienating people, halting conversation, and implying an either-or rather than a journey. We are implying that social awareness and ideas of equity are a trend. We’re congratulating ourselves and our like-minded individuals, and at the end of the day, the only people that benefit from this ego-stroking is us. Meanwhile, people and communities of color, the very people we’re trying to support, are left out of the equation.

Problem #3: We don’t know what we don’t know. For the first thirty or so years of my life, I’m not sure I ever believed I wasn’t aware of racism and the ways in which it impacted my actions and beliefs. Scratch that. I didn’t think it impacted my actions and beliefs; I jumped on the anti-racist train early, writing essays about To Kill a Mockingbird for my eighth grade independent reading project, and I had that whole Peace Prize thing going.

At that point, most of the people of color I knew were from books; I could count my real-life relationships with people of color on my fingers. I’m deeply grateful for the perspective I gained from novels and stories, and I know that it took a lot of courage and conviction for fifteen-year-old me to stand in front of my openly racist peers. Still, I had no idea what I was missing. I knew what was happening in my community was wrong, but I couldn’t see my own internalized racism and I am confident that there was lots of it.

Two decades later, every time I engage in an opportunity to learn more about social justice and listen to people of color speak their truths, I see the gaps in my own awareness. I see the way that systemic, institutionalized racism benefits white people including me. Why would I arrogantly assume that my learning is ever done , that I “get it,” that I am “in,” that I can use a past-tense phrase to describe myself and my awareness when it comes to something as deep and complex as racism and prejudice?

Because of my work, this is something that is a hot-button issue for me. I’m a career educator. I’ve hit that delightful mark where I am older than many of my students’ parents and I could have taught my youngest co-workers when they were in elementary school. I’ve had the opportunity to work with over one thousand teenagers, the vast majority being students of color, as their English and Reading teacher, meet their families, and share in their victories and struggles. It’s awesome. Seriously. I love my job, and I believe with my whole being that education has the power to break down the many, many systems and institutions that perpetuate white supremacy.

I have a pretty solid track record, career-wise. My student data is strong, and I’m generally considered on my game when it comes to closing the achievement gap and engaging all kids in learning that connects to themselves and their identities. These things work in my favor when it comes to credibility, but every time I arrive at new learning in regards to race, culture, and social justice, I look backward and see the students that I failed to serve as I could have. I see how my actions and beliefs — shaped by a society driven by white practices and privilege — kept me from being what my students deserved. We will never not know what we don’t know, and this reality will never cease to exist. There will never not be the kid I missed, the choice I made that meant that someone wasn’t served as well as they could have been, that their humanity was not validated and celebrated as fully as possible, that I wasn’t my best for all rather than most. We have small windows to do right by kids — nine months at the most and then they’re on to the next classroom. If I choose to assume that I know everything or even enough, I choose to keep a child from growing and getting closer to their dreams, and the highest stakes don’t stop there.

As white people, the belief that we’re aware, that we’ve arrived, that we’re woke isn’t just arrogant, it’s dangerous — ironic given the original meaning of the word: a healthy awareness of injustice, danger, and risk. As educators, it is our job to grow skills and knowledge in children and young adults that will ultimately allow them to not only achieve their dreams but to change a world that desperately needs changing. Every single day, racist systems churn on and we all lose something. Some of us, like me, lose the opportunity to live in a society where everyone is valued for their gifts and humanity, where everyone has the opportunity to be their best, achieve their dreams, and make our community better. Others lose their safety, their well-being, and literally, their lives.

Problem #4: Racial awareness and commitment to change should be a baseline expectation for everyone. To congratulate those who are doing and thinking what we all should be doing and thinking permits mediocrity and passive resistance in those who are not. Last year, I was interviewed by district leaders about my practices in the classroom. I talked extensively about differentiation and scaffolding strategies, skill sets I have worked hard to hone and develop. I discussed my philosophy on student-teacher and student-student relationships and how those beliefs connect to my instruction, practices that have worked well for me but may not work well for everyone. Then we came to culturally-responsive pedagogy.

As I shared my thoughts and mindset — in this case that it is our duty to continually see and respond to and learn from our clientele. I talked about my belief that as the facilitator of the room, it is up to us to modify and adjust to what works best to give all of our students the opportunity to learn as best as they can and feel validated, seen, and represented in the classroom. Anxiety and frustration started creeping into my inner-dialogue as I finally realized: I was being held up as excellent for doing things that every single educator — especially every single educator of students of color — should do. This was no longer about strategies or skills, it was about core beliefs. In my role as instructional coach and as a participant in our educational equity work, I try to readily embrace my duty to engage colleagues in the journey toward culturally-responsive, equitable work, but please don’t tell me how great it is when I respond to my students. That is my job. Instead, treat me as the norm and raise the bar for those who don’t.

Even if I let go of my hang-ups on past-tense, even if I had a perfect understanding of everything social justice-related, I can’t get behind creating in-groups of people invested in learning about and working for social justice and equality. That should be all of us, and I will not pat anyone on the back and give them a cool, hip, in-the-know label for behaving like a decent human. There are people fighting for racial equality and doing the right thing and there is everyone else. End of story.

I think back to that first award and it occurs to me that twenty to thirty mostly white peers from my mostly white community were bused down to the State Capitol, given a trophy and certificates, spoken of, celebrated, and complimented by mostly white government officials. Where was the young man who was the victim of the event that spurred it all? Where was his voice in the action? There were no awards for him, no recognition of the struggle and work it took to be a black teen in an overwhelmingly white school for the majority of his K-12 education. Instead, we took charge and took things in the direction we saw best. We told pieces of his story as part of our own recognition and those of us who had the privilege to make the choice to engage in racial dialogue were put on a pedestal. This didn’t occur to me then, or five, ten, even fifteen years later — a detail that is possibly the single best piece of supporting evidence for my argument that, despite the very well-intentioned, good things I was doing, I had a lot to learn.

I know that at fifteen, l deserved affirmation for courage, but I also know that I had a long, long way to go. I wish that, in that moment, someone would have communicated this message to all of us on that stage: Yes, you did good work, but no, you are not special. Yes, you should be proud of taking a stand when it was difficult, but this should be a baseline expectation, not an award for going above and beyond. Yes, you need to keep fighting. Yes, this is the beginning of a long road, and together, we will keep marching forward toward a constantly moving endpoint, but no, until we get there, we don’t have time to rest.