The Pains Of Being Woke
By Vanessa Willoughby
To be woke is a journey without a final resting place.
There is a scene in the 2014 French film, Girlhood, where main character Marieme and her friends sing along to “Diamonds” by Rihanna. The girls are in a hotel room, and the scene is dipped in a moody blue sheen. The camera captures the girls dancing with the sort of giggly abandon that can only occur when you’re happy with close friends made under intense circumstances.
These are the kind of girls who know the real you and who allow you to blossom in their presence, like some kind of flower that only comes alive under the glow of a full moon. It’s one of the lighter moments in this young black girl’s life. Originally from a small town outside of Paris, Marieme decides to drop out of school and join a gang. Her home life is less than comfortable. Her mother constantly works, which means her abusive brother is head of the house. It’s not so far-fetched to think that she would find comfort in a group of girls who seemed independent, self-sufficient and totally free of adult authority.
The scene is memorable because it’s a rare portrayal of black girls who are momentarily free.
I imagine that the concept of being “woke,” that thorny state of higher consciousness, mimics the emotional undertow of Girlhood. It’s a state of being that never allows you to get fully comfortable or complacent. Unlike Alice stumbling around in Wonderland, once you are woke, you can never unlearn this knowledge. It may be harder to find moments of joy, but these moments are not permanently unattainable. There is a sense of incomparable freedom in the decision to put faith in your autonomy. To say: I will not lie down in the darkness of defeat.
To be woke means that the pursuit of knowledge takes precedent over accepting popular opinion. To be woke also means that ego should never sway your awareness. To be woke is a journey without a final resting place. To be woke means that not everyone will understand you. When existing in this state of wokeness around white people, some may call you “crazy” or “too sensitive,” and argue that your lived experiences are exaggerated, a lie, irrelevant. To be woke means short victories offset by unstoppable growing pains.
My mother doesn’t understand the power of protest. Career and social mobility often depend on the ability of restraint. When did a whistleblower ever get rewarded with a pension and a bonus?
We are standing in the kitchen of her compact house and she’s asking about my job. How was work? It’s a simple enough question, but I feel as though she wants a new answer, an affirmation of my purpose, the assurance that I’m following the path of the workaholic model minority. The success of the model minority acts as indisputable evidence for nationalists and bigots: The American Dream is not broken, but reserved for the obedient. The success of the model minority daughter proves that all of my mother’s sacrifices, from choosing not to finish her degree to leaving behind her entire family to move to the States, were worth it.
For once, I’m too irritated and disturbed to offer the clipped response of “fine.” Instead, I open up about the casual racism I’ve witnessed and experienced while working in publishing, the angry frothing I’ve felt in my stomach upon realizing that I am probably serving as the racially monolithic office’s necessary diversity hire. I tell my mom that coworkers have asked if my hair is real and how I get it to “look like that.” I tell her that my supervisor barely pays attention to me, that he seems to tune out during our meetings, and that every time I discuss a book that is about or penned by black or people of color authors, my boss needs to be convinced of their merit to the point of a 100% guarantee of a profit, and then some.
“I don’t think there’s much of a market for this,” he says.
Half of the time, he’s never heard of the author. I tell my mom about the various levels of disorganization and dysfunction that occur at work and the fact that team morale is nonexistent. I tell my mom that I have the highest degree in my department, along with the most prior relevant experience, yet I’m constantly second-guessed, talked down to, and occasionally outright ignored.
I can’t help but read her face and response as dismissal; I’m overreacting about these incidents of casual racism.
My mom is not surprised, nor is she is in disbelief. She frowns as though I’ve spilled coffee on an all-white church outfit. I can’t help but read her face and response as dismissal; I’m overreacting about these incidents of casual racism.
“It’s like that at every job. You just can’t pay attention to that. You can’t think negatively,” she advises. I feel like I’m 13 again and my mother is yanking up the sleeves of my long-sleeved shirt, exposing my collection of jagged scars and old cuts on my forearm.
“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”
I didn’t understand Zora Neale Hurston’s wisdom until long after I’d become familiar with her works. I grew up a girl who had been conditioned to keep her feelings to herself. Silence can be fatal; it can rot you from the inside out. Still, I know that speaking out against injustices, whether professional or personal, automatically casts me as an agitator, an undesirable, a troublemaker.
Writing this, I think that I’ve just put a loaded gun to my face and pulled the trigger. I can hear the scratching of pens as HR employees engrave my name on their blacklists.
It’s 2012 and a boy named Trayvon Martin has been murdered by George Zimmerman, a paranoid and egomaniacal racist with a gun. Twitter makes it easy to follow the breaking news about the case. The more I read about Trayvon’s death, the angrier I get, but I can’t stop checking for new developments, for nearby rallies and planned protests. The angrier I get, the lower I eventually sink.
Despite what Zimmerman’s defense and the mainstream media believe, Trayvon was not a man; his right to grow into manhood was extinguished by a bullet. Trayvon was around the same age as my younger teenage brother. Trayvon seemed to be around the same height as my brother, both lanky boys with heads full of dark curls. Trayvon’s skin was darker than my brother’s, and although I understand and recognize colorism within a white supremacist society, I also know that in suburban Connecticut, where over 80% of the racial demographic is white, all black people look alike.
Being on the lighter shade of the spectrum has not stopped white people from questioning our blackness, then turning around in the next moment to call us a range of names — anything from nigga to nigger. In my brother’s case, these exchanges have sometimes resulted in a physical altercation. My brother, if at the wrong place or the wrong time, could have been Trayvon.
My head hurts and my heart aches as I watch people scramble to demonize Trayvon, lawmakers and media outlets figuring out how to use doublespeak to say that he deserved to die. I feel powerless, and the only thing I can do is write and submit these boiling, rolling waves of anxiety and uncertainty to online publications.
Most of the social media I visit seems preoccupied with the Zimmerman trial, with the exception of Facebook. There, few people mention anything about it. None of my white Facebook friends express empathy or anguish or confusion or outrage. None of them talk about it at all. They’re all too busy posting about trips to the gym and adopting dogs and looking at engagement rings and clogging up the newsfeed with memes that debuted on Tumblr and Twitter years ago.
Trayvon was not a man; his right to grow into manhood was extinguished by a bullet.
The few white people who do say something, excluding one or two truly socially progressive friends from college, have nothing pleasant to contribute. One white friend “likes” a post from another white girl from our high school. The original article was taken from a website very clearly geared toward white supremacists and their close cousins, Southern “good ol’ boys” waving Confederate flags. For suburban Connecticut, I see far too many trucks with Confederate flags plastered on their bumpers. I do some digging and see that the girl who posted the article also belongs to “white pride” Facebook groups. Some people post the argument: “If he (Trayvon) were white, no one would care!”
I’m so disgusted that I delete my entire account. It is not a moment of validation or self-satisfaction, but quiet resolve. In the beginning of Girlhood, Marieme wordlessly decides that she’s had enough of her current life. While washing dishes at the sink, she grabs a knife, folds it up, and stores it in her pocket. The action is meant to imply that this is a pivotal moment, that Marieme’s pocketing of the knife marks a change in not only her mindset, but her personal narrative.
I delete my Facebook because I no longer want to put myself in the presence, in person or online, of people who look at a Black teenage boy and agree that his mere existence proves that he is a “thug.” It’s a goal that’s easier said than achieved, but it provides a sense of control. It feels better than choosing silence.
My first longterm, committed relationship chokes on conflict and unceremoniously ends. Initially, I think that I’m Teflon, that I will rise from my own ashes like some old-school movie starlet. Soon, I am haunted by things I said and didn’t say. Loneliness takes hold with sharp-tipped teeth and an iron-locked jaw. I need something that will take away from the feeling of wanting to jump off the next cliff I see, or from my desire to pack a single bag, hop into my car, and drive away without telling anyone goodbye.
I try to distract myself with online dating, namely OKCupid. It’s a disaster from the start. I run across a handful of men who scream CLINGY. Their opening message is usually nice and cordial. But if you fail to respond after five minutes, they turn on you and suddenly you’re an “ugly bitch.” Then there are the men who seem to copy and paste their messages, never bothering to read one line of my profile. Of course, a few 40+ men hit on me, assuming that shots of them holding a bug-eyed, dead fish are enough to make me hot and bothered.
Unfortunately, due to geography, the majority of the men who contact me are white men with an unabashed fetish for interracial dating. Many of them are quick to assure me, without my asking, that they’ve dated black women and in fact, exclusively date black women. They expect me to fall to my knees and kiss their feet for such undivided attention. They don’t even say “Hi.” They ask: “What are you?” They ask: “You ever been with a white guy?” They tell me that they refuse to date white girls because they like the bodies of black women better.
None of them see black women as nuanced individuals or human beings deserving of respect. They assume that I’m some sexual deviant because I’m a black woman and start off messages telling me how much they want to fuck me, especially those big lips. They tell me that they are colorblind, but love the way brown skin looks against their skin. All of them are caught up in the thrill of the hunt. I’m an accessory, I’m Carmen Jones, I’m Eve. One could argue that my experience is universal and that regardless of race, all women face vitriol and abuse online. Yet the vitriol and dehumanizing abuse that exclusively impact black women are the direct result of these men seeing race.
I end up spending more time blocking these particular breeds of trolls, pick-up artists, and basement dwellers than engaging in meaningful conversations. I go on a date with a guy who appears to be a decent person. I’m quickly proven wrong. A few days after our date, we get into a fight because he claims that I’m racist for using the term white supremacy. How dare I imply that he’s racist, and how dare I imply that all white people are racist because #NotAllWhitePeople! Despite my never having implied or said these things, he’s uncomfortable with the fact that I refuse to think of him as an “honorary black person.” He argues that he knows all about the struggle because he grew up on welfare and he had black family members. He argues that he’s in no way privileged because he’s not rich, and besides, he went to Occupy Wall Street!
Colorism further divides Black women, perpetuating white supremacy.
After I tell him off, I block and delete his number. Then I delete my account, nauseated by the thought of wasting any more time weeding through trash only to uncover a bottomless pit. I think that another woman, someone who has unfortunately been brainwashed into accepting crumbs, who feels that being with someone, even if it’s for all the wrong reasons, is enough, would apologize and attempt to appease this new paramour. Another woman, conditioned to strive for the acceptance of white people, would attempt to soothe this man’s guilty conscience and coddle his entitlement and arrogance. Another woman may chide herself for being so “jaded” and dismissing the possibility of a relationship.
Black women are constantly told by society that we’re the least desirable. Colorism further divides Black women, perpetuating white supremacy. The fear of loneliness is more potent than people realize. Not only do we still tell the lie that a woman’s greatest accomplishment should involve marriage, we tell Black women that they shouldn’t even bother, because most of us are viewed as “unattractive” (insert Average White Man offhandedly saying he doesn’t typically date Black women because “it’s not racist, it’s just a preference”), and are not wanted as partners. Another woman may have tried to salvage that date, to give the man the benefit of the doubt. I choose to delete my account partly because of one theory: out of sight, out of mind.
I am tired of getting my hopes up only to be dehumanized in a new way.
Being “woke,” being aware, being conscious, whatever the current terminology is, can be as freeing as that scene in Girlhood. It can also be a terrifying, isolating, and lonely path. When you finally turn internalized hate into self-respect and self-love, you are faced with the dilemma of leaving behind the protection of ignorance. You are suddenly aware of the multitudes of contradictions in America’s treatment of race and racial identity. You can no longer pretend. You no longer want to pretend.
In the end, you would rather take those quick, heightened moments of contentment than silence and denial.