Waking Up

Do you know what “woke” means?

Bijan Stephen for Cosmo. Photo credit — Aaron Richter @Richterfit

In this essay I make multiple references to my podcast with Jeff Umbro that spawned the thought, which is called Writers Who Don’t Write. You can find this particular episode on iTunes or SoundCloud, and subscribe to our weekly newsletter at wwdwpodcast.com.

This week on the show we interviewed Bijan Stephen who is an associate editor for New Republic, and he brought up the concept of woke. If you’d like to listen to the interview, click here. It’s something that’s stuck with me over the last week, and I tried to pin down exactly why below.

Do you know what “woke” means?

About a week ago I didn’t. So I looked it up, and then I asked about it on the show, and got hit with a JFGI (just fucking google it). I’m still not sure I understand it, but I could at least repeat to you the urban dictionary definition of it. Woke means being aware… knowing what’s going on in the community, relating to racism and social justice.

The question Bijan posed to me during the show: If you know that there’s a social movement happening somewhere, and you agree with it, and you think it’s important, then why aren’t you there? Why aren’t you paying as much attention as you could? Shouldn’t you?

It cuts deep for me because it goes directly to the heart of my ignorance; the bubble I’ve built for myself in the way that I consume news, music, information. I like slow news, researched meticulously and filtered through the editorial department of a trusted publication — the kind you’ll hear Clive Thompson talk about if you listen to our previous episode. Really, it’s an excuse to pay less attention to the world around me than I otherwise might, and this is the part that’s easy to admit.

But there’s something else lurking there in the depths of my silence, and maybe you’ll hear it if you listen. It’s something that’s difficult to put words to, a feeling in two parts that I haven’t been able to shake in the days since.

The first part is not a new idea, but it became apparent to me growing up on the South side of Syracuse in upstate New York. If you look close enough at the way things are, the only logical conclusion you can draw from the absence of women and minorities in positions of power is that the problem is far too widespread to be anything but institutional.

The rules that are in place now are all either directly or indirectly responsible for consciously maintaining a status quo that advances white men at the expense of everyone else, and those rules, tacit or otherwise, are enforced by the powers that be. It doesn’t just so happen that the powers that be are also white men. This is not news, and isn’t terribly surprising given where we started, though the myriad ways in which it manifests throughout our society range from terrible to disgusting to horrifying.

The second part is more personal. When you recognize those truths to be truth, you begin to see the symptoms. You start to trace your own experiences, and you find those truths hiding in the ways you experience the world around you. And when you start reaching down to the depths of it, they start to bleed backwards into your memories, to cast things that once seemed innocent in a new, moldy, flickering light. It starts to change the story of you.

I can pinpoint at least three encounters with the law in my life that, given the history of police and people of color, might have gone down differently if my skin tone was different, if I wasn’t given the benefit of the doubt, if there wasn’t a degree of lenience involved because I look and sound like I do.

I got my first job in New York by walking into an office, cold, in a suit with my resume and a cover letter full of confidence. It worked! Those people are crazy, but it worked! It’s a point of pride for me, but everybody there looks like I do. How much of it was me? How much of it was the system?

That’s the silence you hear, that’s my inability to say anything meaningful, my hesitance to go deeper because of where it takes me. How much of who I am right now, the story I tell myself of how I came to be me, is a direct result of rules I had nothing to do with?

How much of me is the system?

“If you think that it matters, and you know that it’s happening, and you think it’s important, why are you not there?”

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