Understanding “Wokeness”

The terms “wokeness”and “woke” made a resurgence and became popularized during the civil rights protests in 2020, where it was used by Black Lives Matter supporters to keep a look out for unjust police practices and acts of violence aimed at protesters. 

Since then, the term has gotten tossed around a lot, often by people who are making fun of it by saying things like, “Well, aren’t you WOKE!” I wonder if the people using it know where it came from, especially if they use it and they look like me. I might not know about “Woke” if it wasn’t for my friend and colleague, Wendell. He and I worked together in southern Florida in the early 90s running an Outward Bound program for kids. Wendell, a Black man, grew up 10 miles from where we worked, in rural DeSoto County. He was a strong advocate for juvenile justice and protecting the rights of kids who were court-involved. He had a real touch with all of our students, a gift he said he learned in the Navy.

About once a week, we left the school and went into town for lunch. Wherever we went, Wendell always needed to pick which table we took and more specifically, which seat he took. 

He never volunteered why he was so picky about where we sat, and when I asked, he usually said something like, “just because…” which signaled to me to let it go. 

One day, at one of our usual lunch spots, the restaurant was particularly crowded, and our only option for seating was at a countertop bar facing the back of the restaurant. Realizing this, Wendell quickly suggested that we just go somewhere else. We only had an hour, and I thought the drive to somewhere else would eat up too much of our time, so I disagreed with him and asked him why we just couldn’t sit at the bar.  

Wendell refused. When I asked him why, he lowered his head to my ear as if he was going to let me in on a secret and said, “I’ll explain outside,” as he gently took my elbow and escorted me out.

“We’re in South Florida, Jim. I don’t know what it’s like where you come from, but some of the restaurants here only became safe for my kind a few years ago. I’ve got relatives who were arrested for going into these places, and my uncle got beat up in this parking lot by some white men just because they didn’t think my uncle belonged here.” I was incredulous, saying, “Well, that must have been back in the civil rights era; that wouldn’t happen today, would it?” 

Wendell said, “I don’t know, but if we sit at that bar, our backs will be to the door, and I don’t want to have my back to the door at this or any restaurant, ever.” Up to this point, I hadn’t considered the reality Wendell was pointing out. He was a black man from the area. I was a white guy from a predominantly white suburb outside of Washington, DC.

He continued, “I don’t know if you noticed, but there aren’t many people of my kind in the places you pick for lunch, but I go as long as I can take a seat that lets me stay woke.”

And that was the first time I heard the term “woke.” 

Wendell patiently explained to me the reality he faced every day that had totally escaped me. He explained how the area we worked and lived in has a complex history when it comes to racial justice, discrimination, and the social dynamic between white and African-American communities in the region. He had a lot of stories, like the one he told me, about violence and threatening behavior toward black people over the course of his life. The incident he described about his uncle getting beat up had happened only five years ago.

“Woke,” I learned, is short for “awake.” It describes a level of awareness and caution that, according to Wendell, is part of the conditioning he and everyone he grew up with was taught. They weren’t expecting the worst when they traveled or worked outside of their predominantly black community, but they did want to protect themselves and their families from what they always knew might happen when they least expected it. 

“Woke” is an important concept among many African-Americans, and it has a long history that dates back to slavery and reconstruction in the Jim Crow South. 

I am by no means an expert on wokeness or the history of  “being awake.” But I do know this:  the term is now being used as an insult—a minimization—of the state of preparedness black and brown people like Wendell apply to how they move through the world to keep themselves and their families safe.  

As a result, I’ve stopped using the term—even if I could use it in context. I figure it’s not my group’s term to use, at least by me. I’ve had a few times in my life when my surroundings made me think I needed to be on high alert, or to be “woke,” but those instances are few. They are also incidents that cause me enough fear to never forget them.

I wonder what the intent of white politicians is when they talk about “woke liberals” or when they combine being woke with being a radical leftist or a communist. The story I make up is that they are trying to make fun of white people who are concerned about racial justice as if being “woke” is equivalent to being politically correct. 

As a white person, I’m offended by their stereotyping and misunderstanding about people like me trying to be “woke.” And more, I don’t like them making fun of the term that describes a condition that exists in our society—one that requires some of us to be on high alert while others of us can move about in innocent ignorance. I think of my friend Wendell, and I wonder if he still feels the need to be woke when in primarily white communities or restaurants or offices. 

I wonder if he feels safe.

When I hear people make fun of “being woke,” I wonder if any of us can feel safe. 

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