Woke for White People
By: Curtis Linton
 

First off, I’m not woke. But I am white. So what does it mean to be “woke” for white people? White people who engage in social justice work love—I mean really love—the stories of suffering that come from people of color. We can sit around all day and listen to the passionate and personal stories of racism and expressions of oppression that come forth readily from brown and black friends and colleagues. We learn about other cultures, complete the Peggy Macintosh White Knapsack quiz, and politic for more progressive policies. And we angrily embrace the concept of white privilege as an abstract invisible force that perpetuates discrimination and institutionalized racism. But is privilege really that abstract? For white people to ever have a hope of being truly “woke,” we need to do the hard work of looking at our daily life, analyze privilege as an actual daily experience, and challenge ourselves rather than just challenge others to live a more equitable ideal.

Privilege only becomes real when it is defined by whiteness rather than described in contrast to the experiences of people of color. To illustrate this, I have often asked mixed groups of color to define “racial profiling.” People of color will usually respond with personal and painful examples of being pulled over by law enforcement even when not breaking any laws. White people will respond with a generalized definition about how law enforcement in general targets people of color indiscriminately. Then I ask a white person to define racial profiling solely from a personal perspective. This is very hard to do and white respondents typically will struggle to see themselves within the experience of racial profiling. I then share my personal definition: racial profiling for me is that I get to drive up to the point of putting others at harm before I am forced to interact with law enforcement. This is my lived experience of privilege—it defines my personal daily experience. This stands as a uniquely different reality than that of people of color who are predictably harassed by law enforcement, an experience that has little to do with my own daily life.

Privilege is a sub-conscious experience. I don’t wake up in the morning consciously considering how society is going to privilege me throughout the day. What I actually do is go forth blissfully ignorant of how there are less obstacles in my way as a white person. That doesn’t mean my life is easy—I’m not sitting around all day drinking tea and eating cookies. But when I face a challenge, the gears are just greased a little better:

This is all a lived experience for white people that occurs every day. But privilege is the result of power, and power structures have no interest in challenging the reality of privilege.

The sub-conscious nature of racial privilege perpetuates the inability that I, as a white person, have to be truly “woke” to racism and oppression. But every day I can wake up and actively work to change my own paradigm and the structures that perpetuate inequity in society. In our current highly engaged political climate, white social justice warriors are honorably exercising responsibility to challenge historical oppressions. But responsibility devoid of concrete knowledge of one’s own actual experience can leave these same warriors defensive, accusatory, and ultimately unsustained in the long fight that is social justice. Being “woke” as a white person begins with understanding one’s own daily experience, consciously seeing how privilege works in actuality, and working to extend rather than protect those privileges so that all can benefit equally in a society that sees diversity equitably.

When I am late, angry, passionate, dismissive, or opinionated it only reflects on me rather than my family and social group

This is all a lived experience for white people that occurs every day. But privilege is the result of power, and power structures have no interest in challenging the reality of privilege.

The sub-conscious nature of racial privilege perpetuates the inability that I, as a white person, have to be truly “woke” to racism and oppression. But every day I can wake up and actively work to change my own paradigm and the structures that perpetuate inequity in society. In our current highly engaged political climate, white social justice warriors are honorably exercising responsibility to challenge historical oppressions. But responsibility devoid of concrete knowledge of one’s own actual experience can leave these same warriors defensive, accusatory, and ultimately unsustained in the long fight that is social justice. Being “woke” as a white person begins with understanding one’s own daily experience, consciously seeing how privilege works in actuality, and working to extend rather than protect those privileges so that all can benefit equally in a society that sees diversity equitably.

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