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Do You Think You're 'Woke?' It's Not A Compliment

Daryle Allums, center, speaks on behalf of the Stop Killing Our Kids movement, about the stabbing of his goddaughter at a press conference Monday, July 23, 2018 in Oakland, Calif., as Bay Area Rapid Transit Police Chief Carlos Rojas, right, and Daryle Muhammad, left, listen. The suspect in the stabbing, John Lee Cowell, 27, is seen projected in the background. A man fatally stabbed an 18-year-old woman in the neck and wounded her sister as they exited a train at a Northern California subway station in what officials said Monday appeared to be a random attack. The suspect attacked the sisters Sunday night as they left a train at the Bay Area Rapid Transit's MacArthur Station in Oakland. (Lorin Eleni Gill/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Daryle Allums, center, speaks on behalf of the Stop Killing Our Kids movement, about the stabbing of his goddaughter at a press conference Monday, July 23, 2018 in Oakland, Calif., as Bay Area Rapid Transit Police Chief Carlos Rojas, right, and Daryle Muhammad, left, listen. The suspect in the stabbing, John Lee Cowell, 27, is seen projected in the background. A man fatally stabbed an 18-year-old woman in the neck and wounded her sister as they exited a train at a Northern California subway station in what officials said Monday appeared to be a random attack. The suspect attacked the sisters Sunday night as they left a train at the Bay Area Rapid Transit's MacArthur Station in Oakland. (Lorin Eleni Gill/AP)

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“Woke” is tired.

It’s tired because it’s so very tiring.

Chances are, though, I don’t mean “woke” the way you think I do. It means something far different for people of color than it does for well-meaning white people who use the term to describe themselves.

The most recent example occurred on Monday, July 23, when 18-year-old Nia Wilson was murdered in Oakland, California. Her 26-year-old sister, Letifah Wilson, critically injured.

They weren’t somewhere they weren’t supposed to be. They weren’t confrontational. Not doing any of things that are used to justify violence against black people, draped in racism’s thin veil.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit police chief called it “one of the most vicious attacks that I’ve seen.”

Two young black women waited for a train and a white man allegedly stabbed them in their necks.

John Lee Cowell has been charged with fatally stabbing Nia Wilson, 18, in the neck and wounding her sister, Lahtifa, as they exited a train at a Northern California subway station. (Bay Area Rapid Transit via AP)
John Lee Cowell has been charged with fatally stabbing Nia Wilson, 18, in the neck and wounding her sister, Lahtifa, as they exited a train at a Northern California subway station. (Bay Area Rapid Transit via AP)

That I identify them by their race might anger some of you, who think it does nothing but promote racial divide. Some will point to the fact that, as of this writing, race has not been determined to be a motive for the senseless attack.

Without that official declaration, you are uncomfortable thinking that the attack was driven by race.

It makes you uncomfortable to see video footage of police calmly handcuffing John Lee Cowell just days after the four-year-remembrance of police choking to death Eric Garner for selling loose cigarettes. To read articles that describe Cowell as another loner with a difficult upbringing.

It should make you uncomfortable. If it does, hold on to that sense of discomfort and try not to forget how it feels.

That feeling is what it means for people of color to be “woke.” It means that we can't afford not to think that this brutal extinguishing of life was racially motivated, at the peril of our lives. We must, quite literally, be awake to the very possibility that it could happen to us at any moment. To be woke is to take the word at its original definition. To enter every situation, no matter how mundane, with eyes wide open.

And to know that that still might not be enough to stay safe.

Woke isn’t self-celebratory. To see it as such makes it the new “open-minded.” It makes its opposite the default, makes closed-mindedness and racism the norm.

To be truly woke today is, without hyperbole, physically and emotionally exhausting.

Today, when the police are called on black men and women for cookouts in public places, “excessive fouls” during pickup basketball games at the gym and using the wrong coupon at a drug store.

Imagine, just in the space of reading this, what it would be like to second-guess your every action when you leave your home.

To not listen to that new podcast, that audiobook, that new single while riding the bus because having your headphones in might decrease your awareness of your environment.

To keep your driver’s license and registration visible and accessible at all times so that it never appears that you’re reaching for anything.

To wonder if a look towards someone will be interpreted the wrong way. If you should say hello or keep your eyes forward.

To question whether or not you should wait for a train.

It might seem impossible to you. Sometimes it feels like it is.

If you’re someone who considers yourself an ally, if you’ve ever referred to yourself as woke, and while reading this you felt discomfort for even a moment, then use that feeling to redefine the term as it applies to you.

It’s not about the television shows you tell people you watch, the books you tell people you read or the causes you tell people you support.

It’s about what you do when no one is watching. Speaking up when you witness injustice, from racial jokes to verbal attacks to physical intimidation. Be aware of the devastating impact of those acts, both physically and mentally, to marginalized communities so that you can take action without thought or need for gratitude or celebration.

Because you’ll have that gratitude, and you’ll be celebrated by the people to whom it matters most, even if we don’t have the opportunity to tell you directly.

Being woke, being open-minded, isn’t a compliment. It doesn't make you exceptional. It makes you human.

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John Vercher Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
John Vercher is a writer. His debut novel, "Three-Fifths," will be out in fall of 2019.

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