Saturday, April 23, 2016

Woke

Whenever someone criticizes my motives, or suggests that they are somehow ulterior, I try not to get defensive about it. Instead I try to honestly ask myself if the person is right. 

This came up recently in the context of race, which I sometimes write about here, but which I fundamentally lack the credibility to discuss in a meaningful way because I am white and for that reason (and that reason only) do not have the same experiences as people of color do in America.

That type of observation--or something similar--was recently interpreted by a white male friend of mine as an expression of self-congratulation, hypocrisy, sanctimony, and participation in a fad. Was he right? Well, sort of. I'll explain.

The issue arose while discussing Prince as "post-racial", with me pointing out that calling Prince post-racial was a whitewashing of Prince, and my friend implying that I was minimizing Prince in the service of self-promotion as a "woke ally," which he used in a denigrating way to suggest that "wokeness" and "alliance" were temporary fleeting stupid concepts and racial justice work is a fad. Numerous non-white friends took offense to that suggestion.

I couldn't get all this out of my mind, so I asked myself if that was really my intention behind repeating this observation about Prince: to "establish myself as a woke ally." And I concluded that while that was not the main point, it was a collateral consequence of my comment and one I was happy to suffer.

This is why.

I have a fundamental interest in how my fellow humans experience the world, especially when they are experiencing it in a way that is unfair, unjust, and unequal because of immutable characteristics such as race, gender, and sexuality. Characteristics which, by the way, are problematic only because what is still the world's most powerful demographic (Donald Trump's assertions to the contrary notwithstanding)--Anglo, white, straight men--are often uncomfortable with otherness, threatened by it, scared of it, or just hate it.

For that reason I don't put a lot of stock in what the most privileged people in the world have to say about people of color and their experiences. I know that in being straight and white I also benefit from that privilege and also don't have much to add of value. So I pay attention, and I listen instead. I am on "Black Twitter" every day to see what is happening in the Black Lives Matter movement. I read feminist blogs and opinion pieces by people of color, LGBTQ people, Native American people. 

I do this not to elevate or congratulate myself, but simply because I think it's important for white people to have an awareness of what the people who live this reality every day have to say about it, instead of pontificating from an online forum and mansplaining and whitesplaining and straightsplaining--or whatever the faddish current language is--to the people who least need an explanation.

My comment that calling Prince "post-racial" was problematic reflected the opinions of many, many black people who held the same view, and in repeating it I considered myself a messenger of that message, using my own privilege to highlight someone else's reality for the benefit of those who might not have considered that perspective. A reality that is not just a fad, but life lived every day in skin different from my own.

So yes, I did want to establish myself as a woke ally, even though that concept has plenty of its own problems. 

Absolutely.

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