“Heightened awareness,” was suggested. “All that white privilege stuff,” someone tried. It was an effort trying to get at it. Finally, the boys looked at me – teacher, writer, social justice activist, Mom – seeing if I could make it more understandable to someone who hasn’t confronted these issues directly, or the discussions going on around them.
“Hm…” I said, “Maybe the idea that we continue to see white, heterosexual European Christians as the “norm” of this country, and everyone else is “other” – and deficient in some way.” It was a starting point, but one I could speak to. I could explain how I’d come to the awareness myself as a young person through my experiences of being raised by a single mother with financial struggles, and by having friendships and romantic relationships with people of color – seeing things through those other lenses. Even though, at the time, I didn’t have the language for it or understanding of what it was based on.
Our older son, speaking from a recent diversity training at the start of med school, explained what they were trying to convey: the need to recruit and retain doctors of all backgrounds to serve in the medical community; the need for doctors from the dominant culture, particularly, to be aware of cultural differences in communication and in attitudes toward medicine; and the idea of being able to work comfortably and effectively with all manner of staff and patients, cultivating two-way understanding, not simply a “delivery” of knowledge and services.
Our younger son completed a class on “Portrayal of Disabilities in Art and Literature” – encountering the “double consciousness” that W.E.B. Du Bois wrote of – how some people have to manage multiple, often disparate images of themselves – how they see themselves and how dominant society sees them. He wrote a paper on “The Kings’ Speech” – about Queen Elizabeth’s father, who became king after his brother’s abdication and struggled with a severe stutter. The power of the film, as my son saw it, was showing that all the medical methods to fix or cure him came to nothing. It was only when a controversial man without credentials became a coach to the King, helping him see that he was not a “defective” person, but strong, capable, experienced and wise – that he gained the confidence and motivation, as well ask the skills, to manage the stutter.
Being “woke” is not easy, in my experience, or very welcome, initially. It’s like Dorothy waking from the poppy fields in The Wizard of Oz – (those of you who know me can guess which of my men is the Lion, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man). The landscape is foreign, there’s a sense of danger, and the success of the mission is not certain. But in this case, it’s waking up to an understanding that there is something false about the “American Dream” as we know it, and to realize that much of the prosperity of America has been based on unpaid-for land and labor – enforced by unfair laws and violence. To justify this exploitation has required a denigration of others, by race or sex, belief or able-bodiness. It’s uncomfortable to recognize our unwitting complicity in a system that has been rigged in a certain way. But once “woke”, it’s almost impossible to go back to the old way of seeing things.
The question becomes, what to do? Like Dorothy, we’re still waking, sleepy-eyed, knowing there’s so much we still don’t know. The problem is, it’s still hard to have conversations between “others” – to bridge the divides to share first-hand experiences. But not impossible, if we seek to re-educate ourselves, learn from new sources and new voices. And if we talk about it. And talk to our children about it. Once begun, the effort takes on its own impetus, adding meaning and purpose to lives sometimes too caught up with consuming what is unnecessary and distracting ourselves from what is important.
To be woke is to know that time is running out – that the problems of today are too great in scale and complexity. The loss of human potential due to structural racism and sexism is a danger to our mutual survival. It won’t be a scientific or technological breakthrough that heals our planet – it will be many minds working with many kinds of knowledge to make things better on the earth and with each other.