A Letter to My White Self: You Can Never “Stay Woke” (And Here’s Why)

Dear Sarah,


One of your black students texted you after the murder of Alton Sterling with the words: “Momma, it’s never going to stop.”


I remember what your world looked like at 15 years old. Like this student, you had begun researching colleges, enjoyed receiving mass-mailed pamphlets inviting you to explore the world of the university, and begun to imagine life outside of the one you currently lived: where you were the one dictating your future. The thought of independence was intoxicating.


What you do not remember is a world where you were instructed to stay inside for the duration of the summer for your own safety. What you do not remember is your parents telling you that you had to be twice as good, “play the game,” or that you must be submissively deferential in the presence of police. What you do not remember is, at the tender age of 15, having to “stay woke.”


Over the last few months, the phrase “stay woke” has made its way into the white, mainstream media and popular culture. Coined in 2008 by Erykah Badu, staying woke is the conglomerate of a number of “socially aware” dispositions, beliefs, and practices that charges those who stay woke to do a single thing: maintain cognizance of black struggle in the face of systemic injustice and oppression.


As a white teacher of students of color, you may be tempted to think that maintaining a position at the helm of social awareness, social justice, and education qualifies you as staying woke. There is one thing that you must remember: you will never be able to “stay woke.”


Language–what we know as a formalized, common communication system between human beings–is the primary means by which we communicate our hold upon the world, and our hold upon other people in the world. All language comes loaded. When you are called friend, it is likely that you have exhibited actions and characteristics typical of the definition of “friend.” When you are called stubborn, it is likely that under certain conditions, you are more prone to cling to your hold upon the world than anyone else’s.


You must understand the loaded terminology of “staying” woke. Staying implies a maintenance of condition, where it has always already been necessary to be aware of the plight of the marginalized. You cannot “stay” something that you are not, existentially speaking, a part of. Your charge must rather be to “become woke.”


Language is the terrestrial extension of invisible structures; when we use language intentionally, we make those structures visible. “Becoming” implies your ignorance–it is evolution into a state of awareness. Becoming woke is about knowing that you will not know, nor can truly empathize with the burden of the brutalized.


Becoming is wanting to text your student back “I know,” but understanding that you don’t know. It is wanting to say “I understand,” but acknowledging that you don’t understand. The progression into wokeness is neither empathy nor sympathy, but putting yourself in a position where, for once, you are not the teacher.


For you, the road to wokeness involves multiple, often painful to the ego and always awkward to the heart, recognitions of the injustices that you are aware of and vocal against, but that you, as a white person, play a role in.


About a year ago, one of your black co-workers told you that when you feel the weight of the world of color, when you cry over police brutalization, refusals to indict, and dropped charges, that you are feeling the “headache of the ghetto.” You must learn to recognize and keep that pain close to your heart whenever you think, speak, and act. That headache is not yours to own. It is the result of too many hyper-alert days and too many sleepless nights of staying woke. You will never be in a position to have to stay woke. Your head does not hurt from the insomnia.


The burden of the brutalized is, by nature, their brutalization. The burden of the bystander is a single charge: waking up. Seeing, really seeing, Alton Sterling’s blackness is becoming woke. Feeling sadness and rage at Orlando is good, but understanding and acknowledging that the majority of victims were Latino is becoming woke. Refusing to live in a colorless world is becoming woke.


If you are to teach as protest: to act in ways that are contrary and in objection to institutionalized despotism, shall your acknowledgement of ignorance not be protest, too? When she calls you momma, will you act back as such?



Your White Self


Image courtesy of michael t. sullivan, Flickr Creative Commons.

Language of “The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander” courtesy of Jesse Williams, BET Humanitarian Award acceptance speech.

One response to “A Letter to My White Self: You Can Never “Stay Woke” (And Here’s Why)

  1. Excellent article, Sarah. Made me stop and REALLY think and feel about being woke. Very moving and impactful words. Thank you for writing & sharing this.

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