I think a lot about goodness, and what can possibly make an everyday person “good” in these raging, discourteous days. The central quality I return to again and again, as perhaps the essence of “goodness,” is empathy. Empathy may be the most difficult virtue to cultivate; nevertheless, I believe it’s the only possible path to peace among our species. We must endeavor to understand each other, disparate though our origins and morals may be, and strive to treat each other with the same care and respect we (hopefully) afford our own tribes.
Empathy is what drives white people to do anti-racist work, cishet folks to fight for LGBTQIA+ inclusion and rights, men to work towards ridding the world of sexism and misogyny, wealthy folks to focus their attention on lifting up the working class and the impoverished, of the decent treatment of all people by others regardless of how differently their humanity seems, superficially, to be. I believe it is essential that we be moved by the struggles of those who seem different, especially when they’re in less fortunate or powerful positions.
This is, overall, how I found myself defining the term “woke” for myself: conscious, alive & alight with empathy, fully aligned with the social contract in meaningful ways. I looked up the word “woke” up on Wikipedia a few weeks ago, partly because the term has become such a trope, and an ill-defined one, which well-meaning, abused and misrepresented by others, who intend to do harm.
One of the most revelatory experiences a person can have is being hit by the thunderbolt of empathy—to all at once realize the humanity of another person, feeling some measure of their feeling for the first time. Such a realization often ushers in an accompanying shame or dismay as well, as one may also recognize their life-as-lived thus far is woefully incomplete. A hidden dimension opens up, and with it, new passions, experiences, and concerns suddenly color one’s sphere.
The crucial aspect of the term as Erykah Badu and the wider black community have used it that is completely missing in mainstream understanding: “wokeness” as a state of being that actively needs to be maintained. White supremacists, for example, deride the word partly by making it essentialist, half of a we/they dichotomy that presume some folks believe they’ve reached the mountaintop of social justice enlightenment, and those who aren’t there will never be there. But when Black folk and allies began using the term widely, the phrase applied was: “Stay woke.” As in: you’ve got it right now, make sure you don’t fall back asleep (i.e. lose consciousness).
Being “woke” is not a given, basically. It’s not an inborn quality. It’s not contingent upon your ethnicity, class, birthplace, or anything besides being aware and compassionate, and doing whatever work is necessary to remain so.
Which brings me to a point I’ve been dying to make, actually. I’ve spent some serious energy complaining about “whiteness” in some of my points, and now is a good time to clarify what I mean by that, exactly. When I caution about “white people,” I’m not referring to those of you who happen to be white, in other words, happen to have skin tone in a certain range of lightness. I’m talking about toxic whiteness, effectively those who advocate for the perpetuation of white supremacy, regardless of their bloodlines. White supremacists can be black, even, just as misogynists can be women, if their words and actions are devoted to perpetuating toxic patriarchial systems in all of our lives.
I am not an advocate for division in our culture, although I’ve benefited greatly from spaces that allow marginalized groups to congregate, connect, and thrive. I think there’s a need for groups of that particular nature, which are focused on undoing systemic oppression and its effects, and from preventing its continuation. That will ultimately be impossible to achieve unless we seek out ways to connect to and collaborate with each other, instead of pushing each other away.