Before I get started, I want to clarify that being white does not automatically make someone un-woke, and being non-white does not always make someone woke. My title is simply addressing those white people who are not woke, and for whom the journey to wokeness may be complex since they probably do not and will not face the racial oppression that many people of color do.
In modern slang, being woke is defined by the always-reliable UrbanDictionary as “being aware and knowing what’s going on in the community relating to racism and social injustice.” To be woke, a person has to be up-to-date on politics and events surrounding race and social justice issues, and they are generally outspoken in expressing their well-rounded and well-researched views on such issues.
In the uber-progressive bubble that is the Bay Area, I grew up surrounded by woke white people. Many of my closest friends were full or part white. They were raised in a very diverse community and were taught by their parents, teachers and peers from very early on to embrace people with other skin tones, religious beliefs and cultural backgrounds. Within my friend groups growing up, I seemed to be the only one who noticed that that I was often the darkest friend and the least culturally white friend. I can’t remember ever having been treated differently by my white friends for having been a person of color. I honestly think they probably didn’t notice, and if they eventually did, I don’t think it mattered to them at all. Despite her woke upbringing, one of my white friends went through a “racist period” in middle school where she would occasionally let slip rude (at the time we didn’t realize it was overtly racist) comments about Asian people and Black people. These moments were very uncomfortable for the rest of us–as seventh graders, we weren’t sure how to properly intervene. Eventually, we started speaking up and supporting one another in doing so. She got the hint and stopped dropping those racist comments around us. By the time we were in high school, she and my other best friend (who is 3/4 white and 1/4 Japanese, and identifies as a conditionally white-passing person of color) were very active Tumblr users, and they both began reading posts about why and how racism still exists in America, examples of modern day racism, and other social issues tied to race such as Islamophobia and anti-immigration efforts. They both became woke, even more woke than I realized until senior year of high school when we began talking about police violence in black communities and general anti-black racism following the Mike Brown verdict and Ferguson uprising in December 2014.
I began to have a very optimistic view of how woke white people could be, and then I got to Amherst.
My roommate started out our relationship by ignoring me and excluding me from a friend group she had hand-picked, which consisted of wealthy white northeastern young ladies like her. She soon began dishing out subtle microaggressions to me and my friends of color, bad-mouthing me to other girls on our floor, and trying to keep those girls very close to her. Additionally, many of the other white freshmen athletes who were fast friends with one another wouldn’t make eye contact when they introduced themselves to me, wouldn’t wait to hear my name, or flat-out wouldn’t introduce themselves to me. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced in the Bay Area. It was as if I was invisible to most, and when I was visible, I certainly wasn’t wanted. Eventually, karma made things right with regards to my roommate, as people began to realize her toxicity and started putting her in her place. Even still, I remember vividly the pain and bewilderment at how targeted and isolated I felt those first few weeks of school.
I had white friends at Amherst, and most of them were from the South. I began to wonder if this wasn’t a coincidence–I developed a theory that the group of white Southerners who choose to apply to a school like Amherst is probably somewhat self-selecting. They are probably among some of the most openminded people in their communities, so maybe that was why they were willing to be friends with me. Something I should point out is that I am not extremely outgoing upon first meeting new people, so maybe the people I clicked with personality-wise happened to be from the South, but I just had to take note of a pattern I saw emerging. I began to wonder how white people who don’t grow up in the super-liberal Bay Area become woke. Was it through exposure to people like me, and other people of color? Certain white people, like my roommate, didn’t show any desire to engage readily with people “outside their comfort zones,” so I wondered how they could possibly learn from us if they didn’t even want to talk to us. I posed this question (“How do white people become woke?”) to my RC, who is of mixed white and Asian descent but grew up in a very white Massachusetts town and considers himself white. He explained to me that the process for him to become woke started with an uncomfortable confrontation of his own privilege, which he admitted he met with resistance initially. Eventually, however, he began to realize that his white privilege was very real–it had, without his conscious choosing, helped him get to where he was in life. As part of his RC training, he participated in a cultural competency workshop with former MRC director Mariana Cruz that he felt was enormously helpful in opening his eyes to the realities of racism. So, I was left wondering, is extensive cultural competency training the only way a white person set on denying their privilege can become woke?
Flash-forward two months. It is November 12th, and hundreds of students are gathered in Frost Library, listening to heart-wrenching stories one after another of students of color detailing the [micro]aggressions, isolation, invisibility, and mental health issues they face on Amherst’s campus. I did not expect to see my roommate present, but eventually, on Thursday night, I saw her listening to students’ stories in Frost. A few days later during a post-sit in discussion of the events of Amherst Uprising on our floor, my roommate voiced some opinions about the uprising–opinions I saw as problematic and kindly challenged–but opinions proving she had listened nevertheless. Her attitude toward me has changed drastically, and I’m not sure if it’s as a result of the uprising or as a result of changing dynamics on our floor, but it has restored in me hope that dismally non-woke white people can, without wanting to, have their minds expanded and awakened. Through further exposure to people of color and through hearing their lived experiences, people like her may start to recognize their own complacency within systems of racism that keep people of color oppressed. They may realize the deep impacts that small comments have on us, and they may start to empathize with the raw emotions we show. They may then become woke and join the fight against racism.