A Year Later, One Thing Is Clear: Being 'Woke' Isn't Nearly Enough

May 24, 2021 12:00:00 AM


It has been a year since the murder of George Floyd and the “American Spring” that followed it. Corporate America, sports leagues, marketing firms, and nonprofits of all kinds have made public declarations of their commitment to an anti-racist vision of our country. 

And after a year of all of this, it’s clear: Being woke wasn’t nearly enough. 

Instagram hashtags weren’t even half measures. Claims of allyship didn’t lift the weight off the shoulders of Black and brown folks. Virtue signaling was simply an empty gesture. As Malcolm X once retorted, that’s not a chip on my shoulder, it’s your foot on my neck. After all the faux progress and the performances of solidarity, perhaps it’s both. 

Sentimentality absent substance has created a void, now being filled by a wave of reactionary responses to the world suddenly “feeling the pain” of Black Americans. 

Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.

~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

We see this wave in the racist new voting restrictions solely aimed at disenfranchising Black and brown Americans, on the heels of an election in which they played vital roles in tipping the balance of power away from authoritarianism. We see it in the canonization of the “Big Lie” in Republican dogma. We see it in the literal white washing of the January 6 attacks on our democracy. And we see it every morning as right-wing cable news spews lies about critical race theory in order to whip white America into a racist froth. 

...for the Negro...remembers that with each modest advance, the white population promptly raises the argument that the Negro has come far enough. Each step forward accents an ever-present tendency to backlash.

~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This is the state of play for Black and brown America. A year of voices declaring racism a true scourge, but precious few actually doing the work to dismantle and re-architect the world. All this takes place while repressive forces build new, more chilling forms of oppression. And if that word “re-architect” gives you pause, you prove the point.  

The lack of action is largely the result of most white people viewing themselves as unwilling participants in systemic racism. They fail to see how their own lives reify the racism that now suddenly leaves them aghast. The reality is that white America has on the whole willingly, even gleefully, participated and driven the entrenchment of racism into our social structures. 

...most whites in America, including many of goodwill, proceed from the premise that equality is a loose expression for improvement. White America is not even psychologically organized to close the gap—essentially, it seeks only to make it less painful and less obvious but in most respects retain it. 

~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

From gaining admission to prestigious colleges and chasing success on the corporate ladder to leveraging comparatively higher generational wealth to get into the “good neighborhood” with the “good schools,” pursuing a “good life” as a white American has always been an endeavor pursued directly at the expense and exclusion of Black and brown America. 

[pullquote]With so much of white American life unknowingly, yet inextricably, bound to the subjugation of Black and brown people, it may seem impossible for white people to be true allies in the fight against systemic racism. Fortunately, that isn’t the case.[/pullquote]

White folks can work in partnership with their Black and brown brothers and sisters, but they must do the work with meaning and rigor. 

The concept of supremacy is so embedded in the white society that it will take many years for color to cease to be a judgmental factor. 

~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Here’s what that looks like.

Awareness is, again, just the first step. Essential, yes, but ultimately insufficient. 

Beyond awareness, those seeking to credibly engage in anti-racism must reach an understanding of the true depth and breadth of systemic racism—how it invades every corner of the lives of not just the subjugated, but also the subjugator. No one is immune to this hyperendemic disease.

Our Black culture(s), our customs, our loves, our hopes, our fears, our aspirations, our resolve and our resignation are all influenced by our context. We rise and fall despite, in spite, and even because of the pervasiveness of institutional racism and its handmaiden, white supremacy. “Still I rise,” from Maya Angelou’s poem, is not quixotic, but central to our experience.

But just like Black experience(s), white culture(s), customs, loves, hopes, fears, aspirations, resolve and resignation are all fueled by and funneled through a broader cultural context. All of our social existence is mediated, modified and made anew by the inescapable reach of the construct of race in this country. This is the essence of critical race theory and how it can provide a lens of how we arrived at where we are today. 

If you stick a knife nine inches into my back and pull it out three inches, that is not progress. Even if you pull it all the way out, that is not progress. Progress is healing the wound, and America hasn’t even begun to pull out the knife.

~ Malcolm X

In addition to a full understanding of that depth and breadth of systemic racism, how it can alternatively enable and end a life, those seeking to do the work of anti-racism must educate and upskill themselves in the work. As an educator, that means engaging with the two CRTs that are deadly to white supremacy: culturally responsive teaching and, yes, critical race theory. But you need not lead classroom instruction of children in order to do anti-racism. 

Read the likes of Derrick Bell or Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, Kimberle Crenshaw, Dr. Gholdy Muhammad, or Dr. Muhammad Khalifa. Those who spout off lies about critical race theory may enjoy the privilege of being able to condemn things about which they know nothing, but we who are committed to building an anti-racist work must actually receive and engage with the ever-evolving body of anti-racist knowledge.

Finally, [pullquote]we need the boldness of vision to re-architect our current society to a more just and equitable one.[/pullquote] What does true equity mean with respect to our political rights, our economic well being, our educational opportunities and how we interact with the natural world? These are all questions that are answerable if we are rigorously and meaningfully committed to anti-racism. 

This process of mutual empowerment is the vital predicate to our co-created liberation. For as Lilla Watson said, 

If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

Indeed, we are bound by an entire world of racist structures. Imagine the beauty of a world woven together by structures of love, equity and understanding.

We can get there. But it will take so, so much more than hollow gestures of performative wokeness. 

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the Founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development. The Center exists to ensure there will be equity in the recruiting, training, hiring, and retention of quality educators that reflect the cultural backgrounds and share common socio-political interests of the students they serve. The Center is developing a nationally relevant model to measurably increase teacher diversity and support Black educators through four pillars: Professional learning, Pipeline, Policies and Pedagogy. So far, the Center has developed ongoing and direct professional learning and coaching opportunities for Black teachers and other educators serving students of color. The Center also carries forth the freedom or liberation school legacy by hosting a Freedom School that incorporates research-based curricula and exposes high school and college students to the teaching profession to help fuel a pipeline of Black educators. Prior to founding the Center, El-Mekki served as a nationally recognized principal and U.S. Department of Education Principal Ambassador Fellow. El-Mekki’s school, Mastery Charter Shoemaker, was recognized by President Obama and Oprah Winfrey, and was awarded the prestigious EPIC award for three consecutive years as being amongst the top three schools in the country for accelerating students’ achievement levels. The Shoemaker Campus was also recognized as one of the top ten middle school and top ten high schools in the state of Pennsylvania for accelerating the achievement levels of African-American students. Over the years, El-Mekki has served as a part of the U.S. delegation to multiple international conferences on education. He is also the founder of the Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice, an organization dedicated to recruiting, retaining, and developing Black male teachers. El-Mekki blogs on Philly's 7th Ward, is a member of the 8 Black Hands podcast, and serves on several boards and committees focused on educational and racial justice.

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