by Julie Pham
A group of students, both white and people of color, get assigned to work together on a class project. After class, a few of them express dissatisfaction that some academic terms related to racism are used incorrectly. Another teacher, a white man, learns that the team is upset and approaches them to better understand their concerns. But no one in the group will talk to him about the issue.
After he leaves, one woman in the group says to the others, “One day, we’ll all be in the position of not knowing something. When that happens to me, I hope someone will be willing to share their views with me. I think we should talk to him.”
The others ignore her. Instead of responding to her, some in the team disparages the teacher’s ignorance and even mocks his earnestness.
The teacher tries to come around again, but the group still won’t engage with him.
The woman once again tries to advocate for a conversation with the teacher. Once again, the others don’t acknowledge her words. She begins to feel invisible. Instead of speaking out again, she makes herself smaller by saying less.
Finally, she decides that she will talk to the teacher, outside of the team. The teacher asks her questions she never thought of, and she asks him questions and brings up terms and concepts he had never heard of. While they mostly agree to disagree,they do leave the conversation each understanding the other’s worldview better. The woman, in particular, leaves feeling like the conversation changed both of them.
She wonders if she should tell the others that she spoke to the teacher. Then she imagines being mocked by them behind her back, as was the teacher.
That woman was me.
For a long time afterward, I felt ashamed for resigning to “get along” instead of speaking up. I tried to understand how I could promote leadership professionally when I had complicitly given into groupthink. Eventually, I talked about this experience with others. I learned that I was not alone in silencing myself due to fear of perceived judgement.
Have you also ever felt like you would be misunderstood or judged for asking a clarifying question or for expressing a point of view that might differ from your peers, especially if it had to do with race, gender, religion, or politics? Do you sometimes refrain from saying anything at all, or do you pretend to understand because you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing? Do you spend more time than you’d like to admit thinking of how to express your ideas appropriately?
This fear-induced silence, a form of self-imposed censorship, is a reaction to being perceived as unwoke. In very basic terms, woke means having a deep understanding of injustices in our society. When someone is unwoke, it means they do not acknowledge or understand the existence of societal injustices.
“Wokeness” originates from within the Black community — yet it’s a term that has been unfortunately popularized by mainstream culture, to the point of being parodied. Wokeness is a complicated concept with a variety of expressions and has been the subject of lots of discussion and study that are beyond the scope of this essay.
But I do want to invoke and discuss the binary of woke/unwoke because I think it’s useful for understanding the context of what people feel they can and can’t say, why so many people stay silent, why people think that only certain people are qualified to say how and to whom inequity manifests, and what it might look like to create a space between woke and unwoke.
The process of becoming more aware of injustices in our society is always described as a “learning journey” in the diversity, equity, and inclusion training and seminars I’ve taken. But that spirit of “learning” hasn’t always been present in how we treat each other. The way woke is often used invokes a destination, a fixed state. I’m struck by how “woke” feels like the past tense of the verb “to wake” that it is. Woke declares, “I have arrived,” “I get it,” and “I no longer need to learn.” Woke is a state of permanence.
A way to honor the spirit of a learning journey is the concept of “awakening.”
Awakening rests in the space between the fixed mindset of wokeness and the ignorance of being unwoke. Awakening rejects the idea that some people can be “more right.” Sometimes those who describe themselves as woke try to compete with each other for who is perceived as more woke. But I don’t think it’s productive to be trying to out-race each other for gold in the Woke Olympics.
Adopting an awakening mindset requires a lot of patience because there is no destination. Awakening takes time because it calls for the change to happen within individuals as they learn how to relate to others. I trust we all care about fighting injustices in our own way. I believe injustices are best overcome by building a greater sense of belonging, grounded in relationship-building. This starts with individuals being open to difference. Learning is difficult. Authentic human connections make being on this journey more bearable because it means I know I’m not alone.
Ultimately, I’m optimistic that most people aren’t truly set in their ways. I recognize that sometimes it’s easier and less scary to choose silence when we don’t know how to talk about our own relationship with inequities. But when we choose silence, the space we leave is then filled by the voices on the extreme ends of the woke/unwoke binary. Those extremes each discourage learning.
What follows are my own experiences in investigating wokeness truisms that can stop people from asking questions or offering their stories out of fear of seeming unwoke. I offer alternative principles to those truisms. I also give examples of how I have been practicing awakening.
1) Good conversations require reciprocity.
Why do we describe people of color talking to white people about race as “educating”? (e.g., “People of color shouldn’t have to educate white people about race.”)
“Educating” suggests a one-way interaction, as in a lecture from a teacher to a student. Unless a lecture is the formal expectation, most of the time, people want to engage in conversations, which facilitate mutual learning and reciprocity. Is it “educating” if each side understands they have a responsibility to share and to ask and to be open to different views?
I want to acknowledge that some POCs feel exhausted or triggered by invitations to talk about their lived experiences with race. Talking about race can feel like work if only POCs are giving up parts of themselves to the conversation. Ultimately, POCs get to decide how much they share as well as ask for reciprocity. It can be as simple as, “Now I just told you about my history. What is your history?”
Disrupting an expectation can be more effective than non-engagement. A few years ago, I made a comment in an open space about how I think about race all the time. Later in private, a white man asked me, “What do you mean, you think about race all the time?” So then I told him about my personal experiences, and then I asked him about his experience as a white man reflecting on how he thinks and talks about race. The fact that I even asked him gave him a rare opportunity to reflect. I found it really fascinating, hearing him work out how he didn’t grow up thinking about race. We both learned from one another that day.
I still have a lot to learn about the experiences of others.
In 2015, I didn’t really understand the Black Lives Matter movement. I trusted one Black friend enough to ask him, “I don’t understand why they don’t just say, ‘All lives matter.’”
My friend explained to me that the movement wasn’t saying that only Black lives matter. Rather, it’s calling out that Black lives haven’t mattered historically.
Because a trusted friend was willing to explain this to me, I better understood what Black Lives Matter meant, in a way that I could not have by reading articles or consuming media. I can reciprocate this learning opportunity for this same friend, who feels comfortable asking me questions about my experience as a refugee and as a woman.
Sometimes, minds can only change through personal conversations. Last month, I spent a day with incarcerated men at Monroe Correctional Complex through the Defy Ventures program. I was supposed to be the “coach,” but I was the one who ended up learning more. After having one-on-one conversations with numerous men who were also convicted sex offenders, I realized what it was like for them to be judged by the very worst thing that they’d ever done and how that impacts their ability to restart their lives.
A few weeks after the visit, I received a notice that a Level 3 sex offender was moving into my neighborhood. Before my visit to Monroe, I would’ve been scared. This time, my first thought was, “Someone is trying to start his life again. I don’t have enough information to judge them, especially in light of the systemic injustices in the criminal justice system.”
I know the work of one-on-one education is time-consuming, but it is also the most impactful in the long run.
2) Individuals have stories beyond the privilege we perceive.
In our interactions with one another, why do we automatically assume “person of color = underprivileged” and “white person = privileged”?
“Privilege” used by those well-versed in social justice terminology refers to advantages and rights created by structural and institutional racism. It also suggests those advantages are unmerited. It has come to be used euphemistically: “underprivileged = people of color who don’t have advantages because of systemic barriers” and “privileged = white people who have unmerited advantages.” It’s undeniable that people of color make less money and live shorter lives due to poor health, public safety, and fewer opportunities. What’s also true is that on an individual level, everyone has their own set of advantages and disadvantages and what might be seen as a disadvantage by one person may be interpreted as an advantage by another person. Everyone has got a story of how they got to where they’re at. To reduce someone’s experiences to “privileged” or “underprivileged” alone takes away their opportunity to tell their story and for others to hear it.
I find it irritating when “super woke” white people start a conversation with the disclaimer, “I want to acknowledge how much privilege I have because I am white.” When they offer this up, completely unprompted, it makes me feel like they are already seeing me differently — maybe as “less than” — because of my race. On my end, I wasn’t even thinking about my privilege in relation to their privilege until they brought it up.
Hearing this disclaimer feels like someone is putting each of us into race-based categories of privileged and unprivileged rather than taking into account who we are as individuals. In the course of trying to look “super woke” by announcing that they recognize systemic power structures, they have taken my individual power away.
I have started asking some white friends who do this, “Did you say that for you? Or for me? Or for the other white people? Would you have said it if people of color weren’t in the room?”
My friends are typically surprised by those questions because they tend to think they were doing a good thing by stating the disclaimer. Their surprise and willingness to explore then invites a healthy discussion of our assumptions around inequalities. Some of the POC friends really appreciate hearing this disclaimer; this is an example of how different interpretations of the same action can co-exist. I have many privileges myself, such as arriving in the U.S. as a refugee who was granted citizenship as a young child and growing up with the expectation I’d have the means to go to college — many other refugees do not have this privilege. It would be disingenuous to allow others to assume all refugees have the same experiences.
Assuming “person of color = underprivileged” has hurt communities of color. Back when I was organizing a coalition of ethnic media outlets, we found that political candidates felt entitled to the vote of communities of color and usually did not feel the need to invest in advertising. At a local conference I attended, I heard an interviewer ask a high-ranking elected official about “people of color” — and he responded by talking about “low-income people,” as if they were one in the same.
Conversely, when I hear POCs reduce white people to just privilege, they close off an opportunity for mutual learning. A woman of color once told me that she did not believe she could learn from a young white man because she was “further along.” She made a derogatory comment about his privilege and assumed he worked in tech. I pointed out to her that he actually works in social services and asked her to think about how people make judgments about her based on what she looks like. She paused and then she said that she might be able to learn but that it would take her a long time, and it wasn’t worth it.
3) Everyone is affected by racism.
Why do we belittle white people’s ability to share stories about how they experience racism?
While white people experience racism very differently than people of color, they still experience it. Multiple perspectives represent different ways to push our understanding. I hear some of the most vulnerable stories about racism coming from white people, which has helped me see different aspects of racism.
In 2013, I went with a small group of acquaintances to the “RACE: Are We So Different?” exhibition at the Seattle Pacific Science Center. The group was about half white, half people of color. Afterward, we went to get coffee. An older white man shared how, as a child in the 1940s Missouri, he had a Black nanny whom he loved and who would often spend the night at his house to take care of him. He was six years old when he learned the n-word from his friends. One night, his nanny was trying to get him to go to sleep and in protest, he called her the n-word. I saw this 60-something-year-old man cry from his shameful memory. He said that his nanny never stayed the night again. And he never forgave himself for using that word.
4) Mutual learning requires tolerance.
Why do we assume that all our friends have to be politically aligned with our own views? For those who identify as politically progressive, why are those who voted for Trump always assumed to be evil, selfish, and/or ignorant?
We allow for differences of opinions on many different topics among our friends. Why should politics be any different? Someone’s voting record defines a part of who they are, not their entire being. One of my oldest friends, also a woman of color, voted for Trump. She did it because she wanted tax cuts for small business owners. She said that I was the only friend who voted for Clinton who asked her about her vote and how she is careful not to talk about politics among her liberal friends because she feels judged by them.
By asking her to explain more, I was able to learn about the issues she cares about and the existing policies around those issues. And when I talked about this experience with progressive friends, they reprimanded me for continuing to accept her. I have known this woman for more than half of my life. Why would I stop being friends with her just because of who she voted for in the last presidential election? Isolating this friend would only hurt me because it would fortify the progressive bubble I live in and continue to shut out the number of people in my life who offer different perspectives.
Normally when we talk about diversity, we’re referring to racial and ethnic diversity. Political diversity is a lot harder for many people here in the Pacific Northwest to accept. And those who are not ardently progressive are more likely to be silent about their moderate or conservative views. Silence denies us the opportunity to learn from one another.
All of these stories reflect my own journey to find my voice, to no longer opt for silence stemming from fear.
Awakening allows us to recognize that individuals have their own stories and histories with various kinds of oppression. Awakening means understanding that you start with what you can control, which is your own attitude toward others. Awakening gives us the space to ask questions rather than to assume answers.
Getting comfortable with my own awakening has meant I get to talk to people who will help me see differently. It has deepened my relationships with those around me. It also isn’t easy — it still feels risky to say or write things that might be perceived as “unwoke.”
What gives me strength is my faith that for others to change, I have to believe that I can change. For others to learn, I have to be willing to learn. And for others to see and hear me, I have to be willing to see and hear them.
Julie Pham, PhD grew up in Seattle, after immigrating to the United States as a refugee from Vietnam. She co-owns Northwest Vietnamese News with her family, which has been in Rainier Valley since 1986. She loves throwing dinner parties in her International District home.