If You're Not Black, You'll Never Be 'Woke'

by Deesha Philyaw

So here's the thing: It's awesome that you recognize that #AllLivesMatter is some bullshit. It's very cool that your new boss asked everyone to introduce themselves and their preferred pronouns. It's terrific that your girlfriend wrote a fierce op-ed about how the Flint water crimes would never have happened in Greenwich.

But unless you, your boss, and your girlfriend are black, you're not "woke."

You're socially conscious. You're thoughtful. You're aware.

But you are not and will never be "woke."

"Woke" is a concept rooted in black American culture. To "stay woke," in its undiluted form, means to be cognizant of and vigilant about racial injustice and its many manifestations, and to be wary of those who uphold the racial status quo. The phrase "stay woke" is believed to have been first used in "Master Teacher," a 2008 song by Erykah Badu. The phrase was dormant for a few years after that, but then Badu and others began to use it to refer to a general awareness of social and political injustices. Fast forward, and these days the phrase has been co-opted and diluted, used to describe the bare minimum of justice-mindedness. Some even use the phrase mockingly.

But you don't have to take my word for it. Look it up. But don't tweet me with your whitesplaining, "Well, actually..." Because I will just reply with "I SAID WHAT I SAID." Because I don't allow people with the least amount of relevant information and lived experience to direct the conversations I participate in.

I get it. You didn't know. But that's the thing... there's so much we don't know. All of us. And that's okay. What matters is that when we know better, we do better. 

About a year ago, I read an explanatory Facebook post that led me to cease using "spirit animal" in a casual way. So this is not a "black thing." The historical and cultural contexts of words matter, period. But even if it was a black thing: So? And?

From so-called "boxer braids" to "Bye, Felicia," you want the ingenuity of blackness, but not the burden. But you'll never be "woke" if your privilege spares you the myriad dangers black people are forced to be "woke" about, like police brutality and poisoned water.

Is this censorship? No. Look up the word censorship. This is not appropriating. This is showing some fucking respect to cultures from whom so much has already been taken, without recognition or compensation. There are a million and one words in the English language. It's not hard to choose words to convey the ideas we want to express and be respectful. If you're chafing at the minimal effort this requires, please ask yourself if this is really the hill you want to die on as an asshole.

Black women could spend all our time on the Internets educating non-black people about white supremacy and appropriation, but some of us are exhausted (shout out to The Kinfolk Collective! #mulenomore). So consider this a freebie.

Am I the Language Police? At times like this, yes. Yes, I am.

And you're welcome.

Deesha Philyaw is the senior editor for Maximum Middles Age's pop culture vertical, Back in the Day. She co-authored Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce with her ex-husband. With her latest husband, she shares four daughters. She's a bio mom, stepmom, and adoptive mom who writes about race, gender, and parenting. In all her spare time, she's working on a novel and a collection of short stories about church ladies.