A Time of Reckoning by Dr. Sylvia Spears

On Being Woke
Our students sometimes talk about people being “woke.”  The term implies that an individual has moved from a place of not knowing to a place of deep awareness. It is a status ascribed to those who have transitioned beyond the sometimes slow process of awakening to a much deeper place of understanding the lived realities of others.

More specifically, being woke means that someone has developed a specific kind of knowledge about what’s going on in their community as it relates to racism and social justice. Individuals who are woke stand in full realization of structures of oppression, the very same structures that remain invisible to some others.

Someone who is woke sees the many ways in which racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, power and privilege, etc., affect the daily lives of members of a community. In addition, people who are woke speak up and step up not only to notice and name oppression where and when it exists, but they also actively work to dismantle it. Being woke implies a commitment to doing the work even if your privilege protects you from the most direct effects of that oppression. You do it because you know your life is inextricably linked to the lives of other and your humanity is dependent on the humanity of others. By default, the term also suggests that some people are not woke.


A Sudden Awakening 

In the past few weeks, I have been reminded of the stark difference between those who are “woke” and those who are awakening. The outcome of the recent presidential election sent shockwaves across the country, especially among good liberal folks. Of course, there are people who seek to diminish the post-election outcry to some members of the electorate being poor losers. Regretfully, it is just not that simple.

Most people can handle their candidate losing. In this election, something else was lost. People just can’t make sense of it. Why is this election so different? Why did people pour into the streets of major cities and small towns to protest in the days following the election? Why did a steady stream of students, faculty, and staff make their way to Walker 10’s Common Ground the morning after the election to sit in silence together, with many weeping? Why were people grieving?

It wasn’t about who won and who lost. It was an emotional response to a set of conditions that gave evidence anew to what so many of us have known for our whole lives—we are a country divided not by politics but rather by the triple threat of fear, hatred, and oppression. The power of this triple threat was validated in the context of this recent election. The upset wasn’t about the loss of a candidate. It was about the loss of the soul of a nation, a nation founded on principles of freedom, equality, and justice.

The very systems of oppression that some have always recognized as being woven into the fabric of this nation were revealed as not only persisting but alive, well, and growing. The outward expression of hate for whole communities of Black and brown people by public figures was not only tolerated—it became publicly acceptable. People who will serve at the highest level of our government laughed off sexual assault as locker room banter. Immigrant families seeking the same American dream that others before them sought have been called drug dealers and rapists. Soon-to-be government officials have cited Japanese internment camps as precedent for the proposed registration of people who are Muslim. During the presidential campaign, it became acceptable to make fun of and humiliate people with disabilities, and the physical safety of trans and gender-nonconforming people is more threatened than ever. All of this is occurring while militarized law enforcement entities shoot rubber bullets and water cannons at Native people and their allies at Standing Rock. People are upset because their sense of who we are as a country has been shaken.


The Citizenry Awakens
The election and the months leading up to it demonstrated just how easily a climate of fear and hatred can grow when fueled by the extension of power and privilege. This election also revealed to many people for the first time that racism, sexism, misogyny, ableism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and transphobia persist. Delusions about the existence of a “post-racial America” or a more socially just United States were shattered with this recent election. That fracture threw a significant portion of the country into shock, a shock so great that it awakened some people to what so many of us have known, lived, and experienced for generations. It is what communities of color, women, LGBTQ+ folks, people with disabilities, immigrants, and those who have been persecuted because of their religious beliefs have been saying all along. But people couldn’t hear them, people couldn’t see them, people couldn’t feel their pain until now. Privilege is a powerful protectant. Privilege can shield you from the ills of the world because it allows you to avoid seeing them.


New Urgency
In these past couple of weeks, the Division of Diversity & Inclusion has received a flurry of requests from across the campus to hold an open forum, to do trainings on how to respond to micro-aggressions, to launch discussions and book groups, to draft guidance for students who want to engage in social action, and on and on. Interestingly, we have been doing all of those things for years. Suddenly, there is a new urgency that didn’t exist prior to the election.

The Division of Diversity & Inclusion has been holding open discussions on diversity issues on a regular basis. Almost every workshop we do covers issues related to bias. All faculty development sessions cover the topic of micro-aggressions and the importance of stepping in when micro-aggressions occur. We have run a variety of book groups focusing on texts like Citizen by Claudia Rankine and Between the World and Me by Ta-Neshisi Coates. We have done numerous workshops on bystander intervention and held conversations on race with more than 500 Emersonians participating. We have facilitated difficult conversations, coached individuals struggling with diversity issues, responded to and monitored bias incidents on campus, advocated for inclusive and trauma-informed practices, launched initiatives to increase support for members of our community from historically marginalized groups, and worked with members of the Boston community who are most affected by structures of oppression. We have done this work each and every day with a keen sense of urgency. Despite all of this, the post-election requests just kept coming, which suggests that some people believe something is fundamentally different today than it was the before the election. From my perspective, things are very much the same. The only difference is that some people have just awakened. They now know what others have always known.


So Now What?
An awakening of this kind progresses in one of two ways: either it launches an individual into a period of deep growth and transformation, or it is a short-lived moment in time that quickly fades into the background.

In the former scenario, people are compelled to begin the arduous task of self-study around the ways in which they might benefit from or be complicit in an oppressive status quo. They come to understand the ways they benefit from unearned privilege. And if we are lucky, they eventually commit to using their privilege to dismantle the very systems that have served them so well in the past. They become woke.

The latter scenario results in little growth or transformation. Instead the individual slowly slips back into their life as if the moment of awakening never occurred. I expect that we will see this same shift across the country and at Emerson in the coming months. While some of us have no choice but to engage in the struggle, others see the risks of losing the benefits of privilege as simply too high to endure. These folks may continue to view themselves as good liberals but they will not be woke. In fact, they will be part of the silent majority of people who fail to do the hard personal work of becoming woke.

Which will you choose?

Dr. Sylvia Spears has been the Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion at Emerson College since August 2012.