A Reflection by Rabbi Donna Berman
There is a famous Buddhist teaching about how, soon after his enlightenment, the Buddha passed a man on the road who was struck by the Buddha’s peaceful and radiant presence. The man stopped and asked, “My friend, what are you? Are you a celestial being or a god?” “No,” said the Buddha. “Well, then, are you some kind of magician or wizard?” Again, the Buddha answered, “No.” “Are you a man?” “No.” “Well, my friend, then what are you?” The Buddha replied, “I am awake.”
A sense of the importance—and even urgency—of being awake is at the center of many movements and philosophies from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, to Alcoholics Anonymous to body-centered psychotherapies to the proliferation of mindfulness practice. Jon Kabat-Zinn states that mindfulness “calls us to a higher standard—that of remembering the importance of wakefulness and the ease with which we can slip into a pattern of automatic living which lacks awareness and sensitivity.”
So, wakefulness is about several things: really seeing what and who is around us, being aware of our impact on what and who is around us, facing the truth about our lives, in all its joy, in all its pain. That’s why looking at the truth is not easy. It is a zero sum game. We can’t be awake to some things and not to others.
And that’s also why being awake is probably one of the most courageous things we can do. As the old joke suggests, it is much easier to swim in denial. It is tempting to avoid what is hard to see. It can be lonely and, at times, dangerous. But it is the only way to move forward. Blessed are the truth-tellers.
Most of us are grumpy when we wake up and can get angry at those who dare to disturb a deep sleep. On a societal level, it seems fair to assume that that is at least part of what we are seeing in the virulent pushback of some politicians to the idea of being awake. But there is something else at play here, too. Those politicians, by definition, are advocating for the opposite of being awake—sleep, unconsciousness, numbness. Some of the tools for inducing these states are the fog of disinformation, the lull of lies. George Orwell wrote in 1944, “The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits ‘atrocities’ but that it attacks the concept of truth.” Rebecca Solnit adds, “The attack on truth and language makes the atrocities possible.” She writes, “Authoritarians see truth and fact and history as a rival system they must defeat.”
So, when Matt Gaetz talks derisively about “woketopians,” when the Florida Legislature passes the “Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (WOKE) Act, restricting how workplaces and classrooms around the state handle discussions about race, gender and sexuality, when candidates for Prime Minister in the U.K. speak disparagingly about a “woke brigade,” when Marjorie Taylor Greene criticizes those who “voted with the woke climate agenda,” when author Prue Leith speaks disparagingly of our “woke world,” or when politicians assail “woke capitalism,” what they are suggesting is that being asleep is better than being awake, that living in a lie is better than the truth. As Roger Cohen wrote in the New York Times recently, “…the idiom fascism knows best is untruth so grotesque it begets unreason.” Why? Because would-be authoritarians know that if we wake up, we will do what people do when they wake up, rise up.
But there is another reason the use of the word “woke” by those enjoy white privilege is disconcerting. The word has a long history in the African American community. It is both a description of a state of alertness and an alarm reminding Black people to be ever vigilant, that to let their guard down in a racist society is perilous.
It was in 2014, in the wake of the police killing of Michael Brown and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter Movement that “stay woke” appeared on the radar screen of people beyond the Black community. But its roots go much farther back than that.
In 1923, Marcus Garvey, philosopher and social activist, proclaimed, “Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa!” beckoning people around the world to social consciousness.
In 1938, the phrase “stay woke” was part of an afterword to the song “Scottsboro Boys” by Lead Belly. The song tells the story of nine Black teenagers who were falsely accused of raping two white women in Scottsboro, Arkansas. Eight of the nine were executed, despite overwhelming evidence that they were innocent. At the end of the song, Lead Belly states, “So I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there—best stay woke, keep their eyes open.”
The term appeared, again, in 1962 in an essay published in The New York Times called “If You’re Woke You Dig It,” by William Melvin Kelley, who said “If your master did not know what you were talking about, he could not punish you, and you could maintain your ignorance and innocence.” Kelley talks about how white people exploit Black language and culture and, in so doing, appropriate and change its meaning.
And it is not only conservatives who have commandeered the term. “Woke” has been used by people who identify as white of every political persuasion to advance their own agendas. Progressives have used it to broadcast their awareness of systemic injustice. Journalist Amanda Hess wrote, “The conundrum is built in. When white people aspire to get points for consciousness, they walk right into the cross hairs between allyship and appropriation.”
On both the right and on the left, “woke” has been split from the painful reality in which it is rooted and to which it points, becoming a cliché, a linguistic pawn in the so-called culture wars. Those who identify as white and/or benefit from white privilege need to honor the word and its history and step away from using it. It is disrespectful not to. The word simply does not belong to us.
But stepping away from the word does not mean stepping away from this truth: The time is long overdue for people who have not experienced oppression based on the color of our skin to awaken, not just to the injustices of the past, not just to what our ancestors did or what our country did or didn’t do. We are called to awaken to what we do and don’t do, to our motivations, to see what we benefit from and at whose expense. We are called to look reality in the eye, as excruciating as that can be, and to have the courage to see our part in its making, in its perpetuation. This is being a responsible human being and a good citizen. This is the way to move ahead. This is the way to get unstuck from all in which we are currently mired. For, as every child knows, in the end, the only way out of a nightmare is to wake up.