Building an Antiracist Community
Woke and aware
Growing up in a small rural Minnesota town, there was little that gave me reason to consider the lives of Minnesotans who identified as Black, Indigenous or what we broadly identify today as people of color. Nor did we have cause for considering the lives of those who were gay. Straight and white were so normative that we essentially took them as a given for everyone. Our monocultural outlook was reinforced not only by the apparent absence of folks who fell outside of the dominant norm in our community, but also by the ever present images in school books of white people as the principal actors in every realm of endeavor and in church of white people, including a white Jesus and white disciples, as the originators of Christian faith.
We did once find an arrowhead on the land my parents farmed, but that was experienced as an old artifact of a long ago time that essentially had nothing to do with us. It certainly opened no windows into Indigenous life and reality in Minnesota. If there were Black, Indigenous or people of color in the area, they remained hidden from our view. In adulthood I did discover that a cousin who attended our home church and who later died of AIDS was gay and that both our music teacher and shop teacher were gay. But, none of this was known at the time.
There was a great deal about which I was unaware while growing up. I was unaware that speaking of “mankind” as if it included everyone was in practice a way of saying that one half of the population mattered more than the other half. I was unaware that the people warehoused in what was known as a “mental institution” in a nearby town had the potential to live meaningful lives. When our church choir visited the folks locked up in this facility, it sadly felt a bit like a trip to the zoo. I was unaware that there was such a thing as gender identity, since as far as we knew; there were only boys or girls and nothing else.
This world of not knowing is essentially the world which Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, and like-minded folks would have us return to in their campaign against being “Woke”. Woke was a term briefly used by people in the antiracism movement as a way of talking about what it means to begin recognizing things like systemic racism and the preferences provided to white people in jobs, education and bank loans, to name a few (also known as white privilege). To be woke simply means to become aware of that which you previously had failed to see or recognize. Folks like DeSantis see “woke” as a viable political hammer to be used against those individuals and corporations (including Disney) who have the audacity to become aware of those things previously hidden and create practices based on that awareness.
None of this “wokeness” is new to those who have been sidelined, ignored or hidden from view. As Michael Dyson says in his book Long Time Coming, “while white folks are in many instances just waking up, Black folks have been awake –“woke” – for centuries…We have been under attack for so long that we dare not close our eyes even for a minute.”
To some extent I benefited from my lack of awareness, but if I am honest the benefits from waking up have been much greater, including a much richer relationship with my wife than the one I would have in a patriarchal world dominated by an ideological preference for mankind. I have grown and learned from all the many people who were hidden from my view as a child.
DeSantis proudly proclaims “Florida is where woke comes to die.” It sounds to me like a place where awareness, and all the gifts that awareness can bring to our lives, our communities and our nation, go to die.
Tim Johnson is a retired pastor for United Church of Christ.