Hey white friends: We aren’t above the newly “woke.”

by Janelle Hanchett

Lately I’ve been hearing, “It’s different this time.” “Something is really changing.”

Our Trump-supporting family members are using the word “murder” in reference to George Floyd. Those of us with Trump-supporting family members know what a big deal this is. People we would expect to really come to the rescue of Target are sharing MLK Jr.’s “language of the unheard” quote.

Sure, everybody’s favorite Florida boomer still pops into the thread to bring up the fact that Floyd did coke and wasn’t exactly a model citizen—because model citizenry is apparently the baseline requirement for not being murdered by police—but now, Florida boomer just seems pathetic. The desperate gasps of a dying racist.

Makes me think of Bob Dylan singing, “Get out of the new road if you can’t lend a hand.”

In other words, we are moving on with or without your NASCAR-weeping ass.

Statues are toppled. Kids are done asking cities for permission they’ll never get. Kaepernick was told, “There are other ways to protest.” 2020 agrees.

Eight minutes, 46 seconds. Handcuffed, face-down. Two officers kneeling on his legs. One man casually kneeling on his neck—one hand in his pocket, serenity washed across his vaguely smiling eyes. The face of evil? Nah, the face of white supremacy. Also evil, but not uniquely so.

White people, tell me, do we not recognize that smirk? Just a little? In our uncles? In ourselves? Deep down in our blood, the smirk that rests in the knowing that most likely the state is on our side.

Our ancestors took their children to watch lynchings of Black Americans. They dressed in their Sunday best and drank Southern cocktails while young Black men hung from trees behind them. They took photos and sent them to family members who had moved out west. You know, to remind them of how things were back home. Model citizenry, etc.

They grinned. They smirked. Their eyes casually rested in the knowing that the state is on their side.

It lives in our blood though we hate to admit it. We hate to see it.

Uprisings in every city of America and 200 countries worldwide. NASCAR bans confederate flags. Ben & Jerry’s somehow pens a manifesto. Mitt Romney marches with Black Lives Matter. We tilt our heads to one side and try to process.

The whole world in a tidal wave: You will join us or we’ll roll on without you. Make a choice.
Here we are, witnessing the moment many of our white family, friends, and acquaintances are scooting off the fence. Family and friends wondering if there’s “maybe something to this Black Lives Matter thing.” Lord.

And we, we are the ones at the crossroads. We are the people they will encounter first. We are the ones on the other side of the fence, and our job is to get uncomfortable and get inconvenienced. Our job is to remember that white supremacy is woven through the fabric of our brains and bodies and lives. The water we swim in and never have to see. The smirk that knows.

In other words, we are the ones who need to deal with their bullshit. Who else could it be?

And yet, in my travels around the internet, I hear a lot of attacking of people quite clearly grappling with the extrication of what they’ve always known to be true. Sure, it’s fucked up. It’s also real. Is the goal to help move out of racism or is it for us to be the wokest in the room?

And friends, I see it in myself: Some idea that I’m better than, elevated. Hey, Janelle, shall we remind you of how you wanted to know why there was no “white club” in your high school? That happened, that was real. You really meant that.

YOU LEARNED SHIT IN GRAD SCHOOL, ya fuckin revolutionary.

We talk about how we want to be “allies,” we want to help, we want to do something, but the second our third-cousin twice-removed starts mentioning mixed feelings about the statues being toppled but shows genuine concern and openness, we attack the motherfucker for failing to embody the lexicon we learned in our Race & Gender class at UC Berkeley back in 2007.

Do we need to talk for a moment about the bullshit Black people endure every day not only overt racists and middle-of-the-road racists but also Super Woke White Women who figure it’d be best if they just kinda, you know, took over the local Black Lives Matter chapter?

They read Ta-Nehisi Coates, okay? They know things. And yet we somehow can’t work with the clunky, awkward friend who discovered she’s white a week ago?

I’m not talking about Florida boomer. Fuck that guy. Wrap him in his confederate flag and bury him. But there is racism and a refusal to listen, and there is a moving away from racism and a former refusal to listen.

If anyone is required to make this distinction, it’s us.

Times are either changing or not. We are undergoing a mass expansion of white minds or we are not. We see ourselves as the problem or we don’t.

How can we see the face of George Floyd against pavement, claim to be allies, yet lack the stamina and patience to understand that the road to a new way of thinking is awkward, clunky, and downright “offensive.”

ARE.WE.SO.DELICATE.

Before I taught my first university class on my own—which was an English class I divided into four sections (race, gender, class, and power), featuring the writing of Baldwin, X, hooks, and others—my advising professor told me this: “Your students are going to say inappropriate things. They are grappling with hard ideas and they do not yet have the vocabulary for it. Don’t attack them. Ask them questions. Keep asking questions until they are forced to trace their idea back to its beginning.”

These are not students who said overtly racist things. Slurs, etc. That’s different.

What I’m saying is that the road out will be messy, complicated, and nuanced, and it is our job to open doors, get out of ourselves, help others the way we were helped. I don’t think it’s our right or place to adopt the justified anger that may exist in people of color who are absolutely done dealing with white nonsense, and extend it into our own interactions as if we are the same.

We are the people who need to humble ourselves and remember the person who woke us up.

Because somebody somewhere woke you up. If it was your parents, somebody woke them up. If it was your grandparents or great-grandparents, well, somebody handed those badasses a pamphlet. Nice work. But still, at some point, we had to be pulled, possibly dragged, from our soothing pool of white.

We are the people whose ancestors took their kids to lynchings. We are the descendants of slaveowners. We are the ones who told Martin Luther King, Jr. that though we agree with his cause, we just wish he’d wait.

We are the ones who could wait.

THIS IS NOT ABOUT GUILT. This is about seeing ourselves as a member of a vast history, a larger whole, a single voice responsible for lifting our brothers, sisters, friends, family, and acquaintances, out of the web of a brutal lineage. We need to get into the new road and lend a fucking hand. It won’t be clean and it won’t be easy.

In 1962, James Baldwin wrote a letter to his nephew just before the Civil Rights Act, on his nephew’s 15th birthday.

In it, he wrote the following:

“In this case the danger in the minds and hearts of most white Americans is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar, and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.”

Heaven and earth shaken to their foundations. A world recognizing the smirk of a white man during a lynching, some of us within ourselves. It is a terrible witness, a piercing truth, but it is ours, and we can welcome the shivering sun.

 

  • Anneke Gaul

    Yes and THANK YOU

  • Jocelyn Conway Malone

    You write with such clarity and truth. I will be bookmarking this piece to share not just now, but in the future. I am the white mom of a Black daughter and often question if I would be so “woke” if she didn’t come into my life. I try to remember that when I am faced with yet another ignorant person set in my path.

    I wrote off most of my family a few years after I adopted my girl. Too many hurtful things were said and done and I did not want her around family that could be so willfully ignorant. I wonder all the time if cutting them off was a good decision, because who else will drag them kicking and screaming into the light? But I also think of my daughter grown and wonder how she will reflect on her childhood, and if I did everything I could to keep her safe. So I struggle with the guilt of not enlightening my relatives, but need to keep my kid safe.

    • Lisa Landon

      💕

  • Debra jenkins

    Beautiful, spot on…as always. Thank you for not making the asshole be from Alabama. Can’t speak for the rest of our state but north Alabama is listening, taking action and making substantive changes. It’s a long overdue reckoning for the south and I know I’m not alone in the desire to mitigate the damages our ancestors brought. “Tomorrow, they’ll be more of us!” Love you, friend!

    • Karen Arenson

      Yes, Debra, I agree. I’m in southern Alabama and it’s hard stuff for these folks to wrap their heads around. We’re trying down here too! Janelle, you are fabulous! Keep up the great work!

  • Laurie G.

    This is wonderful, as always. I’m continually amazed at your gift for expressing knotty issues so clearly. I taught American History at the college level for fifteen years and THIS resonates with my experiences in trying to get my students to recognize their white privilege (a term which seems to immediately set people’s backs up): “Our job is to remember that white supremacy is woven through the fabric of our brains and bodies and lives. The water we swim in and never have to see.” Just that, the recognition of how insidious and universal whitness is, how it is constantly expressed as the “norm,” through all forms of media, was and still remains an uphill battle. Thank you.

  • jonnel covault

    Love this, “But still, at some point, we had to be pulled, possibly dragged, from our soothing pool of white.” So true. Thanks!

  • Constance W Foss

    Your new blog post arrived just as I was thinking the same thing:not able to write because of the reasons you stated. I’ve been watching Grace & Frankie for the 5th or 6th time…but it’s time to unglue myself from watching the sky (to see if it’s falling) and the phone. Time to regain the focus to write something. Your post is absolutely right on.Thanks for the nudge!

  • Tara

    Thanks for writing this. It’s a good reminder. We all have work to do, and being farther along this road that we are all traveling together doesn’t really mean anything. We’ll all stumble and fall behind at some point. Help the stumbler now, or just walk beside somebody who looks tired and confused and, if you’re lucky, someone will do the same for you when it’s your turn. Recently a photo taken nearby where I live has gone viral. It was taken at a beach on the coast of Maine. A diver had become disoriented and clearly needed help. One person jumped in the water to help him, and ten more people formed a human chain, from the tip of the rocks back to the safety of the beach, to help the diver and his rescuer get out. Nobody planned it, or organized it. I just kind of happened. And a woman walking the beach stopped and took a photo because she knew it was important. I find myself thinking of it as a rather perfect metaphor for what needs to be happening right now. Maybe we’re the scared diver who needs help, or the heroic guy who jumps in to save him. Maybe we’re just one link in the chain that leads them to safety. Or maybe we’re the person who says ‘this means something and people should know about it.’ Regardless, we need to be part of the solution in whatever big or small way we can right now and that includes leaving room for people learn, change their minds, and find their way back. People can’t change direction if you don’t give them room to turn around. Thanks again. It’s always good to hear what you’re thinking about.

    • Lisa Landon

      💕

  • Tara

    YES! All of this. I echo Jocelyn. I’m also a transracial adoptive parent and I doubt I would have come into this year as so-called woke as I am if we hadn’t chosen that road. Probably not, the white bubble is comfortable. Recognizing that we absolutely need to get ourselves into a diverse neighborhood and face all our judgements over what diverse neighborhoods mean in our city? That is Uncomfortable messy fucking inner work.

  • Marianne W

    Truth, as always. Thank you for writing so openly and clearly. We have so much work to do, so much to let go of to get out of our soothing pool of white. Sharing.

  • Jennifer Anderson

    Beautiful. Thank you. Your writing helps me to sort my own thoughts so I can explain them better to others, and be the better ally I long to be.

    • Larissa

      Yes Jennifer I totally agree! There is so much language in here that explains my own thoughts I often struggle to voice. Thank you Janelle for taking the time you needed to say all of this so beautifully. I appreciate you.

  • Amy

    THIS: “I don’t think it’s our right or place to adopt the justified anger that may exist in people of color who are absolutely done dealing with white nonsense, and extend it into our own interactions as if we are the same.” I think the truly curious ones, who don’t yet have the right words, might be turned away by the justified anger, but WE (white people) need to teach them and be gentle with them, not expect those who have HAD IT because they deal with it every day to have to take it on.

  • Heather J.

    Thank you, Janelle, I very much needed these words in my life. The Trump supporters in my life are, unfortunately, not getting off the side of the fence that I had hoped. I had a very painful conversation with my father (on my birthday, no less) that made me so sad and angry and disappointed and exhausted.

    But this post has reminded me that I need to be patient. I grew up in that, and I overcame it. I started getting nudged awake by my freshman year English professor, who structured her class very closely to how you structured yours! I’d never heard the term “white privilege” until I sat in her class, and you can bet your ass I was not having it. She was patient. She was kind, but she challenged me. She asked me questions. She forced me to think critically. She never belittled me.

    It’s taken me years and years of work, and it will take me many more, but I’m a better person today than I was when I was 18. Thanks again – so happy to hear from you.

  • Janet

    Thank you for the clarity and nuance. I agree 1000%. How did you know about my great uncle in Florida?

  • Katy

    Thank you.

  • Lorain

    I’m feeling hopeful for the first time in quite awhile. You helped articulate why.

  • Gayle

    So true! I’m in south Mississippi, and the discomfort is palpable. This are has come a long way in the last 20 years, but the discomfort is at a new level, and it fills me with hope. My challenge is to be kind while people process how much they still have to learn. This looks like comforting people who “lost” their flag, their monuments, their sense of self. In a way, I feel like a nurse (I teach high school), helping people just waking up from a coma. The identity crisis is long overdue, but if we dont help them, be kind, many will revert to their comfort zone. As corny as it sounds, love is still the answer.

  • Ash Hanlon

    I totally get this. I am that clunky person. I don’t think I am more racist than I am any other ist, and tbh, I think a lot of things I do are more laziness and tactless curiosity. But I worry a lot, about what I’m doing now. And I try to take the little steps. And in all honesty, sometimes when I want to ask a question, or try to do a thing, I don’t do it less because I’m worried it will be the wrong thing, than because I think someone with a higher wokeness rating will be an asshat about it. I’m going to try and stop that. And be braver.

  • MaryEl

    I’m so glad you have chimed in on this conversation. Discussing race in my white family has been like politics and religion (best avoided) and I’m trying to bring it out. I was super misguided when my kids were babies and thought I was doing the right thing by never mentioning race – we live in north Florida and there is still way too much segregation and disparity in our supposedly progressive college town.

    I really really hope this is the beginning of true healing and change.

  • Jennifer

    Thank you for this. In a hopeless time it is a reminder that there are others who feel as I do and are able to put these thoughts into coherent words. I hope you are well.

  • Wayne

    Word. Thank you.

  • Cheryl Tyler

    Thank you for this. You helped me to wake up back when you wrote this piece.
    https://www.renegademothering.com/?s=when+I+realized+I+was+white
    Thank you for that one too.

  • Liz Castro

    This. Just wow to so much of it. You should get this piece more out into the world.

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