Opinion: It’s Not a Woke Contest

Holding other white people accountable.

Opinion: It’s Not a Woke Contest (Georgeclerk via Getty Images)

New YorkIn Lincoln Market on the corner of Fulton and Franklin Ave in Crown Heights, I felt my phone buzz. When I read the text, my face flushed.

It was one of the new friends I’d made in New York. He was going on about how privileged the white feminists who attended a pro-abortion rights rally in Brooklyn were. It was fall 2021, and the abortion ban in Texas had just passed. 

Of course I agreed that there’s a need for more intersectionality in the feminism movement, but I didn’t feel like getting lectured by a straight white guy about it. I took a deep breath and, as afforded by my own privilege, thought about what my therapist would say in her calm, instructional voice over FaceTime — if I don’t feel like wasting my energy on something, I can “resource.”

So I texted back. I told him that his concerns — he was worried white women weren’t talking about intersectionality enough — was thoroughly detailed in bell hooks’ first book, “ain’t I a woman.” He should check it out.

There. Conversation over, I thought. 

Another chime from my phone. Him again.

Inside the little gray bubble, his message said that people who suggest bell hooks clearly just started reading radical Black feminist literature in 2020. 

My instinct was to go off on him. But I wasn’t even thinking critically about his statement. I was thinking about myself and all the work I’d done to undo my internalized white supremacy since college and how many Black friends I had and all the anti-racism books I’d read. 

I wanted to send him a list. I wanted to tell him that I’d actually learned about bell hooks in 2019. 

But frankly, I hadn’t done much, if any, reading of literature by Black radical feminists. I promptly visited a Black feminist bookstore a few blocks from my apartment building to assuage my ego and bought an iced latte and “Sister Outsider,” which I still haven’t read. 

As much as I was annoyed by his tone, I could probably learn from him, even if he wasn’t my primary source on Black feminist literature.

I’ve had other moments like this. I’ll be talking with another white friend and, when race or racism comes up, I start to feel competitive about knowing more than them or being the better white person. I either judge them for knowing less than me or judge myself for not knowing as much as them. 

I told my friend Erianna, a Black podcast producer and writer, about these moments between me and my white friends.

She started laughing. “Y’all arguing about this is goofy to me.” 

Erianna talked about how white people are afforded the privilege of “over-education” and was amused that we would ever be competitive with one another or try to out-woke each other. Because, she said, we have no actual lived experience of racist oppression, which trumps whatever we’re reading.

“You don’t have the real life experience to be condescending.”

But she was also encouraged by the idea that white people are thinking about racism and talking about it and feeling the necessary uncomfortable feelings that accompany those conversations.

I’m from the South, and often, it’s not hard to be wokest white person in the room. Living in Brooklyn and being around other white people who know more about anti-racism than me is new, and I’m constantly reminding myself to push my ego to the side. As much as I’m working on taking up less space and intentionally listening to my Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian and other friends and colleagues of color, I’m realizing I can bring those active listening skills to my conversations with white people about racism, too. I can learn from them, and I can also have patience with the white people in my life who make mistakes. I figure it’s better for us (white people) to hold space for and teach each other than to put that weight on one of our BIPOC friends. 

I’m reminding myself constantly that it’s more important to share the mistakes I’m making and what I’m learning with my white friends than it is to pompously rattle off All The Things I Know.

After all, this isn’t about proving something about myself. It’s not about me, at all.

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