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How Far Should I Go to Get You ‘Woke’?

Should I have tried to raise the identity consciousness of a black friend who wanted no part of it? 

March 26, 2018
 
 

When I was an undergrad I had many powerful conversations about race in programs organized by Eusa Nia, the Black Student Union in the activist-y residence hall in which I lived (Allen Hall at the University of Illinois). I credit that group with creating my identity consciousness. Before that, I was a brown kid that wanted to be white. Eusa Nia (Swahili for Black Purpose) got me.

I was so grateful that I took it upon myself to recruit for them. For a while, I directed my energies towards a friend named Doug. Doug was black, and the vice president of the Allen Hall Student Council when I was the president. He was a natural leader and frequently the smartest guy in the room. I asked him over and over again to come with me to Eusa Nia programs or to join the group.

He politely declined, and when I persisted he told me directly that he supported what Eusa Nia did, but he wasn’t interested in being a part of the group. He was very active on campus, an excellent student, part of organizations related to his major, etc. Those other activities, he informed me, kept him busy and happy.

I kept coming, approaching the issue every way I could think of. I talked about the importance of people of color consciousness, of racial solidarity, of raising the volume on the legacy of slavery and segregation and the persistence of current forms of racism, like the vast difference in penalties for crack vs. powder cocaine.

He’d listen politely, but rarely joined in. That frustrated me. I wanted to be the guy creating a space for Doug and other people of color to feel safe to share their views.

When I asked Doug privately why he remained silent in these conversations, he’d say, “It’s just not my thing.”

I convinced the staff director of Allen Hall, a guy named Ron, to join me in raising Doug’s consciousness. Ron was the first out gay person I became close to, and a powerful advocate for diversity issues and social justice. Ron tried too, but Doug just continued to politely decline the invitation.

“I’m cool with what Eusa Nia does,” he continued to say, “but what they lift up is just not the biggest part of who I am.”

I wanted to tear my hair out. HOW CAN YOUR RACE NOT BE THE BIGGEST PART OF WHO YOU ARE, I wanted to scream. DO YOU NOT KNOW YOUR HISTORY? WHY WILL YOU NOT LET ME TEACH YOU?

I’ve been thinking about this situation a lot recently.

Am I the only one to try to raise someone else’s race consciousness and, when they basically say “Thanks but no thanks,” felt like a personal failure as a result?

Was I a failure? Meaning, did I just go about it wrong, or poorly? Should every person of color have a politicized race consciousness of the type I proudly developed in college?

Had Doug just internalized his own racism and oppression so deeply that he couldn’t see it? At some point, I left him alone, but should I have instead continued to chip away at that layer of internalized racism until the ice melted and the warm waters of racial consciousness flowed?

One of my colleagues at IFYC pointed out that Doug may just have been woke in ways I wasn’t registering. Is that a possibility? But if woke means anything, doesn’t it mean a certain kind of discourse, performance and solidarity around race? 

Would it have been different if I was black rather than brown? Would I have had more ‘standing’ on the issue - been justified in trying harder, or in using sharper language with Doug?

What if another identity was at stake, say religious identity? Am I justified in aggressively recruiting (perhaps ‘hounding’ is the best term) someone who shares my religious identity to see that identity the same way I do? To join the group organized around that activity, engage in the practices associated with that identity, etc. Is it different when salvation is at stake? 

When Ron commented to me that Doug was oppressed and just didn’t know it or want to face it, was he crossing a line? Was he violating Doug’s agency in a deep way by suggesting how he should interpret himself?

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