The terms are so tempting. But as a white person, I resist applying them to myself. First of all, I worry that they make promises that I’m not always sure I’ll be able to keep or live up to. Not because I don’t care or don’t want to. Not because I don’t aspire to be both of these. But I don’t know whether I’m always the perfect ally. How much of an “ally” can I even be from my cabin in a rural (and very white) part of Colorado? I can and do go to our Black Lives Matter rallies in our small downtown, where the few People of Color in our community speak to our masked and socially-distanced white townspeople about how their experiences haven’t always matched ours. These have been useful learning experiences for me, and I thank the speakers for helping me grow. But I’m not sure my attendance makes me an “ally.” It feels a bit like calling yourself a “Christian” because you go to church most Sundays. Maybe both are a first step, but they aren’t enough to earn the label.
I’m certainly not comfortable calling myself “woke.” I find that term especially problematic because I think it’s too binary. One is either awake or asleep. The implication is that one is either racist or they’ve learned some deeper truths that have allowed them to transcend to a different state of consciousness — like some kind of 2020 version of Plato’s Cave or the Illuminati. Learning new approaches to being in the world that better take into account historic and systemic inequities while unlearning ingrained biases and habits is not that simple.
When we start applying these types of terms to ourselves, they become part of how we define our identities. And then our egos get involved. Then, if someone brings up that perhaps something we said wasn’t really that “woke,” or that maybe in a specific context we weren’t as much of an ally as we thought we were, it becomes an identity issue, and our egos feel threatened. We become defensive, then often we shut down. Almost all of us do this. It is a normal, human response almost all of us have when we feel that our egos and identities have been threatened. Then the space for a productive conversation closes. Progress stops. People often end up retreating to their respective communities or other safe spaces. Perhaps this is the “white fragility” that is frustrating People of Color when they want to move beyond letting us call ourselves “allies” and try to engage with us in a real conversation about what acting like an ally really means.
I think it’s more useful to frame this as a process. Becoming more knowledgeable and thoughtful about our country’s history and issues, and more responsive to people affected by those issues can take a lifetime — maybe even many people’s lifetimes. Even before this summer, I’d been trying to live by the words of Maya Angelou:
I love what Angelou wrote because it frames “doing better” as something we can all keep doing, every day. This process will probably be life-long, and that’s how it should be. Framing our growth as a process also feels more optimistic. It removes the pressure to have to enact some external identity perfectly and instead allows us to keep learning. It doesn’t create any vague standards that we feel like we have to fulfill — and may make us feel like failures if we still have space for growth.
This is NOT to say that “I tried,” or “I did the best I could” should be the next white person cop-out phrase, used the same way as “that’s not what I intended.” A passive-aggressive relative loves to shrug and say, “I’m doing my best,” or “Well I tried,” even though when he says this he usually means the exact opposite — that he did a half-ass job at the last minute (if that) and now doesn’t want to be held accountable for those choices. Angelou’s words don’t direct us to a helpless, “well, I tried.” They direct us toward actively pursuing improvement and growth. If we are not holding up our side of that and actively working on our own learning and growth, then it’s a cop-out.
A growth and process approach to racial equity (and many of the other issues that currently threaten our country and our planet) doesn’t allow us to give ourselves fancy labels like “woke” or “ally” — and then pat ourselves on the back with hands we should be using to reach out to others. That’s the point. We don’t get to stoke our egos. There is too much work to do — both personally and culturally — to have time for that. A growth and process perspective can free us up to stop worrying about labeling ourselves with the “right” terms and instead keep pushing forward with that work.
“Know better, do better” gives us the space to hear everyone’s views, to reflect, to take new facts and perspectives into consideration, and to make changes without feeling like our egos are being threatened or like we have to recalibrate our identities in the process. It allows us to identify as humans, who are imperfect, but who are learning, growing, and trying to be better people tomorrow than we were today. At the end of the day, engaging in that process is what will add up to a meaningful and well-lived life.