Can Straight White People Ever Really Be Woke?

Photographer Chelo Keys recently came up with the idea for #wokewednesdays, AKA a day each week where we could bring attention to vendors in the wedding industry who are equality-minded. We at Catalyst LOVE this movement that Chelo has started, but it has really prompted me to analyze my personal relationship to the term “woke.”

It’s a term, as most of you probably know, that stems from the black community and the Black Lives Matter movement, and it has been used to primarily describe awareness around racial injustice.

Culturally we have begun to broaden the usage of  “woke” as a way to (self-)describe someone who is conscious of the social injustices around them and is willing to call them out and work to end them. It is a term that could in large part, I hope, be used to describe our readership. I’ll go ahead and assume that if you’re reading this, you are a person who acknowledges that there are some pretty terrible things happening in the world and in our country, to the LGBTQ community and to people of color, and you genuinely care about putting a stop to it. I’ll assume that you speak up when you see someone being treated poorly, and you won’t stand for it when friends, relatives, neighbors, or complete strangers say something racist, sexist, or anti-equality.

And the fact that this is true of so many people in our community brings me so much joy, it’s hard to verbalize, but personally, any time that I use the term “woke” to describe myself I have to admit that I feel like a bit of a fraud. As the BLM movement has grown in our national consciousness, and raised awareness with those outside the black community, white people’s utilization of the “woke” badge needs to be called into question. This has been an ongoing discussion, and even The New York Times dove in to analyze the concept of “Earning the ‘Woke’ Badge”.

Let’s get it all out in the open. I am a straight cisgender white woman, and the only thing I know I am fully aware of is the fact that I can never understand what it’s like to be a member of the LGBTQ community or a person of color. I can never know what it’s like to be afraid to kiss or hold hands with my S.O. in public. I can never know what it’s like to live my entire life penalized by systemic racism. I can never know what it’s like to be afraid to pray in public. I am blessed with more privilege in my life than I can ever fully account for, and I accept that and acknowledge it. Because of that privilege I don’t think I will feel comfortable calling myself “woke.” I think the best thing that I can aspire to as a straight cisgender white woman is to be “woke-ish.”

When I first used this term with the rest of the Catalyst staff, I was met with a lot of mixed reactions. The main response was that “you are either woke or you’re not.” But I don’t think that’s true. I think awareness of social injustice, like many things, is a process. You always have more to learn and more listening to do in order to be a better ally. I know that personally I have a lot of moments ahead of me where I am going to have to sit back and shut up and acknowledge that the world doesn’t need more white voices right now. This is not my time.

That’s frankly part of why you don’t really hear from me that often. Y’all do not need to hear about my white feminist struggles. My role as the Creative Director of Catalyst is not about me sharing my personal thoughts and opinions with the world and receiving your praise and validation. Rather, I try to be an ally by working behind the scenes. But inevitably, being a privileged ally means walking a fine line between speaking up and not speaking for others. NYT writer Amanda Hess talked about this so eloquently:

“When white people aspire to get points for consciousness, they walk right into the cross hairs between allyship and appropriation. These two concepts seem at odds with each other, but they’re inextricable. Being an ally means speaking up on behalf of others — but it often means amplifying the ally’s own voice, or centering a white person in a movement created by black activists, or celebrating a man who supports women’s rights when feminists themselves are attacked as man-haters. Wokeness has currency, but it’s all too easy to spend it.”

As I step back and look at the direction that Catalyst is moving in, I have to wonder what value my role has in the broader racial justice movement. All I can ever hope to do is to facilitate the platform for the people around me to speak. So for now, that’s what I’ll promise to do. I promise to never ask for education or explanation, because it’s not owed to me. I promise to not jump in with my opinion where it is not my place or where my voice is not needed. I will only try to listen. And fight with you. And stand with you. And keep being my woke-ish self.

 Jen Siomacco, Creative Director

Jen Siomacco is the Creative Director at Catalyst. She works to mesh together her love of feminism, love stories, equality and design into the layout and brand of Catalyst while she sits on her couch and snuggles up with her SUPER lazy cats.