I’m white. I grew up surrounded by white people. So when it came to learning about race in America and my role as a member of the privileged race, not only did I have no opportunity to stumble into awareness by interacting with people who were different then me, but none of the white people around me were in a position to teach me either. Fast forward a couple of decades, and I’m a 28-year-old that tries every day to explore my biases and understand my privilege. I’m woke. But I have no idea how I stumbled into wokeness, because I had no one to teach me. So many of the people I grew up with did not get woke, and it seems like complete luck that I encountered the people and experiences that taught me what I needed to know about race in this country. If I can understand my own journey, perhaps that will help me speak convincingly to less woke white folk.
I grew up in a very white, very Catholic town about twenty miles outside of St. Louis, one of the most segregated cities in the country. Race was something I was only vaguely aware of growing up, and that vague awareness came primarily as a sense that black spaces were very different from white spaces, and were therefore something to fear. Of course, no one ever told me this explicitly. In fact, I don’t remember anyone around me ever explicitly saying that people of color were any different than white people. But somehow, this mindset was inculcated in me anyway.
He was the first person of color that I had the opportunity to be close with, and, therefore, getting to know him was also the first time I had to confront how I was going to interact with race.
There were no kids of color in my grade school. Around sixth grade, however, the first bit of blackness started infiltrating our protected white enclave. It was Nelly’s breakout year, and almost every 6th grade boy had a copy of “Country Grammar”. Listening to rap was a form of rebellion, primarily for the boys. Black music was one of the scariest things they could bring into their white flight suburban homes. It reminded their parents why their families left the city in the 60s and 70s. I, like most of the girls, didn’t like or listen to rap. My dislike was, admittedly, partially a result of fear, but I also simply didn’t feel like there was anything in rap for me. It had no relation to me or any of my experiences. It was from a different world. N’Sync, Brittany Spears, and Christina Aguilera was where I thought my experiences were reflected.
High school was just as white as grade school. Junior year, the school’s only black student transferred in. He was the first person of color that I had the opportunity to be close with, and, therefore, getting to know him was also the first time I had to confront how I was going to interact with race. Everyone in school clambered to be his friend, not in the least to show how inclusive we all were. I remember feeling self-righteous about my inclusivity, but also thinking that I shouldn’t treat someone differently because of their race; that THAT was also racist. I struggled and obsessed with how I should treat the new student. I realize now that this obsession was actually me struggling with the subconscious acknowledgement that my views on race were wrong.
I learned that the psychology that I inherited about race was carefully crafted by the generations of white people before me, tracing all the way back to the very first white people in North America who enslaved non-white people.
Around this same time, my friends and I started venturing into the city more. In the world before smart phones, my parents made sure I had the directions into the city memorized, as well as a long set of helpful rules: When heading into the city, only take the highways south and east. If you accidentally cross the Martin Luther King Jr., Bridge, keep driving for at least 10 minutes before exiting the highway and turning around. Never be south of this landmark, or north of that landmark, or east of the river. Don’t stop at stop signs in “bad areas” because it makes it easier for someone to car jack you, etc. etc. etc. All of this was informed by the fear of accidentally finding yourself in a black space. Being in a “bad area” (read: a predominantly black neighborhood), was one of the most visceral and immediate fears I remember having as a high school student. Even when I was driving well-worn and known stretches of interstate, I would imagine all the horrible things that must be happening in the streets and houses that I glimpsed past the off-ramps. My perception of what lay beyond the safety of the interstate was informed exclusively by news cycle stereotypes and the fears of the suburban white people around me.
Going to college in Chicago was the first time in my life where I had the opportunity to interact with and befriend many different kinds of people. I was challenged and informed about race by people of other races for the first time, and the social justice curriculum of my Jesuit university helped me rationalize what I was experiencing emotionally. My junior year, I reluctantly took a class about race. It was a required course, and I was expecting it to be fluff. That “fluff” ended up changing my world. I finally had someone telling me everything I suspected to be true but didn’t know how to ask about. I learned that the psychology that I inherited about race was carefully crafted by the generations of white people before me, tracing all the way back to the very first white people in North America who enslaved non-white people. That the especially harsh treatment white America reserves just for black Americans is a vestige of the psychological distortions slave owners used to justify their inhuman actions towards other humans. Race was a social construct, and different races were only distinct in so far as society said they were. While American society allows most people of “mixed” racial background to be labeled “mixed,” black Americans are the glaring exception; one drop of “black blood” means that you are “black” in the eyes of American society. This new reality made perfect sense to me, but I was never able to reach these conclusions on my own.
With my new racial lens, I was able to see so much around me that I never saw before. A switch had flipped. And with that flipped switch, rap and hip hop came flooding into my life. I finally realized that there was something for me in rap and hip hop. This music did contain my experiences. For the first time, I recognized the artistry and deep historical roots of this music, and I was consumed. As I studied rap and hip hop, I began learning not just about my place in racial America, but also started to understand the perspective of people of other races. I learned that all the things that scared me and the suburban white parents of my childhood about rap music was placed there for that exact purpose: to scare us. When I and the kids I grew up with listened to rap, we thought we were clandestinely peaking into the black world; like neighborhood children peaking through the window at an adults-only party their parents didn’t take them to. However, we were not unheard and unseen. Black artists knew we were listening, and deliberately tried to use themes and language that would make us uncomfortable so we would stop: vulgarity as a privacy screen. Much of black music and black art evolved with tricks and tactics to make sure white people wouldn’t listen: from hidden messages in the spirituals sung in southern plantation fields, to the invention of new words in modern “black” lingo. I didn't appreciate rap before because I didn’t know how to speak the language of rap. Now that I did, rap and hip hop taught me how to have a different perspective. And this is the moment where I believe I officially became woke.
In the six years since, I have spent four as the racial minority: two years in China, where I was one of twelve non-Chinese in a city of 800,000, and two years in Washington, D.C., which is only 40% white. Each situation continued to force me to confront race and my place in a racialized world in different ways. I still have work to do on myself, and I will never say that I’m completely free of the biases and mindset I inherited. But at least now I have the tools to fight my biases.
When Michael Brown was murdered, just 10 miles from my hometown, I saw with complete clarity the very real dangers of the racial mindset I grew up with. Even though Ferguson is not my hometown, both are within the same psychological sphere. After the murder, protests, and riots, the comments I heard from my friends, family, and other white people betrayed the very real racism that, in better times, was veiled with innuendos and insults disguised as compliments. I was surprised by the reactions of some of the people I loved, and saddened that I wasn’t more surprised. I tried to impart my wokeness in a language I thought they would understand, but I seemed to have little to no impact. I despaired then, and I despair now under the weight of this horrific election. The only thing that gives me hope is that people are forced to discuss race in ways they weren’t before, and that that will lead to greater understanding. If I could stumble my way out of the quagmire, perhaps other non-woke whites can, too, with a little coaching from the woke among us. Here's hoping.