How to Become Woke


Jessica Goudeau -Becoming Woke4By Jessica Goudeau@jessica_goudeau

My college students introduced me to the word “woke” a few years ago. The term describes people who are, as Urban Dictionary puts it, in a state of “being aware” and “knowing what’s going on in a community” in relation to racism and social injustice. I know it’s a bit awkward when I incorporate that term in our class discussions (I still remember the way one of my professors carefully said, “Oh, I’m sorry. That was my mistake. It was MY BAD!” So terrible.) Even if my students cringe and smile when I say it, however, I like “woke.” It describes a sense of being awake, of not wanting to have your head in the sand.

Following the horrific violence and racism of the last few weeks and years, I have seen a deepening desire on the part of many of the white people I know to become woke. I want to be woke myself. I want to know what words I can use, what action I can take, to let people of color know I support them. I want to stand alongside them without them feeling that I as a white woman am doing what so many white people have often done: appropriating the stories of people of color or speaking for them. I want to listen and learn. I want to advocate for and support.

I want to know on a practical level how to do that: When should I speak? When should I be silent? What can I say? What should I never say?

I’ve spent the last decade studying issues of representation and teaching literature at the college level. I’ve learned some things I want to share. But first, I want to be clear about my audience.

To the women of color who read this: Forgive our clunkiness. Forgives us for the inadvertent ways we Other you. Forgive us if we treat you as if you are token, or as if your value as our friend comes in educating us. Forgive us that some of us are just now realizing things you have known your entire life, that many of us are in circumstances where we get to wake up to your reality. My hope in writing this piece is to give you a chance to sit back while we have an entry-level discussion among white women who love you and want to support you.

To the white women who read this: too often we say too much or too little. This conversation is between one white woman who is learning to be aware of her privilege and other white women who want to be woke.

Even though the practical responses change based on your life and your circumstances, here are some moves I’ve learned to make that affect the way I can respond as a white woman to systemic racial injustice:

1) I have to recognize my privilege and my place in the system. As Peggy McIntosh writes in her famous piece, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” racism is not only “individual acts of meanness” (which is how so many of us see it) but “invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.” We as white women benefit from a system we didn’t create but that prioritizes our white bodies. McIntosh writes about the daily effects of white privilege that she has in her life: “I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time” or “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group” or “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed” (there are several more examples—if you haven’t read her article, you need to.) The first step for you is just to recognize and come to grips with your place in the system.

Jessica Goudeau -Peggy McIntosh4

2) Use the feelings of guilt that arise for more than just navel-gazing. Once you do recognize your privilege, you may feel deeply guilty. Lean into that feeling. Let it spur you into action. As Andrew O’Hehir puts it, “Recognizing and addressing the reality of white privilege is not the same thing as embracing or indulging white guilt. Quite the opposite: It’s the pathway to liberation from white guilt.” If you need to confess your guilt, confess it, but don’t make your friends of color give you absolution. They don’t need the added burden of your guilt. Confess your former ignorance in a way that moves forward. Say, “I didn’t know, I’ve made mistakes, but I’m learning.” (Debby Irving’s book Waking Up White is a tremendous example of this move.) You as a white woman may benefit from this system, but that does not mean you are OK with that fact.

3) Listen to people of color. Do not try to speak for their experience but let them speak for their own experiences. This is a long, slow, lifelong process. You might be in this step for years; I’m not sure we ever leave this step. One of my favorite theorists on race discussions, Krista Ratcliffe, advocates for eavesdropping. Listen in on conversations that are already happening. Listening can definitely mean reading; I’ve included a list of resources below. Go to the places where people of color are talking and listen to them (eavesdropping is the point of Twitter). Search for hashtags on Twitter and then see what people of color (often shortened to POC online) have to say about an issue. In real life conversations or online, have a humble, learning, listening stance. Recognize that there is no one experience; make space for the many complexities of the conversation as you learn. And be OK with the fact that your experiences might not come up at all, that you might not have anything to add to the discussion. As Meg Cramer writes, “Being a good ally often means not being included in the conversation, because the conversation isn’t about you.”

4) Take it upon yourself to educate white people instead of expecting people of color to have to do that. You cannot speak for people of color, but you can speak to people in your own circles. Call out racism. Educate people with what you’re learning. On social media, elevate the words of writers and witnesses and victims and relatives and friends of color. Make sure the articles you share are not all written by white male journalists.

You might not be ready for all of these steps, but here are a few: Respectfully tell your old high school coach who keeps posting irate status updates on Facebook about why we say “Black Lives Matter” and not just “All Lives Matter.” (Because black lives are threatened in a different way in this country than *all* lives and we are responding to that threat by saying we see it and call it out. We’re saying, “Black Lives Matter TOO” not “Black Lives are the Only Lives that Matter.”) We need measured, nuanced conversations about these issues and you as a white woman cannot fix the system; we don’t need any more white saviors. But you can, as my friend Abby Norman put it so pointedly, clean up the trash of white supremacy.

5) Use your social skills and be aware. The truth is, if you are a white woman trying to challenge your own white privilege, many of your efforts are going to be cringe-worthy. You’re going to mess up. Embrace the awkwardness; as you listen and learn, you will figure out how to be more aware.

Be careful, but don’t stop trying. Here are some things to resist:

  • Looking for a black friend just to make yourself feel better about your white privilege (that’s tokenism). Reach out just for the sake of making a friend.
  • Finding opportunities to “help” people of color (that makes you a white benefactor). Find a way to ask respectful questions rather than assuming you need to “help.”
  • Speaking over or for people of color in any situation. Stop. Sit down. Listen.
  • Saying things like, “Well, it’s true, my black friend told me—all black people…” We don’t ever need to paint a group of people with broad brushes. How about, “I’m learning that there are times when some people feel…”?

If you’re not sure what to say, it’s OK to be honest about that. One of my dear friends who is woke, Chez Dishman, wrote on Facebook: “It’s hard for me to know what to say this morning, but I want to say something, because silence isn’t neutral, it’s harmful. Silence is the privilege of the white.” And then she called her Facebook feed to support and prayer for “our black brothers and sisters who are victimized, brutalized, sensationalized, minimized.” It was beautifully and humbly done.

6) Just be a person. Recognize the basic humanity of others. This seems so simple, but it’s the move that is missing most of the time. We talk about systems, but at heart, these are people’s lives. Racism tries to take away the basic humanity of people and it is our sacred job to resist that move. Recognize that the mothers who grieve their sons are mothers like you. Recognize that the fathers who are weeping into their hands or the fathers who never come home are loved and love just like the fathers in your life. Recognizing that men like Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were fathers and partners and brothers strips us of the ability to dismiss their stories and forces us to face the horror of what is happening in our communities. As Feminista Jones says, “we need to scrap this idea of ‘allies’ and focus on what it means to be a GOOD person who believes in Black humanity.”

Jessica Goudeau -Feminista Jones4

White sisters, we cannot close our eyes to what is happening in the world around us. We must recognize that our privilege makes us different without getting mired in white guilt. We must confess. We must listen, eavesdropping often. We must learn. We must speak humbly and with respect if we speak at all, primarily turning to the people in our circles. We must do our best to be aware, to call out racism when we see it. As strong, aware, humble listeners, we must stand with our sisters and brothers of color in this fight against racism and injustice in thoughtful, meaningful ways.

We must devote ourselves to becoming woke.




  • Be the Bridge has some great resources for how to respectfully cross racial boundaries.




This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Gloria Anzalúa and Cherríe Moraga.

Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness, by Krista Ratcliffe


Jessica Goudeau -Book Recos1                      Jessica Goudeau -Book Recos2                    Jessica Goudeau -Book Recos3


QUESTION: What resources have you found that have helped you? Put links in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you.

About Jessica:

imageJessica Goudeau has a doctorate from the University of Texas in poetry focusing on issues of representation; she teaches English literature. Her most recent articles and translations have been published in Image, Geez, and Muftah. She blogs at and tweets as @jessica_goudeau.