I rise today to defend the awakened state. In other words, I’m happy to be considered “awake”, especially given the presumed opposite state: “asleep”.
It’s a cliche of news writing to say “Mr. Webster defines “a word like this or that”. But I’m talking about one word specifically, so I’m going to point to the Oxford English Dictionary’s 2017 justification for including a different definition of “awake” in 2017:
“…by the middle of the 20th century, ‘awake’ had been extended figuratively to mean being ‘aware’ or ‘knowledgeable’ in a political or cultural sense,” the OED said. “Over the past decade, this meaning has been catapulted into common usage with a particular undertone of ‘alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice’.
So that’s good, right? As good citizens and, in my view, as people of faith, we want to know about and combat discrimination against people because of their race, creed, color and sexual presentation or of gender. Much of this is enshrined in law. Just mention.
But there’s a whole team that uses “woke” as a slur, as in Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ condemnation of Disney as a “woke business.”
This is the same governor who signed the ‘Parental Rights in Education’ bill that restricted teaching about sex and sexual orientation, as well as a ‘Personal Liberty’ bill. which says in part; “An individual should not be made to experience discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress because of their race.”
Now I’m a born and bred Tar Heel and have lived here in Tennessee or Texas all my life. I love the South so much, the terrain, the music, the food, most people, the same things that countless people enjoy.
I say “most people” because racial prejudice and oppression have certainly had supporters in our region since I was born in 1952, and long before. As an older white man I remember seeing separate drinking fountains for blacks and whites at the Sears in the former village of Cameron, a wooden barrier for the same purpose at the Seaboard station, both shadowed by the deliberately slow integration of classrooms in my 12 years in Raleigh Public Schools.
Over the years I have learned more bitter facts about the treatment of people of color that date back, of course, to the years when white people were allowed by law to possess black people.
And how can I know this shameful story?
I know this because I have tried to become more “aware” of the history and current dynamics of race and other biases, working to learn as much as possible through conversation, reading, meetings of group and experiences not only in the South, but across our country.
Why would DeSantis and his team want us to sleep through all this?
There is an ideal world in which every American, from children to growing centenarians, is treated the same in schools, hiring, employment, real estate, wealth and pay equity, interactions everyday life and general social mobility. But that’s not a reality for all of us, as decades of daily reporting and observation show. And out of all of this, we worry about someone “discomfort” hearing this story told?
There is no way to rid our country, our state and our cities of the terrible burden of racism without being awakened – by studying the traces it has left and continues to impose on us. We have to keep our eyes peeled to avoid the deliberately sleepy path that DeSantis and his team hope we will take.
Thomas Goldsmith is a freelance journalist and former N&O editor and reporter.