The faithful teacher was apologetic, but still regretted to inform me that his senior adult class would no longer be using the curriculum I write for Nurturing Faith Journal and Bible Studies.
The reason, he explained, is that after the July 17 lesson, the class decided that I had “went woke.”
The term “woke” emerged in the Black community years ago, first as a warning to “stay woke” and be alert for potentially dangerous situations, such as when driving through a town known for its history of racial prejudice. Later, it came to suggest awareness of racial discrimination and other forms of injustice.
In time, being “woke” came to be used of those who care about social justice and who advocate for people who are poor or historically disenfranchised.
I looked back at the July lessons for evidence of my apparent “wokeness.” The July 10 study (pages 24-25 of the July-August issue) was from Psalm 82, which includes a charge to “give justice to the weak and the orphan, maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Ps. 82:3-4).
I referenced various people who fit into those categories, existing on the margins and in need of care. I mentioned “single mothers or immigrant parents working two or three jobs just to put food on the table and keep a roof over their children’s heads.”
I pointed to victims of the mass incarceration movement that “imprisons a staggering percentage of Black men, often on trivial charges, taking their earning power away from their families, leaving them destitute and dependent on family and government assistance …”
I spoke of other folks struggling with poverty or immigration status and the trials of those who have no power, people who need advocates in Washington who will stand up to the thousands of lobbyists who promote the profit-driven motives of those who are already wealthy.
I suggested that privileged people, especially those who claim to follow Jesus, should “look out for those whose voices cannot compete with the closing bell on Wall Street.”
That might sound a bit “woke.”
The July 17 lesson, from Psalm 52 (pages 26-27), pointed to the potential peril of those who “trusted in abundant riches, and sought refuge in wealth” (Ps. 52:6-7). I pointed out that the psalm was not a blanket condemnation of either power or wealth, but a reminder that “all too often, they are distorted and used for personal gain with little concern for others.”
I wrote that those who benefit from white privilege should appreciate the obstacles many others face. I noted that banks and other businesses have long discriminated against Black customers who struggle to obtain loans or who must pay higher interest rates. Employers often pay lower salaries and landlords may charge higher rents to people of color. Immigrants, likewise, often face difficulty in getting ahead.
Just talking about the issues, apparently, makes me “woke.”
It turns out, though, after a friendly phone conversation with the teacher, that a major driver of the discontent was our editorial decision to follow the Associated Press standard of capitalizing “Black” but not “white.”
The reason for this is not to favor one over the other, but simply to acknowledge that, unlike ethnic groups such as Latinos, Asian-Americans or Native Americans, “White people generally do not share the same history and culture, or the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color” (from a July 2020 AP release explaining the policy).
The decision to capitalize Black with reference to people was designed to convey “an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa,” AP explained.
That’s it. It’s mainly a recognition that “white” people come from many different national and ethnic backgrounds and do not share the same sense of identity and discriminatory experience as Black people do.
Using “woke” in a derogatory sense is just one more example of how the right wing of America’s political spectrum loves to turn good words into dirty words, and any socially conscious action into something negative.
For example, CNN recently reported on an uproar among some customers of Cracker Barrel, who lambasted the company on Facebook for the “woke” practice of daring to offer the option of a plant-based breakfast sausage.
Even the laudable term “social justice” is frequently derided as a code word for “liberalism,” which for many is a small step from full-blown Communism. People who promote biblical concerns about fairness and equality are ridiculed as “social justice warriors” and considered suspect.
To the extent that I am “woke,” I’m proud of it, but my social awareness is still short of where it ought to be. I still struggle with the deeply ingrained racism of my youth, and I continue to learn areas in which my attempts at gender equality still fall short.
I’ve long advocated for women in ministry, but I recognize that behaviors once considered to be “gentlemanly” can be taken as implying that women are weaker or need special care. I’ve learned to try getting the door for everyone, not just females.
I recently made several batches of preserves with fruit from our fig tree, along with pear preserves from a friend’s small orchard. Soon after, I took a jar of preserves to two of our administrative staff and two of my faculty colleagues – then realized that I had gifted only women.
Does that make me a chauvinist? I don’t know, but my male colleagues will soon have something sweet for their toast, too.
Kermit the Frog sings “It’s not easy being green.” It’s not easy being woke, either, and not everyone appreciates it, but isn’t it worth the effort?