On being ‘woke’

I was introduced to the meaning behind the term “woke” in the fall of 2018, about one year after it was officially added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. I was teaching a literacy course at St. Catherine University, and one of my students created a project focused on the topic of being woke. 

The term “woke,” which originates from African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), is defined by Merriam-Webster as: Aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).

As an educator and parent, I have a vested interest in equity work, but I didn’t realize that a lot of my previous learning had been shallow. As a white teacher in a diverse school, I was driven to seek deeper, more authentic equity learning. It’s the very least — and perhaps the most important kind of learning —
I can do for my students. 

Equity has become a prioritized focus for many school districts, workplaces and even houses of worship, offering opportunities for genuine learning. When people think about equity education, they may assume it’s learning about diversity, culture and people of color. 

But I’ve since learned that true equity work for me must begin with self-awareness, looking within and exploring my own whiteness. 

Looking inward

What does it mean to be white? 

My first response to this question was confusion. What does it mean to be white? I thought it didn’t mean anything. (Stay with me, reader, I’ve evolved.) I’ve learned this is not an uncommon belief among white people. However, a 2016 Teaching Tolerance article, Why Talk About Whiteness, emphasizes this point: “While it’s true that whiteness is seen as a social default, it is not true that whiteness is the absence of race or culture.” 

My awakening started with reading the book Waking Up White by Debby Irving. Irving’s purpose for writing the book echoes the impact it had on me: “My hope is that by sharing my sometimes cringe-worthy struggle to understand racism and racial tensions, I offer a fresh perspective on bias, stereotypes, manners and tolerance.” 

Like Irving, I had no idea that not thinking about my own whiteness was directly tied to what it means to be white. As Robin DiAngelo writes, “If I cannot tell you what it means to be white, I cannot understand what it means to not be white.” 

I have the luxury of not even considering what my race means. I’m not confronted by the realities of my racial status on a daily basis. I can choose to consider, question and define (for myself) what my race means to me. 

Going deeper

I continued in my equity journey by reading the works of DiAngelo, Zaretta Hammond, Michelle Alexander and Ijeoma Oluo, and listening to podcasts such as Scene on Radio’s Seeing White series. What I’ve learned is impossible to sum up succinctly, but I can say this: Combating racism is not about being a “nice” white person, or having friends who are people of color, or living in a diverse neighborhood. Combating racism is about understanding silent racism and implicit bias, and challenging systems that perpetuate oppression.

My learning has completely shifted my worldview — I’ve been woke and now it’s nearly impossible to go back to unawareness, although sometimes it’s tempting. 

These resources contain challenging, difficult truths. They’ve made me think about the students I teach, the families
I serve and my own children. They all deserve better. 

Equity work is too critical, too important for me to stop. I need to “stay woke” so I can do better and be better. Step one is awareness; step two is action.


Laura Ramsborg is a literacy coach, writer and mother of three daughters. She lives and works in Bloomington. Follow her on Twitter at @Ms.RamsborgReads.