“I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there – best stay woke, keep their eyes open.”–Lead Belly “Scottsboro Boys”
How can you understand a problem if you are not allowed to name it?
How can you fight injustice if you are forbidden from learning its history and connection to the present moment?
These questions are at the heart of a well-financed war against a simple term – woke-ness.
Since the summer of 2020, oligarchs and their tools in the United States have been waging a disinformation campaign against that term – especially as it pertains to our schools.
Chiding, nagging, insinuating – you hear it constantly, usually with a sneer and wagging finger, but what does it really mean?
To hear certain governors, state legislators and TV pundits talk, you’d think it was the worst thing in the world. But it’s not that at all.
In its simplest form, being woke is just being alert to racial prejudice and discrimination.
That’s all – just knowing that these things exist and trying to recognize them when present.
I’m not sure what’s so controversial about that. If we all agree racism is bad, why is it undesirable to acknowledge it exists when it’s demonstrably there?
More specifically, being woke means focusing on intersectionality – how issues of race, class and gender overlap and interrelate with each other. It means practicing critical race theory – not the made up dog whistle conservatives use to describe anything they don’t like being taught in school, but the study of how racial bias is inherent in many Western social and legal systems. It means using the lens of Black feminism, queer theory and others to address structural inequality.
Again, why is that a bad thing? If we agree that prejudice is bad, we should want to avoid it in every way possible, and these are the primary tools that enable us to do so.
Our society is not new. We have history to show us how we got here and how these issues have most successfully been addressed in the past.
But these Regressives demand we ignore it all.
Shouldn’t we protect hard-fought advances in human rights? Shouldn’t we continue to strive for social justice and the ability of every citizen to freely participate in our democracy – especially in our public schools?
Of course we should!
But leaders of the backlash will disagree.
Like in so many other areas of our culture, they have stolen the term “woke-ness” and tried to co-opt it into another invented grievance. For people who deride their political opponents as being too fragile and unable to handle reality, they certainly find a million things to cry about on their 24-hour news networks to keep their base angry and engaged all the time.
They have attacked librarians, spied on and harassed teachers, banned books and weaponized the law to forbid certain ideas from our schools and public spheres.
They have targeted and demonized antiracist work. They have tried to discredit the concepts that Black women and LGBTQ people have created to explain and improve the inequitable conditions of their lives.
And the reason is crystal clear – they oppose that work.
They oppose anti-racism. They oppose the rights of Black women and LGBTQ people to better treatment.
They are against everyone but a perceived white, male, heteronormative majority that doesn’t even really exist.
They call their political opponents extremist. They call them groomers. They call them prejudiced and racist.
But it is Regressives’ anti-woke agenda that is really all of those things.
For them, up is down and circles are squares.
As public school teachers, being woke is not a choice. It is a responsibility.
For we are the keepers of history, science and culture.
Who will teach the true history that for more than 400 years in excess of 15 million men, women and children were the victims of the transatlantic slave trade? Who will teach the true history of the fight against human bondage and the struggle for equal rights? Who will teach about women’s fight for suffrage, equal pay, and reproductive freedom? Who will teach about the struggle of the individual to affirm their own gender identity and sexual expression?
We, teachers, must help students understand what happened, what’s happening and why. And to do so we must protect concepts that emerged from decades of struggle against all forms of domination.
It must be us.
It won’t be the College Board, a billion-dollar American business calling itself a non-profit, that after years of stalling finally released its Advanced Placement African American Studies curriculum – a college-level course available for high school students nationwide. In the wake of political backlash, the new course material is as watered-down as weak tea in comparison to previous drafts of the course.
This just goes to show that the free market will never stand up to political power if it is perceived as adversely affecting the bottom line. True education comes not from corporate academic standards or standardized test gatekeepers. It comes from teachers.
And we must teach like never before because our lessons have a pivotal impact on society at large.
Intersectional frames such as those under attack by billionaires posing as populists have been incredibly important in supporting overlooked social problems and addressing today’s human rights failures.
Those of us who know history understand that suppression of knowledge and intellectuals (especially those from marginalized peoples) are a tool used to increase racism and oppression – to overturn the progress of the last century.
Refusing students access to books, criminalizing “divisive concepts,” and discrediting those with whom they disagree have all been tools of domination. Just as denying the persistence of any inequality has been a tool to discredit its victims.
Progress has been made in the last hundred years, but the struggle is not over. And denying that there are any problems left to solve is a way of stifling that progress and turning back the clock against it.
If we give in to these partisan “anti-woke” imperatives, we enable the return of racist and cultural inequalities that had been at least partially rectified years ago. We clear the way for these extremists to bring back a mythical past in which women are meant to be merely subservient to men and where race, gender and sexuality are rigidly defined and limited according to the ruling class.
Teachers, we cannot allow this to happen.
We stand at the gates, the first (and perhaps last) line of defense, because we stand at the schoolhouse doors.
It is a responsibility none of us signed up to take. But here we are.
If we are truly educators, we must teach the truth.
We must put the facts in their proper context.
We must encourage our students to think about what came before and what’s happening now.
We must stay woke.
Or the whole world sleeps.
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