To be 'woke' is to be aware of what is inside and out

by Nicole Trahan


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Several months ago, or maybe a year, I started noticing people using the word "woke" in a way that I was not familiar. Statements similar to, "Stay woke," "I'm woke," "She's woke and not going back" started showing up on social media. And while I gathered a meaning from the context clues, I do not believe I understood the full meaning until more recently.

To be "woke" is to be aware — to be in a state of attention — essentially to have one's eyes open to reality. From what I've seen, it is used most often in contexts involving social injustices such as racism and classism. To be woke is to notice nuances, micro-aggressions, and underpinnings of prejudice and injustice in all situations. And, as a famous cliché states, "Once you see something, you can't un-see it."

Given today's political and social climate, especially in the United States, it is difficult for me to understand how it is that people can remain naïve to the injustices that pervade our lives. Indeed, to put it colloquially, I don't know why everyone isn't woke. Perhaps it is because people who are not personally affected by social injustices can more easily ignore them. Somewhat like the Martin Niemöller quote:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

So wrapped up in ourselves, our problems, our issues, our circumstances, we sometimes cannot find room in ourselves to do something about a situation affecting others if it does not have a direct impact on us.

Perhaps, those who are woke are unable to communicate effectively the desperate situation in which our culture finds itself. Words fall on deaf ears. Demonstrations and protests have little ability to move people. It seems that folks are inundated with news, sound bites, video clips — in such a way that as a culture we are numb or unable to be affected by what we see and hear.

Maybe we, people of faith, have not done a very good job demonstrating the interconnectedness of all life and the importance of interdependence. Perhaps we have not been very good examples of dialogue, the preferential option for the poor and marginalized, and how caring for others results in care for self. It could be the case that we have not been compelling enough. Or it could be that we, as people of faith, are not woke at all.

And so, what are we to do? How are we to respond to the vitriolic political climate? To the hateful and disrespectful rhetoric that surrounds us each day?

Recently, a women's faith sharing group to which I belong read The Naked Now by Richard Rohr. In a chapter entitled "The Principle of Likeness," Rohr expounds on an idea attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi's idea is that we must, "be the change we wish to see in the world." Rohr fleshes out this idea with 11 points:

• If you want others to be more loving, choose to love first.
• If you want a reconciled outer world, reconcile your own inner world.
• If you are working for peace out there, create it inside as well.
• If you notice other people's irritability, let go of your own.
• If you wish to find some outer stillness, find it within yourself.
• If you are working for justice, treat yourself justly, too.
• If you find yourself resenting the faults of others, stop resenting your own.
• If the world seems desperate, let go of your own despair.
• If you want a just world, start being just in small ways yourself.
• If your situation feels hopeless, honor the one spot of hope inside you.
• If you want to find god, then honor God within you, and you will always see God beyond you. For it is only God in you who knows where and how to look for God.

Blessed William Joseph Chaminade, one of the Founders of the Marianist Family, once said that the essential is the interior. It is what is within us that makes for change. We have to pay attention. We cannot build peace from a place of violence in our own hearts. We cannot create just systems from a place of hatred. We cannot effectively address issues of racism, xenophobia and classism from places of bias and prejudice.

Essentially, it is not enough to be woke to the realities around us. We must also be woke to the realities within us. And then we will know better how to respond.

[Nicole Trahan is a member of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate (Marianist Sisters) who teaches sophomore religion at Chaminade Julienne Catholic High School, serves as the National Director of Vocations for the Marianist Sisters, and is director of the pre-Novitiate program for her province.]