No one is all the way “woke”
To the white men blocking pipelines and building solar gardens who ignore and objectify women, I say — thank you, and do better. To the black men fighting mass incarceration but still acting disgusted by queer people, I say — thank you, and do better. To the wealthy women marching for reproductive rights but refusing to stand up for workers, I say — thank you, and do better. To the 21st century hippies preaching self-expansion and enlightenment but refusing to organize or touch anything political, I say — thank you, and do better. To call-out culture asking for improvement but publicly shaming anything less than perfection, I say — thank you, and do better.
To myself, for using stereotypes of activist blocks and identities to make a point, for so many actions both helpful and harmful — well, I could do better, too, and I thank myself as well.
Look, no one is all the way “woke.” I’m not, you’re not. No one’s actions are perfect. Everyone has room for improvement.
Some say Gandhi sexually exploited young women. Some say Martin Luther King Jr. was sexist. Certainly, the women’s suffrage movement ignored and betrayed black women, the Civil Rights movement was often misogynistic, humanitarian projects are almost always wrapped around colonialism, the Gay Rights movement became rainbow capitalism and threw trans people under the bus for decades, and the mainstream environmental movement is famously ignorant of any struggles beyond wealthy white people’s desire for a cleaner, greener planet. Not to mention — so many of the most accomplished activists I know are just plain obnoxious and unfriendly people.
Does this negate the good work?
On the flip side, I’ve met exploitative CEOs who were incredibly invested in empowering women of color. I’ve met climate change deniers who uplift the struggles of the working class. I’ve met cops or bankers who want to change the oppressive systems in which they work.
Does this negate the harm?
I don’t have a one-size-fits-all answer, and I can’t answer these questions for you. I do believe that everyone’s solutions are correct about some things, and incorrect about others. I believe that the more we are in entrenched positions of power over one another, the more harmful our actions will become as we take into account others’ needs less and less. I believe we all have accomplished great things, and we all need to improve.
The point is not that anyone needs to be perfect to be an advocate. No one ever will know the full story, of anything, and everyone’s actions are going to be problematic in some ways. We all have unique experiences that bring to light for us certain injustices and blind us to others. We all have different priorities based on our experiences. We also all have experiences and needs we share with others, and likely, ways we can meet our needs that also meet the needs of others — if only we’d listen and take each other’s needs seriously.
The point is not that we should give anyone “a free pass,” either. No amount of good work keeps harmful actions from being harmful. No goodness of intention erases a negative impact. At the same time, doing some harm does not wholly negate doing good work, and having a negative impact does not eliminate a good intention.
We need to stop looking at goodness and righteousness in terms of absolutes. Nobody’s all the way there, which means we all have the ability to do better. To me, the “wokest” way a person can be is self-aware enough to learn from their own shortcomings, and to never stop looking to do better. However, the constant thirst for improvement can also leave us feeling invalidated, ashamed or incapable of doing anything at all from a pervasive desire to do everything right. It’s almost like… there’s no perfect one-size-fits-all way to act? Fancy that.
Fortunately, there are always cues around us alerting us to where we’re doing harm. Most frequently, in my experience, these cues take the form of Other People — specifically, their reactions. Unfortunately, we’re often conditioned not to listen to the people we harm. We’re terrified of looking ourselves in the mirror and seeing the oppressor within us. This does not mean that everyone lacks awareness to the same extent, or that everyone is equally oppressive. That simply isn’t true. It is true that we all do helpful things and harmful things, and we all have areas of our lives where we could stand to improve.
Believing we have no room for improvement is a space for improvement. When we start to think we are always right, we’ve become wrong. Believing we alone have all the right answers means in and of itself that we don’t. At the same time, the truth of everyone’s imperfection is not a pass for doing harm.
The human experience is a balancing act. To engage in helpful and healthy actions is to walk a tightrope, swaying back and forth between acceptance and change. Most of us have heard the Serenity Prayer, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Some of us have heard Angela Davis’ famous response, “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I’m changing the things I cannot accept.”
Finding out what we authentically accept, and therefore what we need to change, requires listening to ourselves and each other. It requires understanding each of our needs, and finding the solutions that serve everyone’s needs as best we can, knowing nothing will ever be perfect. What matters is that we move forwards by the best option we have available. We accept that the past taught us important things, important work was accomplished, we validate what we have done so far, we thank ourselves and each other — and then we do better.
To me, there are no heroes and no villains in life. There are just people, trying to make their lives and the lives of others better. Even Donald Trump is doing what he thinks is best by his understanding of what that means. Does this give him a free pass? Of course not. In my view, the greatest harms come from a lack of awareness coupled with too much power, and the corresponding ignorance and selfishness in deciding on actions. Finding what authentically meets our collective (and individual) needs requires awareness of ourselves and of others. It also requires each of us having the power to act on that awareness.
We desperately need to listen to and learn from each other so that the solutions we have can improve. This does not apply in the same way to everyone — because our social structures are extremely imbalanced— but it does still apply to everyone. We all have room for improvement, and we’ve all done things to be proud of.
Making this change first requires understanding the people we most frequently impose upon or disempower, listening to them, and uplifting those voices and needs. It requires those with the most power to do the deepest digging into building greater awareness. The more we listen to the voices we typically ignore and repress, the more awareness and power we all have to meet our needs in ways that can serve us all.
The more we seek to understand instead of to impose, the more needs we can meet with our actions. The more we set clear boundaries for ourselves and respect each other’s boundaries, the less harm we’re likely to do. The more we look at our places for improvement, the more we can improve. The more we validate ourselves for doing work to be proud of so far, the more encouraged we are to keep improving.
It is a balancing act, and through balancing, we walk forwards. I don’t think there is an end to it — we just keep moving forwards, improving with each step as we listen to the guides around us.