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Personal Essay

Doing the Woke

“The more these women agreed to be shamed for their ‘whiteness,’ the more I wondered why doing so made them feel ethical. Feeling shame makes nobody ethical. Just uncomfortable.”

When Aunt Bettie liked you, she called you a Christian. This proved awkward when my family brought Dad’s ashes home to North Carolina, where he and Aunt Bettie were raised.

“My, my,” she said to the family friend who held Dad’s hand as he lay dying, soothing his dry mouth with lemon pops. “You sure are a Christian woman!”

A look passed between the friend and me: a questioning look. Smiling, our friend gently offered, “Well, no, actually. I’m not.”

My aunt looked as though someone had slapped her. “You’re not?” she asked. “Not even a little bit?” Fear spread over her worn, kindly features. Had the pearly gates slammed shut for this lovely person?

The friend explained: “I was born into a Jewish family.” A pause ensued, one lasting a very long minute. During that pause, I suspect, my aunt was praying for the friend’s soul. Finally, she said, “Well, my views on Jews have changed somewhat in the past few years!”

My aunt had never knowingly met anyone who wasn’t a Presbyterian or a Baptist. I can only try to imagine what feelings of deep shock must have warred with her natural hospitality and warmth. Fraternizing with a nice person who missed out on the New Testament probably disturbed her, but she could soothe her conscience by assuming the friend had been “led astray,” especially when, for generations, the poor child’s own family had been led astray. My goodness, way back to Old Testament times. But she, Aunt Bettie, was put on Earth for a purpose: to guide sinners toward the light. Tiny baby steps: My aunt was actually changing. Enough to like someone of a different faith. Enough not to condemn Judaism? That seems improbable. My aunt was probably hoping to get to know our friend so she could open her mind to the glories of Christ (as she might have put it). The friend, naturally, was trying to open my aunt’s mind to reality (as I might put it).

That’s how we operate when we attempt to persuade: We share common human concerns, in this case, easing my father’s final days. We offer hospitality. Only then do we slip in alternate points of view. Anyone unwittingly accosted by Jehovah’s Witnesses knows this. First, they butter you up with handshakes and smiles and maybe a meal. They wait until you’re relaxed before roasting you with images of fire raining down, buildings toppling, dying people plunging into an abyss, and the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.

But anti-racist seminars start with the Apocalypse. I’m using the vocabulary employed by an anti-racism seminar I attended, replacing the term “Black person” with “Jewish person.” Aunt Bettie would be told she had been upholding a system of oppression against Jewish people all her life. She might say, “Ma’am, I’ve never met any Jews, except the one,” at which point someone would wag a finger and tell her that “Jews” is a racist term. If I know my aunt, she’d try again as politely as she knew how: “But Ma’am, I’ve never had the pleasure to meet Jewish people.” She’d be sternly advised not to ask any Jewish people about their experiences of oppression but to feel grateful if they felt comfortable enough to reveal anything about how she had harmed them. She’d be told she had been born into systemic anti-Semitism (terms that would bewilder her). She’d be instructed to pair off with a partner so that each could help the other unearth deeply rooted, unconscious anti-Semitism. My aunt would do her best to obey and then leave the seminar feeling guilty, frightened, and confused. At the end, if possible, she would know less about “anti-Semitism” than when she walked in.

Imagine my aunt venturing to confess what she really thought about our Jewish friend: “She’s such a nice girl! Why, she doesn’t even look Jewish!” (Translation: she looks like my kind!) Or: “I’m sure she’s a good girl. She means well, taking such good care of my brother. I’m sure they pray, too, the Jews. In their own way.” In her own way, she’d be establishing similarities between the friend and herself—the basis for any change of heart. But I can almost see my aunt falling into some fiery cancellation abyss since the seminar would not follow Aunt Bettie’s self-discoveries but its own agenda, ignoring her insights and condemning her as an anti-Semite. Under such conditions, nobody learns anything and nothing changes, except for the worse. That’s why you can hear a pin drop if you raise any question or air any thought about race. Everybody clams up.

Or is forced to do so. Attending a Zoom session called “Black Students at Historically White Schools,” I watched in disbelief as middle-class, well-educated, socially-conscious, mostly white women agreed to see all problems of any black student through “your whiteness.”

The spectacle of these women beating themselves up over their skin color—women who’d spent their high school years tutoring younger students, marching against the Vietnam war, and protecting local ecologies—surprised me. In a brief video clip, a black student, who had left the school, called it “toxic” and said she would not have anything to do with it anymore. My first thought—the thought I have when one of my children expresses deep unhappiness—was to ask why or what had happened. No, no discussion! Instead, we should look into ourselves to figure out how our whiteness had caused her pain. The more these women agreed to be shamed for their “whiteness,” the more I wondered why doing so made them feel ethical. Feeling shame makes nobody ethical. Just uncomfortable.

Starting with the Apocalypse (their “Whiteness”) might haul people into a cult, but it won’t help them understand themselves, and it won’t transcend most problems, including racism.

In his 2003 poem, “The Change,” Tony Hoagland proposes instead the power of humor. He offers wry commentary on the tribal feeling Aunt Bettie artlessly exhibits: Two middle-class white men watch a tennis match between “some tough little European blonde” who is

“pitted against that big black girl from Alabama,

cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms,

some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite—”

Hoagland’s narrators cluelessly expose racial prejudice springing from attachment to the familiar—or, like Aunt Bettie, fear of the unfamiliar.  They are used to, fond of, lily-white tennis; they know a white, mostly country-clubby tennis, and they childishly make fun of names unlike their own, of non-WASPY style (“Zulu bangles”). However, at the same time, they love Vondella Aphrodite, named after the goddess of love.

Like Aunt Bettie, they take tiny baby steps; one of them admires the black player’s “complicated hair/and her to-hell-with-everybody stare,” while the other finds her “so big and so black/so unintimidated.” He’s scared because she’s “hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation/down Abraham Lincoln’s throat.” But most readers are smiling. Maybe, as they do so, seeing themselves somewhere in the poem.

Hoagland’s poem evoked rage from his former colleague, Claudia Rankine, who could never be accused of having a sense of humor. An African-American poet, she is known for poems about whiteness, systemic racism, and white supremacy. Hoagland’s sly take on white guys thinking in stereotypes seems to elude her. His narrator, naïve as my Aunt Bettie, carries on:

“I couldn’t help wanting

the white girl to come out on top,

because she was one of my kind, my tribe

with her pale eyes and thin lips”

Hoagland’s humor conveys the message that yes, he sees himself in guys like his narrator, and he’s on it! He could never have written the poem if he were as unreflective as his narrator. Rankine, writing, “What the fuck?” seems to think Hoagland, by giving voice to his dullard narrator, sanctions racism.

But no, this is Tony Hoagland “doing the work.” In 2008, Hoagland said, “Humor in poetry is even better than beauty. If you could have it all, you would, but humor is better than beauty because it doesn’t put people to sleep. It wakes them up and relaxes them at the same time.” He tries to make this clear in his response to Rankine: “I am not trying to sidestep—of course I am racist; and sexist, a homophobe, a classist, a liberal, a middle-class American, a college graduate…a Unitarian, a fool, a Triple A member, a citizen of Texas…Purity is not my claim, my game, nor a thing remotely within my grasp. I’m an American…”

I’ll take Hoagland over hellfire any day. Humor exposes our vulnerabilities, but gently, where guilt and shame only obscure them. I can imagine Aunt Bettie seeing our Jewish friend as just a different kind of Christian, once you got to know her. And I can almost see the glint in Hoagland’s eye, if only he’d been granted material like my aunt’s comments. They’d bond over being fellow North Carolinians, maybe. She’d call him a good Christian. He’d smile; maybe he’d say, “No, actually, I’m not.”.

Melissa Knox is a writer and educator living in Germany. 

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