It was late afternoon on a Tuesday. I was driving south on the pothole-riddled I95 towards Chester, PA. I had been making the drive every Tuesday since early October to participate in a 200-hour yoga teacher training inside the State Correctional Institution there, through a partnership with the Inside/Out Prison Exchange Program.
I exited the interstate towards the prison and was met by my customary feelings of excitement. Learning and practicing next to an inspirational group of guys, serving out their long sentences with dignity and grace, led me to grow quite fond of my experience there. How could I have guessed there would be a period in my life when I would find satisfaction spending my free time inside of a state correctional institution?
Nearing the penitentiary, I noticed a commotion on the road ahead. It was blocked, and cars were being rerouted into the neighborhoods of the economically stressed communities of Chester. I assumed there was a car accident, a familiar story in southeastern PA for that time of year.
I maneuvered my way through the side streets and tried to access the prison from the opposite direction – no go. The roads were blocked from that side as well. I began to worry that something terrible had happened inside the institution. I tried to reason with myself to avoid worrying about the safety of the people I’d come to call friends.
I found a place to park behind a warehouse, unaware if it was legal to do so, but not caring much either, and made my way on foot. As I approached the main road leading to the prison, I was taken aback by the scene that was unfolding. Hundreds of people were gathered near the main entrance. Police cars, security officers, barricades, reporters, and news vans lined the streets. Young girls and boys were running around and weaving in and out of the crowd on bikes.
This can’t be good, I thought to myself.
I continued on through the crowd and decided to ask a spectator what was happening. A young black woman taking pictures with her phone turned to me and with excitement responded, “they lettin out Meek Mill.”
My initial reaction was relief mixed with a little dismissiveness. “That’s what this is all about?” My tone emitting more surprise than curiosity.
I was happy that nothing bad had happened inside, but was also thinking that a crowd of people standing around to watch a celebrity get out of prison was a little excessive or even ridiculous. Wasn’t this all part of celebrity worship culture? The release of a rapper should be no more important than the freedom of anyone else, right?
I stuck around and listened to people’s commentary while they streamed live videos and shared their experiences on social media. Thankfully so, because that’s how I learned that this gathering was profoundly more meaningful than my lazy assumptions would have had me believe. This was part of a much larger movement of civil rights and justice reform. This was about abhorrent prison sentences disproportionately ravaging families in the black community. People organized and fought to free Meek, lifting him up as a symbol of the larger fight, exposing even more of the dirty underbelly of the American justice system.
While I became even more aware by the moment that I was a witness to history in motion, a couple realities donned on me. First, was that my reaction to that young woman was totally inappropriate. Here she was, participating in a moment of historical significance for black Americans, and what does she get? Indifference from one of the only white men in the crowd. And I do work inside prisons and youth detention facilities. I care about justice reform. My family has been directly impacted by this system of mass incarceration. I watched a loved one struggle for more than fifteen years trying to break free from the constant threat of jail time because of poverty and drug addiction. Nonetheless, I, this “woke” individual, was almost too wholly closed off to glimpse the reality that was right in front of me. The truth of how different the American experience really is for black people.
This point is obvious or should be, but so many people don’t take the time to truly understand it. Due to stigmas and stereotypes, there are these misconceptions about what type of experiences are comparable to the black American experience. For example, I could think that since I grew up poor, then I’ve struggled like black people do. Therefore, on some level I “get it.” Although there are aspects of being poor that transcend race, that doesn’t mean I understand what it’s like to be black, only what it is like to be broke. There are plenty of black people who have no idea what it is like to grow up in poverty. That’s great, but that doesn’t insulate them from the tragic history, systemic injustices, and threats of violence that may be waiting for them at work, school, and in the public spaces most white people take for granted.
We can learn about the slave trade and we should. We can experience the culture in terms of food, music, and art, and we should. All of these experiences can help us to be more compassionate and understanding; to be better allies, friends, colleagues, and lovers. But the history of slavery paints the experience for black Americans in a way that others can’t feel on the deepest of levels. Regardless of the hardships that many of our ancestors were facing at home or encountered when they came to this country, they had the hope and promise of a better future here in America. The attitude that their hard work could pave the way for a better life for their children and children’s children.
Not to undermine the miraculous resiliency of those generations of humans enslaved from Africa, but how much despair must there have been among them, being ripped from their families and lands, to have been shackled, tortured, and forced into servitude halfway across the world? That is just the beginning of the tragic legacy handed down to black people in this country. The reality is, as much as we can show compassion, empathy, or even feel outright disgust at the atrocities committed against Africans, and then African Americans, we can never allow ourselves to feel like we “get it” or have achieved that state of “being woke.”
We don’t get it. Never will. That’s why I use the word paradox in the title, because despite our best efforts there will always be more stones to overturn, new truths to discover. Again, I will use my own experiences as an example. I’ve had significant exposure to both African and African American communities. I was taken in by a black family during a time of financial hardship and lived as a member of their family for more than a year. I worked in a school for court-mandated students, the vast majority of whom were black. I lived on a family homestead in a village in Namibia for two years working on community health-related projects, and truly became immersed in the culture and embedded into my family.
All of these experiences have shaped me in some way, and I do believe they have made me a more accepting and understanding person. They’ve grown my passion for social justice and furthered my drive to make the world a better place. Sometimes it’s tempting for me to feel like I’m someone who gets it, or woke if you will. Nonetheless, I’m a white, straight, male who was born in America. That means there are a lot of American experiences to which I can’t genuinely relate: being a woman, a person of color, an immigrant, an LGBTQ person, etc. And as much as I want to be “down,” there are times when I revert back to my default setting, this place of privilege to where I was born.
The point isn’t to say definitively that white men can’t be “woke.” It’s all relative and getting wrapped up into a debate on what that word even means would be a distraction. I just wanted to call myself out and share a reflection. I can’t be sure, but maybe we straight white males shouldn’t be so wrapped up in how much we understand others as much as how we treat others. Sometimes it seems we use this idea of not understanding as an excuse for complacency or inaction. Maybe it’s not deep-rooted empathy that really matters at this stage in the game, but how we use our positions to help create safe spaces for others to express themselves and to fight for the change that society needs. We can’t feel what it is like to be women in this society, but we can stop using derogatory language towards them or cast a vote to move in the direction of equal pay. We can’t live the black American experience, but we can listen better, go to a Black Lives Matter march, and talk to folks about the movement.
Let’s not use the idea of being woke as a selfish attempt to stay relevant or hijack the conversation. First, we need to be quiet, we must listen to others, and be receptive to their words. Otherwise, we won’t accept our historical placement in society and how that has led to real inequality in our country and around the world. Until we do so, we will continue to make choices that thwart the progress of a more beautiful and just society. In a world where we discriminate and hate each other based on our biological differences, our only hope is to prove our differences trivial. In a world where we embrace each other despite our differences, we can show they are, in fact, beautiful.
Thanks for reading,