Being woke is hard. It’s sucks and you’ll hate it.
You’re 12-year-old Jonas holding your new knowledge like a starved baby trying to see the snowy hill and the sled in the Elsewhere.
You’ll catch yourself saying words that hold more weight than they did the last time you said them. You’ll stop yourself mid-sentence to retract these words. You’ll think back in horror at all the fault or harm you’ve caused by your birth advantages – displayed in careless, unexamined moments. It will negatively impact your writing. What could you possibly have to say when everything you relied on is steeped in privilege? You need to push yourself through a lot of tough love to get past this and become productive again.
Of course, I’m speaking from the perspective of a cis white feminist, and yes, I am speaking to white women. If you are like me then no matter how 47 percent you are, the 53 percent will haunt you. You’re living in a third wave with a first wave complacency. You showed up late and half-hearted, secretly or unknowingly sustaining the same shallow understanding as those you regarded as your opposites.
You’ll fight me on this, white feminists. You bragged about the latter term. You’ll have a long list of ways in which you suffer as a woman plus a supplement of otherness and violence. None of this is invalidated by acknowledging your privilege.
You are not a victim and you must step back from any false notions when you have done very little other than to prioritize yourself and your narrative. You have to reconcile the fact that by nature and nurture you are intrinsically complicit within your status.
You’ll tell me about how socially active you are or wish to become – or how diverse your friend group is, which you’ll eventually realize has nothing to do with this necessary and uncomfortable conversation.
You roll your eyes at “millennials” and talk shit about “white feminists,” but you are most likely both those things. You’ll tell me you’re not as bad as whoever fucked it up this week – be it Johansson, Dunham, or Swift – but it will be an empty statement. You’ll tell me you’re not responsible for other white women.
You’ll say, “what about cis white men,” to which I reply, “we are talking about us right now.”
You might even be tacky enough to tell me your ancestors never owned slaves, but your fallacies are sadly your problem if you do not accept that being white protects you from the majority of stigma resulting from your otherness.
You’ll tell me you’ve never had an issue writing diverse characters before, regardless of whether you’ve ever made the effort. You’ll tell me you write in a way that any reader can see themselves in your character’s shoes, but you didn’t, haven’t, and won’t with that attitude. Your hair is different. Your personal habits, cultural experiences, expressions, and perspectives are completely different because there is no melting pot and there is no post-racial America. You have Betty Friedan in your pocket and you have no idea the harm you do.
You have benefited from racism and aggression against the LGBTQAI community in your lifetime. You are not fragile. You do not get a pass because you are a woman. Stop whitewashing. Yes, you have to work twice as hard to become an intersectional writer, but that’s nothing compared to women of color who have to fight twice as hard to be heard and recognized as authorities of their own life experience. Do better, white women!
Get thee to a library and seek opportunities to educate yourself. Never be tempted to say things like, “I had no idea” or “It’s not my fault.” Don’t clumsily apologize to your WoC friends for your privilege and don’t ask them to give you a free education. Join conversations and interject less because you are not a neutral commentator. Go to forums and panels. Meet WoC writers at their book releases. Worship the wisdom of bell hooks. See the flimsy superficiality of mainstream representation perpetuated by white creators. Make the effort to change subtle problematic cues in your behavior.
Next time you pick up a pen, write what feels right. You don’t have to sacrifice your voice or creative process. Don’t over think it or stifle your prose or poetry in the first draft. While editing, think about your writing and decide for yourself if it passes as intersectional.
Use your “woke” eyes the same way you use the Bechdel Test: two women who say each other’s name and have a conversation without talking about a man or gender conformity or hetero-relationships. Loads of excellent pop culture favorites fail the Bechdel Test (the application of which is meant to make the general population think about how we communicate and perceive women as as society). Do we think of women as people with complex depths or are we using shallow tropes? Can we replace this character with a lamp per Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Sexy Lamp Test? Do these characters have a purpose other than exhibiting Women in Refrigerators Syndrome? What about the Mako Mori Test: does the female character have a narrative arc in the story outside of supporting a male character?
The same goes for any attempts at writing a diverse cast of characters. Being an intersectional writer should be a metric to produce socially conscious work. It does not have an impact on the quality of your story telling. Are you writing shallow tropes for the sake of checking a box on your “I’m not an asshole” list or are you creating three-dimensional representation? Do your PoC characters have more impact on the story or are they second banana to your white characters?
Think about it and keep writing.