I am the token black girl.
I always have been, and until recently, it hasn’t been incredibly offensive or otherwise disruptive.
Growing up and attending school in an area nicknamed Vanilla Park (actual name: Villa Park) because of its lack of diversity made being the token black girl my odd version of normal.
It had its minor challenges, sure.
For instance, I struggled with a perpetual identity crisis early on—a Congolese girl born in America, has black skin, and lives in a community of white people.
I didn’t feel completely comfortable in any of these groups, and as I grew up and experienced more, the more isolated from each group I became.
I would roll my eyes as I overheard my aunt and grandmother gossiping in our native tongue about a cousin they haven’t seen in years.
I would sit silently in my Afro-American studies course at UCLA trying not to associate myself with the other students of color who always seemed so dang angry.
“Calm down,” I would think to myself. “This is a different day and age. Things aren’t that bad anymore.”
Then I would meet my red-haired, blue-eyed best friend for lunch and say things like, “Why can’t we all just get along?” And nod as she responded with, “I know. Not all white people are racist. I mean, look at us and our friendship.”
So what’s the difference between me then and me now?
Well, I’m still the token black girl. I still roll my eyes at the silly things my African relatives say (although sometimes I join in now).
And I still feel very culturally different from the many black Americans in the U.S.
But the difference now is that I’m woke. Something happened in my mid-twenties, and I woke up from this long nap of ignorance and complacency. I experienced firsthand and through many experiences of others thereafter the cruel sting of systemic racism.
To sum it up, I got woke.
To be woke is to be aware. It is an awareness of what is going on in the world around you, especially when it comes to matters of injustice.
To be woke is to feel moved to action. And in my case, to be woke is to be angry. It is to be afraid but to simultaneously be brave. This current version of me wants to give the old me a slap across the face. I want to shake her and not just tell her to wake up, but rather, tell her to GET WOKE.
And in all honesty, I want to give everyone around me a little shake and say the same thing. White friends, coworkers, brothers and sisters in Christ, GET WOKE. At least that’s what I want to say, but I don’t.
Instead I have calmly smiled and responded to their microaggressions with kindness and grace. I have smiled and said, “Let’s agree to disagree.” I have weighed the costs of speaking the truth–is this worth offending or even losing my friend? Until today, my answer to that had been no.
But today, my answer is Black Lives Matter.
Today my answer is that while kindness and grace are important, I need to make room for speaking the truth in love. I need to make room for advocating for the widows, the orphans, and the “least of these” (Matt. 25:31-46)—advocating for the widows and orphans of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and the 100+ black men killed at the hands of police officers in America so far this year.
But as I make room for these individuals, is there still room left for my more racially, economically, and socially privileged friends? And if there is, will they be willing to share this space with those of us who are standing up against the injustice that they are perpetuating? Those of us who are woke will undoubtedly keep them up all night.
That’s the thing about being woke—people who are asleep would rather just stay asleep.
I want to say that this creates an internal conflict within me, but it really doesn’t.
Of course I don’t want to offend my friends or make them uncomfortable. I don’t want to create conflict or drive a wedge between us. But what doesn’t seem to be understood is that the wedge was driven between us long ago, and all I’m trying to do is chip away at it, as uncomfortable as that may be.
I can no longer agree to disagree, and I can’t just keep calm. I would rather lose twenty close friendships than sit still as we lose the life of yet another brother. I don’t want to have to make that choice, but I am prepared to.
I regret not standing up with my classmates years ago. I regret not realizing that associating myself with them was exactly what I needed to do because they are my blood, my family, my people.
But rather than quietly dwelling on what I could have and should have done in the past, I am choosing to march forward. My white friends can either march with me, or they can shut the door and sleep in ignorant bliss.
As for me, I stay woke.