Advice for the Newly “Woke”

Portrait of Andra Gillespie

THIS SUMMER'S PROTEST LEFT ME BOTH INSPIRED AND CONCERNED. I was pleased to see the multiracial character of the demonstrations—seeing people of all backgrounds coming together to protest racism and racial violence was heartening. That so many different types of Americans were willing to risk their comfort and even their health to protest injustice helped to increase the visibility of the protests and made them more salient. It will force leaders to respond. 

As the struggle continues, though, we have to guard against replicating old hierarchies, even in the name of social justice. This type of intentionality takes on many forms and is contingent on many factors, including training, prior experience, and sometimes being at the right place, among the right people, at the right time. It is important to know that intentionality is not essentialist; everyone should be free to contribute their gifts and talents in the cause of racial justice. However, we all must consider our privileges and disadvantages relative to our peers and how those can be used to dismantle or reinforce systemic racisms.

In general, the lived experiences of Black people give us important insights about how we want to be free. It is important for privileged people to listen to what the racially vulnerable identify as problems instead of dictating to us what our problems are. It is also important to invite those most affected by inequality to lead discussions about remedies. 

This does not mean that there cannot be a dialogue or that one side will win every argument. But if policymakers and leaders approach these issues and Black communities with any hint of condescension or paternalism, it will only perpetuate the problem of racism.

It is also important to understand that systemic racism extends beyond hyper-policing, bad schools, health disparities, and lack of economic development, though these are all serious problems. Systemic racism often intermingles with prejudice in a wide variety of settings (social, educational, occupational, etc.), where implicit biases interact with distorted notions of merit to systematically disadvantage people of color when they seek to enter these institutions and when they seek to advance in organizations.

Indeed, systemic racism is not just the province of government.  Anywhere rules and practices are manipulated to consistently benefit one racial or ethnic group over another, systemic racism is present. As much as we must demand action from elected officials, we have to hold the mirror up within our own work and social spheres to ask if we have blind spots.

There are many things we can do to be change agents in our own domains to combat racism. My recommendation to the newly woke is to acknowledge what you do not know and humbly accept the tutelage of those who do. 

This involves deep listening and education. There is a long scholarly tradition of African American studies that goes back generations. Read the scholarship and promote the work of academics who devoted their careers to studying these questions long before people took to the streets this summer.  

Finally, I would urge more privileged readers to relinquish their advantages in service of the greater good. For instance, if you feel compelled to start a new racial justice initiative but have little to no experience with these issues, now is the time to play a supportive role. Find experts who are well versed in these issues to lead the initiative and support them accordingly (financially and otherwise).  

With the right collective balance of humility (from the privileged) and self-determination (from the marginalized), we will find that we all have the space to succeed and to be seen.


Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute

Gillespie teaches about the intersection of race and politics, and her research focuses on the political leadership of the post–civil rights generation. She’s a renowned news commentator and author; her most recent book is Race and the Obama Administration.

Portrait of Andra Gillespie
Portrait of Andra Gillespie
Portrait of Andra Gillespie


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