#Stay Woke, the Black Lives Matter mantra on DeRay McKesson’s t-shirt on the night of his arrest in Baton Rouge, is excellent advice for us all. For first we must awaken—to the reality of deeply embedded racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination that have long been the cultural bedrock of our society. First we must awaken—to our own inner power, to our ability to transform the legal and cultural infrastructures of our country. First we must awaken—to our own participation, conscious or unconscious, in those infrastructures. And then we must stay woke. Stay woke, and bring about change.
But what does that mean, exactly? In the concrete? What does it mean to stay woke, and what does it mean to end systemic discrimination?
There has long (as in centuries) been a debate among those who advocate for change: reform or overthrow? I have sat with this debate, in my head and in my heart, listening to the words of others—some here and now, some there and then—about the urgent need to end structures of domination. And I have felt that urgent need myself, wondered how to end patriarchy now, for good.
Here’s how change has historically happened:
- Those whose lives are being threatened—the enslaved, the murdered, the raped, the jailed, the oppressed—put their lives further in danger by resisting, usually but not always peacefully, and demanding change.
- Peaceful resisters are beaten, raped, captured, put on trial, jailed.
- Violence does not stop the resisters. After decades of protest, our government passes a law prohibiting a particular type of discrimination, usually by a very narrow margin.
- The legislation is not enforced, or is selectively enforced, and a few people fight for its enforcement in courts. Legal battles drag on for decades, until the right that so many fought and died for—the right to self-ownership, the right to vote, the right to work, the right to marry or make reproductive decisions—is taken for granted by many. For others—poor people of color, those who don’t conform to heterosexual norms—not much changes. New legal battles arise, attempts to roll back changes that have happened or to keep the marginalized from experiencing the freedoms of the privileged.
- The oppressed repeat Step 1.
This process takes decades, even centuries. Passages written by change agents in any century of our history—Matilda Josyln Gage, Sojourner Truth, Wilma Mankiller, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King—sound as though they were written for this very day, this hour of urgent need.
Understandably, some have sickened of the slow rate of reform. When colonized people—i.e., people from cultures that have been colonized (such as Native Americans)—call for decolonization, they are saying reform means nothing to them, and nothing for them. When DeRay McKesson asks us to stay woke, he asks us to demand more than reform that is meaningless for masses of people. When someone says they are radical, this is what they mean: I want an end to this. I want an entirely new system. Decolonize this place. End this nonsense. Build a new world, founded on justice.
How can we stay woke and not be radical? How can we insist that reform—this centuries-old process of slow change that only improves the lives of the fortunate—is the goal?
But how can we make progress otherwise? What on earth would it look like to “overthrow” the current system—one in which patriarchy is woven into every structure we have, including healthcare, education, our judicial system, housing, agriculture, and the arts? A revolution that shifted power from one group to another wouldn’t radically change anything, if domination is still the foundation of our communities. And within those communities, we hold the keys to survival—and beyond, to a full and happy life—in the very structures that are so flawed and sickened by discrimination. How can we bring health and happiness to all while doing away with the patriarchal foundation of every societal structure we have?
To awaken—and to stay woke—is to be committed to transformation.
Transformation is radical work—inner and outer—in which we must all participate. There are concrete steps to take to change the way our society operates so that discrimination is no longer the default: Campaign Zero, which McKesson co-founded, provides a list of actions all of us can take to transform our justice system and ensure that black and brown Americans are treated equally under the law. But to take those steps—to transform and not merely kinda-sorta reform while dragging our feet—we must transform internally.
This transformation has deeply spiritual roots. Look into McKesson’s eyes: they are lit from within with a prophet’s fire. That is what it means to awaken, and to stay woke. To bring the full message of spiritual justice to the physical plane. To awaken and stay woke means to enter the world with what Riane Eisler names “spiritual courage,” and to commit to the transformation of humanity that is the challenge of our times.
We are at an evolutionary crossroads, nationally and globally. May we enter it humbly and peacefully, may we enter it with a prophet’s fire in our bellies, and may we allow it to transform us, to move us into a higher plane.
Awaken, my friends, and stay woke: there is much work to do.